Thin Blue Line

Politics is driving a dangerous wedge between the people and the police, says ex-officer
March 31, 2021

Retired Chief Superintendent Owen West believes the police are being dragged in a political direction that will damage their long-term legitimacy in the eyes of the people. He calls on officers to remember the lessons of Ian Tomlinson’s death in 2009, and he calls on crowds to see the people behind the uniform.

Let’s start at the beginning. Take us down the road that led to this bill.

Let me take you back, believe it or not, all the way to 1895.

Gustave Le Bon wrote a seminal book back then called The Crowd. And what that book says is that crowds are a threat to the state, a threat to property, a threat to the landed classes—that they are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

This view of the crowd sticks in the British psyche right the way until 2009, when Mr Tomlinson (Ian Tomlinson) died at the hands of the police at the G20 summit (protests) down in London.

The outcry launched a report by the police watchdog, which is a bit of a mouthful: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary Fire and Rescue Service (HMICFRS). Essentially, since 2009, the police in the UK have adopted a very human rights based approach to engagement. We’ve had this view that protest is a fundamental right in a democracy and it is the police’s job to facilitate that.

Now this goes really well until we get to Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. At this time we start to see – from the government and the right-wing commentary – pushback about those protests. The pushback is characterized as the police being soft. This is the police losing control.

That’s where we see these new measures coming in.

@PolicingCrowds, Twitter

What’s your personal opinion of the bill?

It’s an entirely bad law, and if allowed to go ahead, it will fundamentally change the very character of protest.

It will mean that for the first time in the UK, a protest can be banned or restricted on the grounds of being noisy or disruptive, a single person protesting alone can be subject to legislation, and police will hold the power to ban static assemblies.

Now I would argue that if you can’t be disruptive and you can’t be noisy then protest is in effect meaningless, so it completely undermines articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act.

I’m also worried about the role of big business, because throughout this bill there are provisions to make sure organisations are not disrupted. So if any business takes the view that a nearby protest is harming commercial enterprise, there will be an expectation on the police to restrict it. Being real about it, the chances of protesting outside Google or Apple or Shell or any of the high-speed railway companies or fracking business are going to be extremely limited.

Ultimately, it’s really difficult to see how any of this helps the police actually deal with and facilitate protest. You know, there’s a well-known saying out there… the quickest way to start a riot is to ban protest.

But the government has said that police are asking for these powers…

This is a really interesting narrative that’s coming from the Government. If you read the HMICFRS report – as I have done many times – it actually says that police opinion on new powers is divided. Some officers think it’s draconian, some officers worry about the long term consequences for police legitimacy. I don’t see at all that the police are jumping up and down asking for new powers which by their definition are going to increase the likelihood of conflict between police and protesters going forward.

What about those who are in favour of the measures? Is theirs an attitude that concerns you?

On what we call “police Twitter”, I’ve seen a few police officers exchanging concerning ideas since the vigil, some of which have been removed. Officers calling for the availability of water cannon, calling for a gendarmerie. We need to turn down that rhetoric.

But this feeling isn’t coming from officers alone, its firefighters and paramedics as well. There’s a sense among first responders that we’re in it alone, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. I do really worry about where this us vs. them mentality is taking us.

So what needs to change?

We need to return to the seminal report that was done in 2009 after Mr Tomlinson was killed, focused on engagement, facilitation, education, communication and human rights. Tragically, it took someone to die before we took notice of the rational science around crowd psychology… let’s not see the same thing happen again.

Tributes to Ian Tomlinson, who died after being beaten by a police officer when walking past a protest in 2009 | Basher Eyre,

The police need to recenter themselves on their values – on what it means to police in a democracy – and to stand up for the operational independence much more than they currently are.

Operational independence I think is being eroded quite seriously. In a 30 year career in policing I try not to get political, but the way the Home Secretary put pressure on the Met Police to stop the Sarah Everard vigil from happening was directly intervening in operational independence. So the police need to stand up a little bit more to the political direction they’re being dragged in.

Governments come and go but the relationship between the police and the people they serve—that’s eternal. That’s the relationship they ought to be prioritizing.

Now what would you say to members of the crowd about how they should be looking at police, particularly in a protest situation?

If you’re on a protest and you’re looking at a police line, I’d ask people to just remember that well over a quarter of the frontline has less than two years’ service. They are very, very inexperienced.

When you see them at a protest, it may well be the first time they’ve ever held the shield. It might be the first time they’ve had to mobilise and deal with potential violence.

And the vast majority of them don’t want to be there. A huge number of officers are declining to be trained in public order.

Why is that?

Police tend to fear crowd policing because they fear any suggestion of loss of control. The greatest fear is “in the job” trouble: when the Chief Constable gives you a ring as commander and asks why you lost control. So when the Crime Commissioner starts to get difficult questions in the press about why the police allowed a particular protest to get out of control, trouble is stirring.

There’s also anxiety about where social media is: about being identified… and then you’ve got details of (their) family life.

So just think of it from the other perspective, which is young people, inexperienced, quite apprehensive. They don’t want to be criticized for having lost control and don’t want to be criticized for being over the top, and then there’s added anxiety about being identified.

Deep police lines – Student protests – Parliament Square, London 2010 | “Bob Bob” Flickr

I think for some people it might be more difficult to see things that way because certain communities are systemically over-policed and treated with unfair aggression. Do you see diversity as a critical issue when it comes to policing crowds?

I do. And it is.

To be fair to policing, there’s a huge amount of work, emphasis and worry around the police not recruiting enough people from a diverse background— I’m talking all types of diversity there.

What the police are not understanding, in my view, is that the diversity element is intrinsically linked to the way the police do their job. If you do stop-search in an aggressive manner, don’t be surprised if people from those communities don’t want to join. If you police a vigil in an excessively aggressive manner, if you trample on people’s rights, don’t be surprised if people don’t want to join.

Finally, do you have any thoughts about what police could be doing to make women feel safer on the streets?

Part of the problem is the complexity of policing. We have a new priority by the week: it might be knife crime one week, and then cyber security, human trafficking, stop and search, county lines… whatever is out there in the public psyche falls into the lap of the police. So the police lurch from priority to priority without any chance to stabilize and actually set up a proper strategic framework.

Consider this alongside the fact that since 2010, 44,000 police officers and staff have been cut and 600 police stations have been closed, alongside other vital public services like women’s refuges.

Safeguarding units dealing with domestic violence face one of the most pressurized and difficult jobs in policing at the moment. There is an absolute avalanche of caseloads coming in, and the enormity of the challenge is causing stress and burnout. One of the most acute areas of police sickness and premature resignations is safeguarding units. By its nature it’s very specialist, meaning there are simply not enough people to cope with the enormity of referrals. More resources are needed.

Things you can do

Follow Owen on Twitter for more insights: @PolicingCrowds

This Guilty Feminist discussion with Gracie Mae Bradley, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Patsy Stevenson and Mathilda Mallinson – hosted by Deborah Frances-White and Alison Spittle – looks at the likelihood of defeating or amending this bill.

You can join Liberty and help to fund their human rights campaigns for £1 per month.

Sign this petition to amend the bill and this one to remove the single-person protest clauses.

And finally WATCH THIS SPACE: a new #NoisyAndAnnoying campaign is coming soon and we’ll be all over it on social media. Follow us here.

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