Policing of the G20 Protests - Home Affairs Committee Contents

3  Communications between Protesters and Police

24. In addition to the breakdown in communications between police and journalists during the G20 Protests, we were also told there were failures of communication between the police and representatives of the various groups who wished to protest at the G20. This Chapter will analyse this claim, by examining:

  • media statements released by the police before the protests;
  • the use of Section 14 of the Public Act and whether this was fully and intelligibly communicated to the protesters before its use at the Climate Camp; and
  • the structure of the protest groups themselves to see whether this was a hindrance to communication and police planning.

Media Statements

25. In oral evidence to us, David Howarth MP, who acted as an observer at the protests, told us why he had taken on this position:

I was increasingly concerned about the hyping up of the possibility of violence … What we were doing there was as a result of what was happening in the previous weeks in the media and concern about the police apparently … raising the spectre of major violence.[28]

Before the G20 Conference police comments suggested that 1 April would be "very violent".[29] This in itself could be considered provocative but when, as Commander Broadhurst admitted to us: "they [officers trained in public order]… get two days' training a year, and the vast majority [of officers]... have never faced a situation as violent as that"[30] it appears inflammatory. To compound this failing, both sides appeared unwilling or unable to communicate during the day and diffuse any tension without resorting to confrontation. Commander Broadhurst told us that due to lack of time for training, "we do not do enough around the softer issues of speaking to crowds, etc."[31] This was borne out in the evidence of Chris Abbott, a protester at the "Climate Camp", who told us that before a police 'charge' at 9 or 9:30pm "there was no warning given. There was no request to move. There was no indication of what was going to happen".[32] In this case the use of force seems needless; Mr Abbott had given no indication of being obstructive and every indication that he, for one, would have moved back if asked.

26. We cannot understand why, knowing the pressures that inexperienced officers would face the police would use language which would only serve to create a "them and us" attitude and antagonise the most violent elements within the protesters. We feel that such statements essentially become a self-fulfilling prophecy and they should be avoided in future.

The Use of Section 14 at the "Climate Camp"

27. The inadequacy of the communications between the police and protesters is best evidenced by the use of Section 14 of the Public Order Act at the Climate Camp from around 9pm onwards. We were told that prior to this the Climate Camp had settled down after being "kettled" at 6pm, and there was a "friendly atmosphere" between the protesters and police. [33] Between 9 and 10pm the police applied Section 14 of the Public Order Act to move the protesters and from around 10:45pm to disperse the group completely. It is not clear how or indeed whether this information was communicated to the protesters. We have heard that no intelligible announcements were made.[34] To the protesters being dispersed it seemed as if the police, without warning had began to use force to clear a peaceful protest.[35]

28. Despite the inadequacy of communications, we have found no proof that the police were systematically unwilling to communicate to protesters throughout the day. The lack of intelligible communications with the crowd stemmed from inadequate equipment. It appears that genuine efforts were made to communicate with the crowd.[36] However, in this instance the motives are largely irrelevant. Sir Paul Stephenson was correct when he said to us:

I think it is fair to say that the presentation of that, and the way in which that video evidence looks, does stand the potential of damaging public confidence.[37]

The issue is not one of motives and willingness, but of perception, openness and accountability.

29. Policing public protest is an activity under much greater scrutiny than twenty to thirty years ago, Sir Paul Stephenson told us that "as technology changes, there are different ways and many more opportunities for people to be caught behaving badly if they choose to behave badly."[38] This undoubtedly increases the pressure under which front-line police officers have to work; because of this they have our sympathy. However, this does not excuse behaviour which appears to contravene the norms of democratic protest. The police must be aware that their behaviour will be monitored, recorded and instantly made public via the internet. They must modify their behaviour and briefings accordingly.

30. We recommend that the police wherever possible refrain from any activity which can suggest violent intent. Instead, they must firmly prioritise communications and policing by consent, negating the need for violent action wherever possible.

