Protests over the last week or so have taken a distinct turn towards violence and disorder, and some seem to have taken literally the adopted title above, completely missing the real objective.
These protests start with the best intentions of many organisers and organising groups to be peaceful protests or as we saw in Clapham, a respectful and dignified vigil. Several separate `causes` have driven a desire for many to take to the streets and `protest`,
violence against women in society,
black lives matter,
democratic and fundamental right to protest –Police and Crime Bill, in short entitled `Kill The Bill`.
There is currently a review into the Metropolitan Police handling of the vigil on Clapham Common on Saturday 13th March. As an experienced former Public order officer and intelligence officer with numerous events under my own kit belt, I have my own views. The vigil was conducted in exactly the way many of us hoped for the first six hours. The lack of clarity from the High court or any messages of support from many in government prior to the event itself left the Met in an invidious position.
The organisers cancelled the official event late at night on the Friday and understandably so, but that left a vacuum and no one for the Met to approach or liaise with on the day. The Police could not be seen to assist in organising what in effect was an illegal gathering but when you have identified organisers and official stewards, it provides a distinct barrier, that allows the Police to take a step back and leave the event organisers and stewards to deal with minor incidents.
In addition, as this was a vigil then I very much doubt there were many resources deployed to the event and few if any intelligence teams or evidence gathering teams. As is the norm these days the event command team were relying on their liaison teams to provide the information link between those attending and the command structure. This became key when after six hours a small minority started to arrive and start to give speeches to the assembled crowd. Some of these were clearly looking to confront the police and were carrying `ACAB` placards and in possession of spray paint to commit criminal damage with. The mood and demeanour of a section of attendees had significantly changed into a confrontational one.
Officers who had been thinly deployed throughout the area around the bandstand started to receive verbal abuse and hostility. Many of these were female officers and were subject to vile abuse along the lines of they should have been the victim of a serious assault. The decision was made to move the crowd from the bandstand and as this took place the confrontation escalated. I can understand the reasoning behind making a decision, but I am not sure in the circumstances that was the right timing or surroundings to enforce the current covid legislation.
There was a distinct lack of updates or information from the official Met social media accounts throughout the vigil and no update that this had now become a protest or that officers were being confronted and facing physical assaults. It does help to explain and justify what may be seen as pre-emptive and unnecessary police intervention if you paint the scene first and give media updates. In summary, I think whatever the Police had decided to do they would have been criticised. As we have seen there was widespread criticism of police using force primarily against women attending a vigil, although the initial vigil had now clearly moved into being a protest. Several public figures came forward to express their guidance and advice on how to police such an event, but all with the benefit of hindsight. Public protests can be exceptionally challenging to police in maintaining a balance between peoples` rights and upholding the law. My personal view is that improved information and updates may have provided some explanation as to why the decision was taken to intervene although the review should provide some clarity on the justification of that decision.
It is arguable that frequent and constant criticism has led to some officers being reluctant to intervene and use lawful force when appropriate and required. It was noticeable that on Saturday 20th March the Met had another large unlawful gathering in Central London primarily against the lockdown and the Police and Crime Bill. I noticed an increase in what appeared to be intelligence teams and evidence gathering teams and deployment of the Mets` level 1 public order teams, the Territorial Support Group (TSG). This resulted in prompt and effective policing and reported figures of 33 arrests. There were some incidents of disorder but largely brought very quickly under control.
The following day, Sunday 21st March, there was an advertised `Kill The Bill` protest in Bristol. This was another protest about the proposed Police and Crime Bill that is progressing through Parliament. Ironically, the protest was to protect the right to hold non- violent and peaceful protests which many believe is threatened by the Police and Crime bill. I have already written a separate blog covering the new bill, which I believe preserves and protects the right to democratically protest within a lawful framework. In short it provides legislation to make public assemblies subject to the same notification and guidance that processions fall under. A public procession is legislated by Section 12 of the Public Order Act 1986, yet an assembly is not subject to the same restrictions which means an assembly can take place at any time and place without notifying the Police and potentially cause significant disruption to public life.
