LONDON — Clashes between officers from London's Metropolitan Police and crowds at a vigil for a slain woman have led to widespread criticism of the force from activists and politicians across the spectrum.
Hundreds of people gathered in a south London park Saturday to pay tribute to Sarah Everard, 33, whose disappearance and death have gripped the country and sparked a national conversation about violence against women.
Wayne Couzens, an elite officer with London Metropolitan Police's diplomatic protection command, was charged with her murder Friday.
A vigil that had been organized Saturday by the women's rights group Reclaim These Streets was canceled when a judge refused to intervene in a legal challenge over demonstrators' right to gather during coronavirus restrictions. Only two people from different households are allowed to meet in a public space in the U.K., while bars, restaurants and most stores remain closed.
However, hundreds of people showed up at the park. Many brought flowers, and some held signs saying, "She was just walking home." Among them was Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.
As the sunlight faded, the previously peaceful mood turned, and police officers grabbed several women in the crowd, pulling them away and handcuffing them.
Some in the crowd booed, jeered and shouted "shame on you" at police officers patrolling the event, and a small minority of people began chanting at officers, pushing and throwing items, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Helen Ball said in a statement early Sunday.
Four people were arrested, she said.
"We absolutely did not want to be in a position where enforcement action was necessary," Ball said. "But we were placed in this position because of the overriding need to protect people's safety."
But the police's actions were widely criticized.
London's Labour Party mayor, Sadiq Khan, said on Twitter that while officers had a responsibility to enforce Covid-19 restrictions at the rally, it was clear that their response was "at times neither appropriate nor proportionate."
Calling the scenes "upsetting," the U.K.'s Conservative home secretary, Priti Patel, said in a statement that she had demanded a full report from the force.
On Twitter, the leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, said Ball's comments were tone-deaf. "Doubling down" was not the right response, he said.
Reclaim These Streets said in a statement that it was "deeply saddened and angered" by the police response, adding that the force should have understood that women would need a place to reflect, show solidarity and mourn Everard's death.
Everard, a marketing executive, vanished while walking home from a friend's house March 3. Her body was found Wednesday hidden in an area of woodland in Kent, more than 50 miles southeast of London.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
Her disappearance sent shockwaves through the country, and thousands of women took to social media to talk about harassment they had been subjected to, safety issues and the criminal justice system's failure to prosecute offenses committed against women.
A recent report for U.N. Women, a body for gender equality and the empowerment of women, showed that more than 70 percent of women of all ages in the U.K. have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces.
Everard's case has resonated with women around the world because what happened to her was the worst-case scenario, Jamie Klingler of Reclaim These Streets said Saturday.
"It's the absolute fear that you could do everything right and still end up in the worst situation because a man perpetrated this violence on you," she said.