31. We also recommend that more funding be made available specifically for training in the softer issues of communication and speaking to crowds. At the very least each unit involved in the policing of large protests should contain one officer trained and able to communicate with crowds of protesters. This would enable communications with protesters to take place on a consistent, codified basis, and increase the opportunities for large groups of protesters to be policed by consent.

Structure of Protest Groups

32. However, we do not hold the police wholly to blame for the lack of communications during the day of the protests. It seems that the structure of the Climate Camp, the protest which experienced the greatest difficulty communicating with the police on the day hindered communication. Commander Broadhurst told us that prior to the event:

they [the Climate Camp] will not put forward organisers because they say they are a non-hierarchical organisation where nobody makes decisions, which then gives me huge problems in trying to find out, as happened on 1 April, what they intend to do and where they intend to do it.[39]

Without identifiable organisers it was much harder for the police to gain the information they needed to plan their operation and also to communicate with protesters throughout the day.

33. While we fully respect the rights of peaceful protesters to organise their groups however they wish, it seems to us that it was very unhelpful to choose a structure for a large, disparate group that would add unnecessary complications to police efforts at communication. It is no coincidence that those protests which lacked a clear hierarchical structure and did not fully communicate their intentions to the police beforehand were those which experienced the greatest use of force by police. It is the relationship between the protesters and police which defines the success of the protest from a public safety perspective and we are not convinced that all protesters did everything they could to strengthen this relationship.[40]

34. It seems paradoxical to us that both sides stress the importance of communications, and complain when these are not forthcoming yet are unwilling to put people in place to make this process easier. Elsewhere in this Report we have recommended that the police designate 'contact points', we also recommend that protest groups put ideological concerns to one side and instead do everything they can to aid communications both before and during the protests.

ACPO Guidelines

35. It is possible that the police actions at Bishopsgate were in violation of ACPO Guidelines in this area, and certainly differ from what ACPO Lead Sue Sim considers to be best practice:

The guidelines are clear that communications should be given to the crowd. My interpretation would be that people understand the communication which has been given.[41]

Commander Broadhurst admitted to us that this certainly was not the case at the G20.[42] The police faced similar problems caused by a large number of people in one area at the Countryside Alliance protest in 2004 and the May Day protest in 2001, yet they are still investigating alternative methods or communication, such as "dot matrix signs or louder PA systems".[43] This hints at a wider problem of the dissemination of best practice.

36. In our evidence session with Hugh Orde and Duncan McCausland we heard that the PSNI have faced similar problems in the past and these were challenged by the Police Ombudsman. As a result the PSNI, rather than relying on a megaphone, "record [on] CCTV or cameras, warnings that we would be giving and that we were preparing to advance".[44] This does seem a more effective method for communicating to large groups, rather than relying on a loudhailer which apparently gave signals which were "unintelligible" and could only be heard from ground-level.[45]

37. We question why these new, up-to-date tactics used by the Police Service of Northern Ireland have not been shared and adopted nationally and urge all forces to adopt newer, more efficient methods for communicating to large crowds as quickly as possible.

28   Q93. Back

29   Error! Bookmark not defined.; "Fears police tactics will lead to violence", The Guardian, 27 March 2009 Back

30   Q374 Back

31   Q393. Back

32   Q130 Back

33   Q138 Back

34   Q147 Back

35   Q130 Back

36   Q147. Back

37   Q363. Back

38   Q364. Back

39   Q398. Back

40   We were sent the notes of a meeting between the MPS and representatives of the Climate Camp which took place prior to the G20 Protest on 31 March 2009 where the police reiterated that the problem from their perspective was the lack of an "organiser" which would make communication through the day much more difficult. The police also complained at this meeting that the plans of the "Climate Camp" had yet to be fully communicated. Back

41   Q253 Back

42   Q393. Back

43   Q393 Back

44   Q288 Back

45   Q147. Back

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