Today (or yesterday, as it's now gone midnight) Denny and I attended the MPA meeting to discuss policing of the G20 protests. Jennette Arnold (Denny's London Assembly Member) had advised us to get there at 9am to be sure of a seat, as she predicted it would be packed. We were some of the first to arrive, and even though half of the activists arrived late, by the time the meeting was underway less than half the gallery seats were occupied.
Sir Paul Stephenson wasn't present; he was recovering from surgery for appendicitis. Deputy Commissioner Tim Godwin and Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison were present in his place. Both are both filling their posts temporarily; there seems to be a disruptively high rate of turnover among top brass at the Met right now.
We'd bumped into Boris Johnson while enjoying a council-subsidised bargain English Breakfast in the cafe downstairs before the meeting. He looked like he'd been up all night drinking, but he brushed up well enough and opened the meeting as Chair, opening with two grave condolencences about police officers killed in the line of duty (not in the G20). After some remarks about their bravery and "ultimate sacrifice" which left me feeling like their deaths were being (rather transparently) exploited to set a pro-police tone, he thanked the departing Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick for his hard work and welcomed his successor, before moving on to his first substantive remarks: as far as Boris is concerned, the majority of police officers in London are professional and responsible. This prompted the first heckle from the audience, a cry of "Bollocks!"
The temporary Met Chiefs were, unsurprisingly, also apologists for the police, but with an added layer of cautious defensiveness which Boris's blustering lacked. While neatly dodging any actual personal culpability, Godwin and Allison carefully fielded criticisms and admitted that there were "lessons to be learned".
Jenny Jones made a point of ensuring that a full transcript would be available of the meeting (Boris' snide remark that she could, if she wanted, watch the webcast over and over again notwithstanding). We'll link to the transcript when it becomes available, but until then here are some of the highlights which caught our attention through the course of the meeting.
- Tim Godwin announced the resignation of PC Hayter of the Royal protection unit (who apparently wrote online "I see my lot have murdered someone again. Oh well, shit happens"). Godwin announced that "the use of excessive force will not be tolerated" before repeating Boris' assertion that the Met performed well in difficult circumstances. This was all a bit defensive, leaning on the fact that the G20 was the most difficult operation the Met had had to face in years, and they only had three months to prepare it. Godwin was also the first person to trot out the line about Britain's policing being better than all those foreign countries, which Jenny Jones quite rightly challenged him on; she diplomatically suggested that such comparisons are counterproductive, as the Met should be held to a "unique standard of excellence".
- Caroline Pidgeon raised the issue of the police using terrorism legislation to harass photographers, confiscating cameras or forcing them to delete photos. Godwin responded with outright denial, claiming that this simply does not happen, and that "there will be no use of that power unless there is a direct link to terrorism and there is evidence to support that." When pressed, he stated outright that it was legal to photograph police officers - a useful confirmation from the Deputy Commissioner. However, he then tried to claim that officers were only ever asking questions, since being nosy is part of any beat copper's role - which seems more than a little disingenous when there is a large body of evidence proving him wrong. (I'm tempted to forward this to Ms Pidgeon in case she hasn't seen it.)
- Next, new campaign body Defend Peaceful Protest took the floor. Andy May asked his questions with impressive professionalism, appearing more calm and collected than several of the Members. The answers to his questions were not wholly satisfactory; the Temp Commissioners mostly said that these issues were under review and they couldn't answer detailled questions while the investigation was pending. Mr May didn't push this as far as he could have, but he made a point of demanding that the policy concerning ID badges was adhered to in future. Allison was conciliatory on this point, and said that he had recently been personally enforcing this at the Tamil demonstrations. Andy May also obtained an assurance from the Commissioners that the HMIC would consult with his and other protest groups as part of their investigation.
- ID badges were a point of much discussion. The official line from Godwin and Allison was that officers should not cover up their numerals, there is no policy to obscure ID; and anyway, they didn't believe more than a handful of officers actually did, claiming that most of the photos arise because the rank epaulettes cover up the numerals. And also sometimes they fall off. (Uh huh. And balaclavas just sort of spontaneously hug their faces.)1
- Dee Doocey pointed out that it may very well be against regulations, but the policing of the hunting ban demonstration in 2004 flagged exactly this issue, and still has not been effectively addressed. She forcefully stated that it should not be repeated; the Commissioners took the point gracefully, but without accepting they'd done anything wrong there was little more to be got out of them.
- Joanne McCartney, my London Assembly Member (who first told me about this meeting), said that many of her constituents were asked for their name/address - and to display ID - by police on their way into the demo on April 1. Again, Chris Allison denied that this took place (he used the phrase "I would be very surprised if..." a lot), and dismissed her claims as normal stop-and-question nosiness rather than anything sinister. I don't think McCartney was any more convinced than I was.
- This segued into the juicy topic of kettling - or "containment and controlled dispersal", an official phrase that drew no small amount of jeering from the peanut gallery. The attitude from the Met was, again, defensive; they attempted to justify the decisions that had been made, but accepted the need for review (without ever explicitly admitting they'd done anything wrong).
