Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Adapting to scrutiny: the HMIC report on G20 policing

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has today published its report on the policing of the G20 protests, Adapting to Protest (ATP).

I'll try in this post to outline some of the main points of the report, with a particular emphasis on the issue of kettling.

(1) Police planning for the G20 protests did not adequately take account of the qualifications to lawful kettling as set out in the Austin decision.

As things stand, the tactic of kettling or containment is consistent with the police's legal obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The decision in Austin, earlier this year, determined that kettling is consistent with the ECHR provided three conditions are met:

'i) the tactic is resorted to in good faith;
ii) the tactic is proportionate to the situation which has made the measure necessary and;
iii) the tactic is enforced for no longer than necessary.' (ATP, pp.43-44.)

The HMIC report thus drops a bombshell when it comments on the police planning:

'The Silver tactical plan does not explicitly address the legal criteria set out in the Austin case regarding the use of containment as a crowd control measure, and it is not apparent from the Silver tactical plan, other operational documents or interviews conducted that all commanders were familiar with the criteria that had to be met.'

Just let that sink in: the police did not explicitly integrate their own legal obligations - obligations clearly stated in a major legal case as recent as January of this year - into their planning; indeed, some commanders seemed unaware of these obligations. The people paid to enforce the law went about their job in a state of apparent indifference and partial ignorance as to what the law is.

(2) Police planning for protest starts from a fundamentally wrong conception of the police task.

What might explain the police's failure to appreciate its existing legal obligations in planning for the G20 protests?

The report makes a further point which might be relevant: the basic conceptual framework which the police use to think about protest policing is flawed.

Existing guidelines in the ACPO manual of Guidance for Policing Political Order, which informed the 'strategic objectives' for the G20 policing, state that the job of the police is to 'facilitate lawful protest'. The corollary is that 'any form of protest or demonstration that is not lawful will be dealt with robustly according to the law.'

Critics have pointed out that this amounts to a policy of zero tolerance towards protest that has elements of civil disobedience, even though civil disobedience has a legitimate and important role to play in a democratic society. The critics argue that the police are confusing 'lawful' and 'peaceful' protest (hence the campaign, Defend Peaceful Protest).

The report goes at least some way towards the critics. Having noted the police's current emphasis on facilitating (only) lawful protest, it comments: 'This is not the correct starting point for the police when considering their obligations in relation to the right to peaceful assembly' (ATP, p.39). It continues:

'Article 11 of the ECHR places the police under the obligation to facilitate peaceful protest. In other words, public authorities, including the police, are required to show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings where demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence even if these protests cause a level of obstruction or disruption'. (ATP, p.39.)

The report also notes - nodding, perhaps, in the direction of the Climate Camp - that 'mere obstruction of a highway does not render an assembly unlawful' (ATP, p.40).

(3) The plan for policing the Bishopsgate Climate Camp was flawed.

On the back of this general criticism, the report picks out the police's planning around the Climate Camp at Bishopsgate in particular as flawed:

'Despite clear intelligence around the general location, there appears to have been little consideration given to facilitating the climate camp protest or tactical planning beyond prevention of sit down protest on the highway. The sub-Bronze commanders confirm that the operational plan was to prevent the establishment of a Climate Camp that would block a main highway in the City of London. This does not accord with the police obligation to facilitate peaceful assembly...' (ATP, p.47, italics added.)

Moreover, the report clearly states that the police's failure to approach planning in the right way creates a higher risk that policing on the day will be disproportionate 'and that protestors will be dealt with more restrictively than is necessary' (ATP, p.47).

(4) Problems with kettling on the day and immediate changes in police practice. In addition to apparently failing to appreciate the legal framework governing kettling, the report argues that the police kettling on the day was certainly flawed in certain respects and makes recommendations for immediate cahnges to police practice such as: provisions to let vulnerable and distressed individuals leave a kettle; better police communication to protestors about when a kettle is to be imposed and available exits, likely duration, etc.; and proper respect for the 'UK press card' to allow free movement of journalists.

(5) But: remaining questions about kettling. All this said, I am not sure the HMIC report faces up fairly and squarely to all of the issues raised by the kettling experience on April 1.

It points out that the kettle at the Bank of England was imposed after some initial violence by protestors. However, its record of events suggests that violence may have increased after the kettle was imposed. We come back to the basic problem/dilemma with kettling: in certain circumstances, it looks like a reasonable public order option; but its very use can inflame the situation, creating a self-propelling cycle of violence-kettle-violence-more kettle, so increasing the long-term risk of disorder and violence. It is hard to read the report of the relevant Bronze commander's log of events (ATP, pp.50-51) without this thought crossing one's mind.

The kettle at Bishopsgate has, perhaps, been more controversial given the peaceful character of the Climate Camp. We noted above how the report charges the police with poor planning in relation to the Climate Camp. So what is its verdict on the actual policing as it unfolded?

First, the report largely confirms the claim that the Camp was peaceful prior to the kettling: 'At about 6.10 pm, the sub-Bronze log records than an officer in the centre of the protest recorded "Party atmosphere. No issues."' (ATP, p.52.)

Beyond this, the report is content to describe events from the police point of view without passing any further judgment on the quality of the decisions taken (beyond the general reservations about unqualified kettling noted above).

According to this narrative, the decision to kettle the Climate Camp was related to the decision to disperse the kettle at the Bank of England. The police commander was concerned that the people being dispersed might join the Climate Camp. Thus, '[a]t around 7.00pm, instructions were given to implement absolute cordons at Bishopsgate.'

