I have been reading the report of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary on the policing of the G20 protest.
Much of the attention will be on the arguments in the report on the legal framework for the policing of such events. The report stresses that freedom of assembly under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights is a qualified (rather than an absolute) right. This leads to what the report describes as the “policing dilemma” –
“Balancing the rights of protesters and other citizens with the duty to protect people and property from the threat of harm or injury defines the policing dilemma in relation to public protest. In a democratic society policed by consent, planning and action at every level must be seen to reconcile all these factors, particularly when a minority of people may be determined to cause disorder or worse. Peaceful protest requires careful interpretation of the law. The law is an important consideration in public order events but as Lord Scarman pointed out in relation to maintaining “The Queen’s Peace”, “it is well recognised that successful policing depends on the exercise of discretion on how the law is enforced.””
The report points out that “the discretionary landscape of public order policing has grown more complex and testing” particularly as “the majority of the public has limited tolerance for disruption caused by protest”. This is a good articulation of the problems faced by the police in dealing with such protests, but of course does not take us much further forward as to how the “dilemma” should be resolved in practice. I will be interested to see what the MPA colleagues on the new MPA Civil Liberties Panel will make of it all.
The Inspectorate report is also interesting in that large sections refer to the attitudes of the public – a full chapter is devoted to the topic and the Inspectorate commissioned a major survey from IPSOS Mori to inform its work. Implicitly, the Inspectorate is saying that policing by consent requires this sort of approach to assess public attitudes as to what is or is not acceptable to the public at large (ie what form of policing will be “with consent”). Is the implication of this that Chief Constables should spend much more on assessing public attitudes to various types of operation? It is an interesting idea. However, while I believe the cornerstone of British policing must be policing by consent, I am not sure how appropriate would be constant opinion sampling – although I am sure market research companies are salivating at the prospect.
Finally, the report comments on the use of “new media”, on “citizen journalists” and the implications of all of this for the police. I believe that the police service has yet to come to terms with the massive impact all of this is going to have on their work and the way it is perceived. It is worth quoting the report at length:
“Mobile telephones combined with cameras have had a fundamental effect on the news media, particularly the speed at which news can be received and then broadcast. The public at any major event are now an important source – often the first – of video, still images, text messages and e-mails. This activity is known as citizen journalism, and the published product is known as user-generated content (UGC).” …
“The emergence of new media has been described as “a potentially radical shift of who is in control of information, experience and resources.” The evolution of communication technology used to record and access images of violent confrontations between the police and protesters influenced emerging views of the police operation on 1st April. The high volume of publicly sourced footage of the events of 1st April, including the events leading up to the death of Ian Tomlinson, has demonstrated the influence of ‘citizen journalists’ – members of the public who play an active role in collecting, analysing and distributing media themselves. Consequently, individual and collective police action is under enormous public scrutiny.” ….
“Social networking sites, such as Facebook, encourage links to groups as well as individuals, generating a ‘spider-web’ of connections between a diverse spectrum of communities. Some social networking and video-sharing sites have the capability to be accessed on mobile phones. This allows the entire network to be updated, whether through text, photos or videos, instantly at any time and from any location. Technology has allowed for a more flexible and responsive protest community which is capable of advanced communication and immediate reaction to events on the ground. The pace and sophistication of communication arguably left police, particularly officers on the ground, less well informed than protesters with high specification mobile phones, who could access or post on websites and get an overview of the situation. This reality is in stark contrast to reports from the police of inability at times to communicate using the police radio. The challenge for the police is to keep pace with a dynamic, IT intelligent protest community and the technology available for use.”