Wednesday 25 November 2009

Some Initial Thoughts On The G20 Review

I finally finished reading 'Adapting to Protest' from cover to cover this evening. There a number of areas that I think need comment in considerably more detail, particularly some of the analysis and evidence that Denis O'Connor seems to have noted and then simply ignored.

For the time being, however, the following are some initial thoughts on the report itself.

Some Initial Thoughts On The G20 Review

If you publish a 205-page report, as the Chief Inspector of Constabulary Denis O' Connor did today, you probably know that most people will get no further than the recommendations and executive summary.

Journalists have deadlines, everyone else is so busy and it is a very long report. This may well explain the reaction to 'Adapting to Protest', the long awaited review of public order policing by the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, has been largely favourable. The media has described it variously as tough, highly critical, sweeping and even a turning point in British policing (yes, another one). Within only an hour of the report's publication, a representative of the Climate Camp legal team, Frances Wright, had argued that “the HMIC recommendations – if implemented – could help put a stop to some of the worst policing tactics, reduce injuries from police violence, and increase their accountability.”

That O'Connor has criticised public order policing, however, should hardly be a surprise: indeed, it was inevitable. He could hardly do otherwise followed the storm of complaints about police conduct at the G20 protests in April. It is worth remembering that had it not been for those pesky video clips of police beating protesters – and critically, the death of innocent passerby Ian Tomlinson, also captured on camera – there would never have been a review. Usually those skillful dissemblers, the police press officers, would have blamed all the violence on 'anarchist thugs', as they initially attempt to do again, but this time there was hard evidence, seen all over the world – and a bereaved family demanding answers. There would have been an outcry if O'Connor had failed to acknowledge what everyone had seen for themselves, even those who had not been anywhere near Bank or Bishopsgate on 1 April.

But 'Adapting to Protest' does far more than offer a little criticism. Look in more detail and you'll see that it presents a traditional 'British model of policing' that suggests O'Connor is also the chief inspector of Fantasy Land.

As I argued in an article for Red Pepper back in July, the mythical golden age of tolerant, friendly policing, one that O'Connor claims his recommendations are seeking to return to, has never existed and is little more than a comforting fiction. The reality is that throughout the 190 years since the establishment of the first police force in London, policing and the imposition of order using force have been inextricably linked. So why pretend otherwise? Because a comforting fiction is an easy way of pretending that recent events (the review looked only at protests between 2006 and 2009) are basically an aberration, a departure from the 'traditional model'. And with a few simple measures, normal service will soon be restored.

However, if there was a 'turning point' in the way the police respond to public order, it took place nearly thirty years ago, when Association of Chief Police Officers sought, at its September 1981 conference, the advice of the Director of Operations of the Royal Hong Kong Police, Richard Quine, on importing the tactics of British colonial policing to the British mainland. This was in response to the riots in Brixton and Toxteth that summer and the result during the early 1980s was a new Public Order Manual, the rapid expansion of public order training for all police officers, specialist firearms officers taught to use new forms of weaponry firing plastic bullets and CS gas canisters and the introduction of short riot shields similar to those used in Hong Kong. As BBC reporter Gerry Northam noted in his 1989 book on the secret militarisation of public order policing, 'Shooting in the Dark':

"...the selection of paramilitary tactics raised doubts about the doctrine of minimum force and the strict code of secrecy surrounding the decision drove a coach and horses through the concept of policing by consent."
O'Connor's review doesn't propose to abandon the tactics learned in Britain's former colonies: the Public Order Manual won't be thrown out, but clarified, rewritten and refined. There will be no new legislation, but guidance, codification and better training. Legal advice will be sought on the use of intelligence gathering and the role of FIT officers will be 'reviewed'. The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) – a private company with no other formal status in law – will not be disbanded as an embarrassment to the notion of accountability but simply made more transparent. Many of these recommendations (especially the focus on training, a particular favourite in every inquiry report I have ever read) could have come from any one of the previous inquiries into the policing of protest that have been held over the last 35 years.

In whose hands has O'Connor placed the implementation of these recommendations? With ACPO and the National Policing Improvement Agency, the very bodies that have proved so adept at getting whatever they want from the Home Office.

In July I wrote that the left's traditional view of the police as simply the arm of the state is now too simplistic, because the police have emerge as powerful political players in their own right, with more influence and greater independence and secrecy, “a kind of Fifth Estate that in the short term is almost impossible to reform”. O'Connor's review may have set out to achieve what it was intended to – to demonstrate that 'something will be done' to return us to the 'golden age' when things were apparently so much better. But somehow, I suspect that the policing Fifth Estate will use its position to ensure that 'reforms' amount to little more than tinkering. That's the way these inquiries have always been handled.

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