Warning over policing of protests

Protesters clash with police near the Royal Bank of Scotland Policing tactics: Forces are still making changes in wake of 2009's G20 protests

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Police have been urged to adapt more quickly to the changing nature of protests in the UK.

An Inspectorate of Constabulary report questions whether forces are ready to cope with demonstrations organised via social media, such as Twitter.

The watchdog said changes recommended to training two years ago were taking too long to take effect.

It said it had found four out of 10 forces had not tested their readiness for disorder.

Deputy Chief Constable Jim Campbell from Northumbria Police, who deals with public order training for the Association of Chief Police Officers, says steps have been taken to help police adapt to the changing environment.

"There's been a publication of a new manual of guidance that covers the full remit of public order policing.

"And within that, the main golden thread is the use of force and human rights. In terms of developing that guidance we've sought advice from a number of barristers and we've tried to keep it as simple and focused as we can.

"That's now being rolled out as part of a national training programme."

The Metropolitan Police is still facing questions over its handling of the 2009 G20 demonstrations, as well as over its level of preparedness when students stormed into the Conservative Party headquarters last year.

More recently still, forces around the country have had to deal with protests by the English Defence League and anti-cuts demonstrations that have been organised online.


In the report, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) said forces needed to be more agile because of the "inherently messy" nature of modern protests.

Sir Denis O'Connor, head of the inspectorate, said: "The pattern of protest is evolving in terms of numbers, spread, disruption and, in some instances, violence.

Protest movements

  • Big increase in demonstrations over last 18 months
  • 24 held by English, Welsh and Scottish Defence Leagues
  • Two major student protests in London
  • UK Uncut demonstrations at major retailers
  • Use of social media tools increasing
  • Source: HMIC report

"Police tactics must be as adaptable as possible to the circumstances and the challenge of striking the right balance between competing rights is a difficult judgement call."

The HMIC said it had reviewed how prepared forces were for sudden protests and had found that more than 40% of them had not tested their plans.

It also questioned their ability to support each other over constabulary borders.

"If the frequency and spread of events accelerates and they become more contentious, the resilience for providing cross-border support will not only be tested, but potentially undermined when the arrangements put in place by forces have not been proven in practice," said the report.

In contrast, the report warned that online tools meant protests were now being organised in hours and could change their focus within minutes.

'Minimise risk'

Sir Denis said that preparing the police for protests had a "significant cost" in an age of cuts.

"The key to the police successfully adapting to the need for peaceful protest is to prevent the disorder from occurring in the first instance, where possible.

"Learning lessons faster and communicating better with officers on the ground, as well as with the public, will help the police minimise risk and maintain order on the streets."

Temporary Chief Constable Sue Sim, the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on protests, said: "There is no doubt that the face and shape of protests continues to change and we continuously learn from sharing our knowledge and experience of facilitating protests across the country.

"The service has a clear commitment to ensure peaceful protest can take place and balance the rights of everyone involved whether taking part in protest or going about their daily business."

Ch Supt Derek Barnett, president of the Police Superintendents' Association, said the report "serves as a stark reminder that there is a cost to providing effective and proportionate policing of protest".

"Forces must now address the issues raised by Sir Denis O'Connor as a matter of priority."

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