Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Policing tomorrow's student protest

On Wednesday, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts will march through London. While the protest will likely centre around a peaceful majority marching in pursuit of their beliefs, the news that a large number of police officers will be assigned to the march, some armed with riot guns, should not be a cause for alarm.

The violence at last year’s student protests, the TUC protest in March and the summer riots were in large part, the result of groups of committed, violent individuals who were focused on hijacking peaceful movements in order to create chaos. These individuals inflicted substantial harm on the agendas of the protests they invaded and caused substantial injury to people and property alike. In responding to these offenders, the police were at the ground level often courageous, but also hampered by a blunt, rigid strategy that was too often predicated on kettling, stand-off pursuit and after-incident investigation. These weaknesses needed to be addressed and yesterday’s announcement shows that to some degree, they have been.

While riot guns evoke understandable emotional discomfort among a British population expectant of ‘consensual policing’, a logical analysis of riot guns establishes that they can provide an important policing role. They can do so in enabling the police where necessary, to apply reasonable force in a manner that is both discriminate and decisive, while minimising the risk of injury to the surrounding public. Combined with the Met’s assertion that they will ‘act swiftly and decisively if people do engage in criminal acts’, we can infer that the police will move to prevent the rolling violence that has characterised earlier protest hijacks. It is this strategic element that forms the first part of why we should welcome yesterday’s announcement. Improving police capabilities allows the police to tailor their operational strategies to particular circumstances, mitigating risks and hopefully improving outcomes. Lines of riot police armed only with batons are inherently limited in how and to what effect they can operate. However, improved capabilities are not alone sufficient. It is also important to remember that the police are still bound to the stringent reasonable force test under English law. This requires that any use of baton rounds will have to be justified subjectively and objectively under the law. Riot guns will serve as a means of counter-escalation rather than of standard application.
We are right to hold our police to high standards and to demand investigation when they fall below these requirements, but asking police officers to go into potentially violent situations without the tools that they need to defend themselves is profoundly illogical, morally repulsive and a cowardly dereliction of our public contract with these public servants.

There is however, a second point that explains why we should welcome yesterday’s announcements.

Beyond the strategic need for improved police capabilities, where we lack a police force able to safeguard our protests effectively, we cause simultaneous damage to our democracy. Where a violent minority can perpetually hijack free speech and turn the streets into war zones every time a protest takes place, the protesters themselves are unjustly framed in the same deeply unpleasant picture as the violent offenders. In such situations, news debates on government spending are inevitably lost to a sea of violent imagery perpetuated by 24 hour news cycles. This in turn obfuscates public debates and reinforces vested interests who desire the labelling of protesters as idiotic thugs.

The central point is that we need protesters who are able petition government freely, in a way that is inclusive to all, including those who wish to attend with children. Protecting the rights of these individuals and those around them requires police strategies and capabilities that might at first appear unpleasant but are in fact proportionate and necessary.

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