Monday, 21 May 2012

Some Thoughts On Yesterday's NetPol Conference

There are two quite different and opposing views of the way protests and public order is policed in Britain and during yesterday’s ‘Kettle Police Powers’ conference, organised by the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol), someone asked me a very odd question rooted in one side of the argument. Did I think it would be a good idea if the police started using ‘protest liaison officers’ to improve communications between public order officers and protesters? I’ll admit I was rather lost for an immediate answer. What did I think? Initially, I thought that anyone looking at the tone of the event’s programme and its speakers, or reflecting at the repeated containment and vilification of protesters over the last few years, really shouldn’t need to ask about the dubious benefits of ‘protest liaison officers’.

One side of the argument, the mainstream position on public order policing – what might be crudely characterised as the ‘Liberty-HMIC’ viewpoint – is that there isn’t a deliberate attempt to clamp down on the right to protest in the UK or to treat all protesters as potential criminals. Instead, there is a failure to communicate and the misconduct and excess of a few officers, with the first fixed by protesters agreeing to talk more to senior officers and the latter by using the courts and the Human Rights Act to seek legal redress for injury or ill-treatment.

The opposing view – one I happen to share – is that negotiations with senior police officers have done little to stop heavy-handed policing tactics (especially when protesters are lied to, as they were at the Fortnum & Mason occupation), whilst systematic surveillance of activists and violent arrests during overwhelmingly peaceful protests places a greater responsibility on police than protesters to explain their actions. At the same time, fourteen years of court cases since the introduction of the Human Rights Act in 1998 has failed to prevent the introduction of a new repressive ‘total policing’ model. It has instead depended on individuals taking time, effort and often expense to seek legal redress after their rights have been denied, often with little prospect of securing anything more than a civil claim without an admission of liability. Inevitably, it has also often taken the struggle for an end to police misconduct away from campaigners and handed it to lawyers and judges.

Instead of simply trying to hold the line against a rising tide of new police powers, this more radical position argues that the state needs to be forced into losing some of its powers and closing down operations like its indiscriminate data gathering, which are used primarily to undermine and disrupt the right to freedom of speech and assembly.

Sunday’s excellent speakers were able to explain in great detail the scale of the problem facing protesters, local communities and football supporters experiencing tough public order policing. The session I shared with the documentary photographer Marc Vallée covered the range of draconian police powers that may be used during the Olympics, hopefully without scaring anyone into scrapping plans to exercise their right to protest or simply avoiding east London altogether over the summer. Marc also revealed the interest that the private sector is now starting to show anti-corporate protesters during the Games.

But as one of the people who helped organise the ‘Kettle Police Powers’ conference, I felt that what was perhaps missing yesterday was some genuine conflict, a greater clash of ideas. It feels as if we have now reached the stage where more and more people understand and accept the merits of the alternative position on public order policing – and maybe the time has come for the two different and opposing sides of the argument to properly lock horns.

So next year, I hope that the Network for Police Monitoring might be able to persuade the director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabari, to debate what difference the Human Rights Act has made to protesters. And who knows? Maybe Sir Denis O’Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, would like to come and argue the benefits of ‘protest liaison officers’?

The briefing handed out during the 'Policing and the Olympics' session at yesterday's conference can be downloaded from here

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