An edited version of this also appears as a guest post on Liberal Conspiracy.
With the police adopting an increasingly confrontational and often violent approach to maintaining ‘order’ at public protests, the presence of trained legal observers, to collect information that may be helpful in later court proceedings and assist activists who are arrested or need medical attention, has become essential. Their focus is on the safety of demonstrators, without which the ‘right to protest’ is severely undermined if people are intimidated by the fear of police brutality from taking part in one of the vital elements of a democratic society.
At the G20 protests in April 2009, senior police officers sanctioned excessive force with an apparent expectation, based on previous experience, that the press and the public wouldn’t that much care about protesters. Taken aback by the spotlight placed upon them by the storm of complaints that followed, particularly the video evidence from members of the public that provided graphic evidence of violent conduct, the police have been forced onto the defensive. So far this has led directly to the review of public order policing, Adapting to Protest, by Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Dennis O’Connor, which expressed particular concerns about “the influence of… members of the public who play an active role in collecting, analysing and distributing media themselves.” It also resulted in the extremely low-key policing of last summer’s Climate Camp in Blackheath. Whether the review will really change anything and how long the new approach to policing protests will last, however, is far from certain. Much will depend on maintaining a constant level of scrutiny on police tactics and conduct
With little confidence in public bodies like the Independent Police Complaints Commission and to try and ensure that attention remains focused on the policing of protest, four experienced organisations have set up the Police Monitoring Network to train and collate information from ‘police monitors’ at demonstrations around the country.
Members of the network include the legal team from Climate Camp, FITwatch (who monitoring oppressive surveillance by police ‘forward intelligence’ teams), the Legal Defence and Monitoring Group (who provide legal observers at demonstrations and grew out of the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign and Poll Tax Prisoners Support Group) and Newham Monitoring Project (an east London community organisation that has supported black communities to challenge police misconduct since 1980). They are supported by the civil liberties organisation, the Campaign against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC), and by solicitors with expertise in civil actions against the police.
Police monitors will complement the role provided by legal observers in ensuring the safety of demonstrators but will focus specifically on scrutinising the actions of the police – whether, for example, police officers are covering identification numbers or psyching themselves up for violence and when police commanders are using tactics like ‘kettling’ that greatly increase the likelihood of confrontation.
Training for police monitors, aimed initially at those who already have experience as legal observers, is planned for March 2010 and a website will be up and running shortly. For further information, contact FITwatch at firstname.lastname@example.org