A first thing to say here is that this dry, neutral language seems inadequate to the events. We have now hopefully all seen the footage, eventually widely publicised by the Sunday Times (but alas not the BBC), which shows the police at one end of the Climate Camp aggressively charging the Camp prior to the kettling. Where does this brutal police charge fit into the report's account of the decision to 'implement absolute cordons at Bishopsgate'?

Second, the fact that the police commander had a reason to impose the kettle obviously doesn't settle the million dollar question of whether he had sufficient reason under the law.

The law allows kettling to contain a protest group which contains violent protestors. It is by no means obvious that it allows the police to kettle a group of protestors who might or might not be joined in future by other, violent protestors. Accepting this expansion of the principle has obvious dangers in terms of the discretion it gives the police to kettle any and every protest it wishes to.

At the very least, if the ECHR is to be respected, it is surely incumbent on the police in such a situation to exhaust other ways of preventing the (potentially) violent joining the peaceful protest before they take the draconian step of kettling a protest group whch lacks any significant violent element itself. It is by no means clear that the police did exhaust these other possibilities on the day. Given the report's findings about police planning, and their apparent indifference/ignorance of the actual law around kettling, there must be a reasonable suspicion that the kettle was imposed without fully considering and exhausting all the alternatives.

Reticence on this question aside, the HMIC report as a whole offers what seems to me to be a pretty damning verdict on the policing of the G20 protests.

Recall two of the report's main findings. First, the police planned their strategy in apparent indifference to, or ignorance of, their own legal responsibilities (as set out in Austin). Second, this is related to a deeper failure of the police to understand the role of peaceful protest in a democratic society, and to understand their own role as facilitating such protest.

These two points alone give Mr. Paul Stephenson and his colleagues a lot to think about.

(Postscript: there is a very good article on the report by Paul Lewis, Sandra Laville and Peter Walker here.)


John said...

Great Post.

On another note, I've compiled examples of what I believe to be democratic republicanism in action in the UK:

Grandparents who look after their grandchildren so that the parents can go out to work will be able to claim credits towards the basic state pension;

Child trust fund, job seekers allowance, incapacity benefit, minimum wage, general labour rights, state pension, green taxes, unhealthy food taxes
Co-operative trust schools, Foundation Hospitals and co-op membership, guaranteed user choice of state school and hospital, systems of redress to guarantee to right to see cancer specialist within 2 weeks of diagnosis and general specialist within 18 weeks on NHS, allowing parent's to trigger council intervention in unsatisfactory schools (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8033044.stm)

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for the post and the update.

From yr account, and the linked report, I am impressed by the HMIC report, despite the valid caveats which you make about aspects of it. These seem to me significant conclusions, which ought to have an impact.

It strikes me, particularly in stressing the legal compliance issue, to be rather clearer than the recent Home Affairs Select Committee report, which seems to me to fudge the important issues, particularly around the law, and to take a rather mealy-mouthed 'it would be nice if police and protestors tried to talk more' approach, which seriously misses some central points you and others have made.

Now, personally, I might have anticipated the HoC select committee being clearer in its scrutiny, while I would not have been too surprised had the HIMC rather fudged any clear criticism of the police. My sense is that it has been the other way around.

If that is right - others will have read the reports more closely, so am open to correction on this - then plaudits to the HIMC but also the question of why parliamentary scrutiny should fall quite far short of what we might reasonably expect, (and despite some rather effective evidence gathering particularly by the LibDem parliamentarians).

Stuart White said...

Thanks, John and Sunder.

I think Sunder's evaluation of the relative merits of the Home Affairs Committee report and the HMIC report is spot on. I had a post earlier on Next Left, when the HMIC investigation was announced, wondering just how impartial the investigation could be given that Denis O'Connor is himself ex-Met. But the HMIC report identifies the core problems very clearly, and the Home Affairs Committee report does not. If I have time, I will try to post soon about one important respect in which the HMIC report actually seems to rebut a claim made in the Home Affairs Committee report about the mutual failure of police and Climate Camp to communicate with one another. I was also very surprised that the Home Affairs Committee thought that part of the problem was inexperienced police officers on the frontline: a casual acquaintance with the journalism on the issue would show that the major incidents of violence involved highly-trained specialist officers.

AndyM12 said...

Excellent post Sunder. Unfortunately both myself and guy are out of the country but have been catching up on events in the last two days.

Members of defend peaceful protests intend to be at the MPA meeting to ask questions again this month. This time we hope for some concrete information on how the police intend to reform thier tactics and attitude to protest. Myself and guy will be posting some thoughts on the HMIC reports in the next few days.

AndyM12 said...

Just read your additional comment and again I agree entirely, I was not particularly impressed with the HASC report.

My main concern was the widely reported finding relating to officers on the ground not receiving adequate training for protest situations.

I think this is an odd departure given that many of the compliants and the action at climate camp involved the TSG, who are the most highly trained officers.

Personally I lay a larger part of the blame at the feet of senior officers on the ground and within ACPO. Those who agreed the kettling tactics in thier highly restrictive manifestation. The officer(s) who gave the go ahead to use the TSG to clear the climate campers. The officer who thought it acceptable to utilise tasers in the raids the next day.

If there is to be true accountability perhaps the IPCC should be investigating some of the commanders alongside the individual officers accused of wrongdoing.