Policing at Clapham and policing the pandemic: the public are supportive–but clear warning signs too

Danny Shaw, Head of Strategy & Insight

Wednesday 17 March 2021


A new poll, commissioned by Crest, suggests that most people believe police officers were right to break up the vigil at Clapham Common, in south London. But opinion is divided about tougher measures to restrict protests - and there are signs that support for the police’s overall approach to the pandemic is waning.

At Crest we’ve been monitoring the public’s attitude towards the way the Covid-19 pandemic has been policed, through polling conducted by YouGov. Over the past week, for the first time since last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, policing has dominated the headlines - in particular, the Metropolitan Police's handling of a memorial held for Sarah Everard. Some people were appalled by images of women being handcuffed and wrestled to the ground by officers. Others say police were put in an impossible position as they were required to enforce health restrictions on gatherings under legislation introduced by the Government and approved by Parliament.


In our latest survey, we asked a representative sample of 1,672 adults what they thought about the Met’s tactics. The results indicate that most people back what the force did, especially Conservative voters. But Labour and Liberal Democrat voters are narrowly against the action officers took:



Q: On Saturday night, during a vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in south London, Metropolitan Police officers tried to break up part of the gathering and remove people they believed were too close together under lockdown rules. Which of the following statements comes closest to your view on the police response?



The online survey suggests there’s support for the way police dealt with the event among men (56%) and women (50%). Slightly more Londoners back the police approach (44%) than disagree with it (38%) - but there’s less support in the capital than anywhere else in England, Scotland and Wales, a finding which the Met would do well to note.


According to the poll, the younger people are, the more likely they are to disapprove of the police’s tactics. Nearly half of those aged 18-24 (46%) think officers should not have intervened in the way they did, with 30% offering their backing - the lowest proportion of any age group. Building trust and confidence in policing among young people has always been a challenge for the service - last weekend’s events have emphasised the scale of that task.


We also questioned people as to who was most responsible for the scuffles between police and members of the public towards the end of the vigil: 43% of respondents say “members of the public” were principally to blame, with 29% holding the police liable. The Government, which introduced the coronavirus laws restricting gatherings, was blamed by just 9%:



Q: In your view, who bears the greatest responsibility for the scuffles between the Metropolitan Police and members of the public who had gathered in Clapham Common in memory of Sarah Everard?


Women are more evenly split on who was most responsible for the disorder, with 38% blaming people at the event and 34% blaming police. Londoners are also divided, with 33% in both categories. Unsurprisingly, given the earlier findings, adults under the age of 25 (39%) and Labour voters (42%) are more likely to say the police were mainly responsible.


The scenes at Clapham have sparked fierce debate about Government plans which would allow police to impose stricter conditions on protests, after the pandemic. The measures were drawn up in response to concerns among police and ministers that current laws are inadequate to deal with static demonstrations which use sophisticated techniques to cause disruption, such as climate change protests held by Extinction Rebellion.


Opinion about the plans, which are contained in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, is sharply divided, with 38% saying they “strongly” or “slightly” support them, and 36% saying they’re opposed. Almost half of people living in London are against the proposals, which may reflect attitudes towards the policing of the memorial event as well as demographic factors. There’s also a large number of people who either don’t know or don’t have a view, suggesting views may change as the issue gets more exposure in the media.



Q: This week Parliament are voting on a new crime and security bill, which would allow police to impose stricter conditions on protests. Some people think this is necessary in order to prevent noise and disruption. Other people think it is an unnecessary limit on people's democratic right to protest. To what extent, if at all, would you support or oppose such a bill being made into law after the coronavirus pandemic is over?



At Crest, we first started tracking public opinion about the police’s overall approach to the pandemic shortly after the first lockdown, last year.


Overall, 57% of the public fully or partially support the police’s handling of the health emergency, including the constantly changing coronavirus laws. But, worryingly for the service, there is evidence that unconditional support is slipping - and almost non-existent among the youngest adults.


In April 2020, 42% of all those polled said they “fully” supported the police approach. That figure fell to 27% in January and has now dropped even further, to 21%.


Among 18-24-year-olds, only 3% give their full backing to the way the police are dealing with the pandemic, with 34% saying they support the police but believe in some cases they are going too far. It’s the only age group without majority support for the police’s approach.


At the same time, the proportion of those who believe the police are “too heavy-handed” has risen in the last two months from 7% to 12%, while the number who would like to see “tougher action” has dropped to 18% from 22%.



Q: Which of the following statements comes closest to your view of how the police are handling the COVID-19 lockdown?


Although these latest poll results contain some positive news for the police - in the way they dealt with the vigil at Clapham Common and their overall approach to the pandemic - there are clear warning signs for Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners. Support is substantially more qualified than it was a year ago, with rising levels of concern about heavy-handedness. Younger people are far less supportive of police methods - a finding that should sound an alert for officers as lockdown restrictions are relaxed and people head to pubs, bars and festivals over the summer.


As for the prospect of extending police powers against protestors, the public, according to our research, are yet to be fully convinced. There is a lot of discussion and argument to be had in Parliament before the legislation is passed; police leaders will doubtless be monitoring its progress closely.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,672 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15 and 16 March 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults in England, Scotland and Wales.


This poll was funded by Crest Advisory.

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The UK's only consultancy dedicated to crime and justice.

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