Avon & Somerset Police deployed officers to the event but initially appeared to have a very low-key visible presence. When the evening drew in and darkness fell several hundred protestors moved from College Green towards Bridewell Police station where the building itself and police vehicles came under sustained and violent attacks.
The confrontation directed towards the Police appeared co-ordinated and directed from a minority within the group but then gained support from many of those present. I have seen this happen at many previous events where a small minority will urge people to confront police and initiate violent acts but then blend back into the crowd. The Police deployed their additional resources in full protective equipment with protective shields, often referred to as `riot` equipment but is designed to protect the officers. The police station came under missile attack and many windows were smashed and officers and staff were effectively trapped inside with a hostile mob trying to gain entry. Police vehicles were set alight, and the command team had to deploy their resources to form a protective line outside their own police station. The decision was taken to request additional public order trained officers from neighbouring forces. In incidents like this the priority for the command team must be to protect the officers in the building and hold that line outside the premises. That appeared to leave them little or no capability to distance the crowd by advancing towards them as that would have left gaps in the cordon outside the police station. They did deploy mounted branch and dogs but as many have been saying for years, these specialist units have been steadily reduced in number since 2010. They are not yet back up to sufficient strength to provide adequate resilience and support in this type of situation.
The images and videos I have seen showed the officers displaying commendable bravery and courage to face this hostility for a considerable period as additional resources were deployed to the area. I have no doubt that the officers who sustained injury, especially the ones dragged to the ground and stamped on, feared for their lives during this incident. Your training does take over and you do not think too much about the danger at the time, but no amount of training can really prepare you for the realisation that someone is intent on causing you serious injury. The one image that stays with me is the individual trying to place a burning item under a police carrier as its reversing with officers inside. The potential for that to ignite the fuel and cause the vehicle to burst into flames is undeniable, the thought process to carry out such an act is beyond words.
This event on the Sunday went far beyond protest, it was clearly driven by a minority determined to confront the police and cause damage and injury to the officers’ present. Public order events like these are extremely difficult to manage and control, they are inevitably fast moving where you must react to spontaneous incidents whilst trying to maintain control of a crowd.
My fear is this may signify a difficult and challenging summer for UK policing as we move out of lockdown, coupled with frustration and resentment towards what is viewed as state control. Policing needs the silent majority to speak up in support of maintaining law and order and those in government to be visible and vocal in their support for policing. There has always been a small section of society who regularly attend any protest to garner support and attract attendees to their own events. The anarchist ideology of no gods no masters lends itself to there being no identifiable leadership structure as such, which makes intelligence gathering difficult and convictions for conspiracy or organising these events exceptionally challenging. The police need to improve their intelligence gathering capability at these events and ensure information is shared across forces and increase monitoring and use of social media.
There will be a determined and lengthy post event investigation by A & S Police where officers body worn video, evidence gatherers footage and CCTV will be collected and analysed. This takes time as the footage is viewed in real time and images throughout the day will be compared to those committing offences.
The true test will be when anyone convicted is sentenced and if those sentences are a sufficient deterrent based on the level of violence and hostility, we saw in Bristol. I hope that the Crown Prosecution Service use the most serious charges available to them and do not decide solely based on the likelihood of a conviction or accept offers to plead to lesser offences.
We face a difficult few months and society needs to decide what response to wanton violence and destruction they want from their police service. Dealing with confrontation of any kind is never pretty or tidy and does not always go according to any training manual.
Mainstream media has a significant role to play – there has been an increasing tendency to maintain a negative narrative around policing. Snap shots of a policing incident are often discussed and analysed with a variety of commentators and they all have the benefit of hindsight but lack the knowledge of the full facts.
Policing and police officers more than ever need to know and believe they have the support of those in government and the vast majority of the public.
That is the true test of policing with consent.