There was “no lack of courage” when police decided not to intervene when a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled by protesters, the chief constable said.
Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Bristol pulled the statue down in two minutes on Sunday before throwing it in the harbour.
Chief Constable Andy Marsh, said officers made a “courageous decision” in that “very hot moment”.
He added they had his “full support”.
Speaking on a live webchat, the Avon and Somerset Police chief constable said he “doesn’t condone any criminal activity” but intervening would have “risked a violent confrontation”.
“There were over 10,000 people, it was a very volatile situation but there were no injuries, no arrests and one report of damage.”
“Had they intervened the consequences might have been incredibly serious and we might have become the epicentre of a new wave of protests around the whole world,” he said.
“While it was peaceful, feelings were running very high and people were angry,” he said.
“When they [the force] became aware people were on top of the statue, very, very quickly – about two minutes later – the statue was on the floor.”
He added police did not step in “because we’re cowards” but “because we want the best for Bristol.”
In the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd in the US, local campaigns and online petitions have been set up across the UK demanding that statues of individuals linked to the slave trade be taken down or put into greater historical context.
Bristol City Council has announced that a commission of historians and other experts would be set up to research the city’s “true history” including the impact of “wars, protests, slavery and freedom”.
Mayor Marvin Rees said: “Once we have that knowledge as a city, and we’re better informed about ourselves – then we can make a decision about how we want to go forward.”
He added that decisions on how to use the empty Colston plinth would be made through consultation.
‘Raising the statue’
Mr Rees confirmed the statue of Edward Colston would be retrieved from the harbour and exhibited in a museum, alongside placards from the Black Lives Matter protest.
The city plans to use a team of divers to attach airbags to the statue to raise it to the surface before it is transported to the M-shed where it will form the centrepiece of a new exhibition, in its damaged state.
Avon and Somerset Police has said it will review CCTV and social media footage to identify those responsible before presenting a case to the Crown Prosecution Service.