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Wednesday, January 22, 2014 

Hosing down policing by consent.

One of the greatest myths of British public life has always been that our police force, unlike so many others around the world, operates through consent rather than fear.  While this might be true in certain areas, it most certainly isn't elsewhere.  It also fails to take into account how the police act in specific circumstances, most pertinently at demonstrations.  It's been mostly forgotten as a result of the riots of August 2011, but the policing at the G20 demonstrations in April 2009 was about as over-the-top and self-defeating as any in memory, leaving aside the actions of PC Simon Harwood.  Quite apart from the kettling, the number of officers who wielded their batons and used them with impunity demanded a response, and one was forthcoming in the shape of the "Adapting to Protest" report.  Then came the student tuition fee protests, where some felt the police held back as a result, and we seemed to have gone full circle.

Thanks then to the riots, the police both in London and nationally have found an excuse to demand they join their colleagues in Northern Ireland in being able to deploy water cannon if they so wish.  Not because water cannon is useful against the type of rioting and looting we saw two and a half years ago when the police were spread far too thinly to be able to cope, and when the perpetrators were moving from place to place rather staying in one particular area, as the author of the Association of Chief Police Officers report David Shaw admits, even if it would have been considered if available. No, it's more of an insurance policy as the police expect there to be further presumably violent protests against austerity measures.

Weirdly, Shaw writes that one of the other occasions when use of water cannon would have been considered was the protests outside the Israeli embassy back in 2009.  Strange, as I attended one of those demonstrations and I cannot for the life of me work out how water cannon would have helped the police one iota.  While I had left before the "kettle" was put in place, the main problem then was that the police had blocked off all other exits, leaving only one which you could reach by shoving past everyone.  There was never any danger whatsoever of the embassy itself being occupied, not least because the gates are impossible to scale, while the officers in front of the gates unlike some of their colleagues earlier in the day were properly kitted out and so well defended from missiles.  The main disorder that day happened after those still protesting were "kettled", with windows being smashed, so again I can't think how water cannon would have helped when it was the police that were stopping those demonstrating from leaving.  Unlike in Northern Ireland, where the police have come under concerted attack from protesters throwing petrol bombs and rocks at them, the worst that was thrown at officers that day were eggs, paint or the odd firecracker.  Some of those arrested following the protests, for instance, were convicted of violent disorder on the basis that they threw the balsa wood the placards were constructed out of at the police.

Odder still isn't that Shaw doesn't include the G20 protests as being an event at which water cannon would have been considered, despite the fact that senior officers had been briefing the press for weeks beforehand that they were expecting hardcore "black bloc" anarchists from Europe to be making the journey to London for the occasion.  The police deployment that day was far heavier than on the Gaza protests, and also one suspects for the first of the student protests, which makes you wonder if it's that precise fact that makes the difference.

It must be said that it's possible to exaggerate the effect of water cannon.  Certainly, while serious injuries have been recorded in line with its use and I simply don't believe the claim that no injuries have been associated with it in Northern Ireland, far worse can be meted out by officers tooled up and keen on whacking anyone they judge to be a threat with their batons.  It's also the case however that giving the police water cannon is another step towards militarising the policing of demonstrations when there is not the slightest evidence that their use would have prevented either injuries to officers or damage to property.  Would it have stopped the ransacking of Millbank?  Clearly not, when the police weren't prepared in the first place for the storming of the building containing Conservative Central Office.  It seems more about the police resorting to tactics they've previously eschewed precisely because they seem to think a precedent has been set where they think the public at large will support them.  They're probably right, but that shouldn't make Theresa May give in to their demands.

You suspect however that just as on stop and search, the forces ranged against her, whether they be in Downing Street or in the Labour party, which would think nothing of bringing it up should she refuse and there be further serious disorder, are likely to be victorious.  Policing by consent might remain in tact, but amongst those with reason to distrust the plod it will do nothing whatsoever to reassure of their good intentions.

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