- Kit Malthouse, Vice-Chairman of the MPA and aspiring to be the next Tory Mayor, asked what the "trigger point" was that resulted in the Bank of England protest being kettled, and how that demonstration differed from the one at Trafalgar Square, which went off peacefully. Allison replied that originally the cordon was simply to delineate the area of the protest, but that it became "impermeable" after protesters allegedly assaulted a section of the police line, throwing coins and - apparently - a flare. The audience erupted with indignation at this claim. The heckling got so agitated that Boris, looking for all the world like a hassled public school teacher, threatened to suspend the meeting if there was one more outburst. After that the objectors (mostly) contented themselves with murmurs and holding up their briefing sheets with "LIES" scribbled in green felt tip on the back.
- Chris Allison reported that the Bishopsgate cordon was opened at various times in various areas - however, he failed to mention that this was never communicated to the public, most of whom remained unaware of it. He also claimed that toilets and water were put inside the cordon, but again, these were clearly either insufficient, or insufficiently publicised.
- Chris Boothman, who apparently had a distressing experience when the Notting Hill Carnival was kettled, argued that kettling is not effective in terms of crowd psychology: it raises the tension level and exacerbates a difficult situation. Allison's response was somewhat hedgy. First he claimed that Notting Hill Carnival was only cordoned at one end, not actually contained, and then said that in his experience containment, while unpleasant, is effective at reducing the overall level of violence on the day, particularly in comparison with the dispersal techniques favoured previously (Boris all the while nodding sagely).
- I was impressed by Clive Lawton's comment in response to this: the success of policing is not just measured in violence on the day, but also by the longterm effects in terms of public confidence in the police; all that anger has to go somewhere, and even if people cannot act on the day tensions will be increased in the long term. Clive was clearly an old hand as a protester; I admit I was surprised and impressed by how many Members were activists past or present.
- Overall, the temporary commissioners sought to deflect responsibility away from policy and tactics, and onto individual "out of control" officers. The policy and briefing of inspectors were presented as a proportionate response to difficult circumstances, and any "rogue elements" were clearly not following orders and would be disciplined. Chris Allison was heavily involved with strategy during the G20; I didn't read him as the Man Behind The Big Red Button, but rather than an official cover-up there appears to be a strong "don't ask, don't tell" culture in the Met. The virtuous official briefing allows them to present an earnest face to the world; the Met can distance themselves from the misconduct of individual officers.
- Talking about "intrusive supervision", Allison stated that "supervisors are responsible for stopping and/or reporting misconduct." At this point Jenny Jones asked how many reports of misconduct had been filed so far? Allison couldn't tell her. Why, she asked, was that number not publically available? If, for instance, the IPCC is investigating over 256 complaints of misconduct but no reports are forthcoming from unit leaders, does that not tell us something significant? She managed to extract an assurance that the number of internal reports of misconduct would be released (to the MPA if not the public) and also demanded access to the briefing sent out to units before the day. I suspect, however, that the paperwork will all be above board, whatever the reality looked like on the ground.2
- Ms Jones also managed to get them to agree to publicise the official report on Operation Glencoe; both the initial draft in June and the final report in September, except where silence is legally required by court re any pending investigations.
- The Met seem to have a definition of violence which includes vandalism, by contrast to the public understanding of the word (violence against a person). Thus protesters can be said to "initiate violence" without actually hurting anyone, and an aggressive police response can be "justified and proportionate" even if they're the first ones to start hitting people. For instance, the crowd at Climate Camp was claimed to be violent on the grounds that they vandalised a police van. Allison said he had seen the footage of Climate Camp and still believed the police response to have been proportionate.
- Allison's statement on the G20 made much of communication between demonstrators and police. This did not take place before or during Climate Camp because, he heavily implied, the Campers were disorganised and lacked a chief steward. In fact (and as Jenny Jones pointed out in her article this morning) Climate Camp struggled to liaise with the police because their repeated overtures were ignored. The Camp explicitly appointed Police Liaison officers who were present during the demonstration (they compiled the Legal Report, in fact); the lack of communication on the day was because police stopping liaising with them.
- Jenny Jones persisted admirably with awkward questions about Climate Camp, but Chris Allison had a story lined up in defence of the Met's actions. It goes like this: violent elements from Bank of England ("2-300 disorderly protestors") had moved to Climate Camp in the early evening, and the police followed to suppress them.3 Since the Climate Camp was an unlawful protest which blocked a major highway and disrupted the lawful business of Londoners, the police had a duty to clear it. The fallacy about needing more communication with the Campers was trotted out again at this point. This prompted the impromptu LIES placards to be brought out again; and Jenny Jones wrote this morning, "The camp was run by the fluffies and hippies who tried to arrange meetings with the police ahead of the demonstration. They were very clear about their peaceful aims and constantly liaising with the police over practical arrangements like food and toilets."
- Despite this rather unconvincing account of themselves, the Met accepted that reviews should and will be held. Three investigations of Operation Glencoe are pending; two from the IPCC and DPS (Director of Professional Standards) about individual incidents on the day, investigating specific complaints from protestors. The third and most oft-quoted in this meeting is by the HMIC, and is a strategic review on the use/misuse of tactics, protest policing and crowd control.3
- Interesting point from Tim Godwin in response to a distinction raised by Clive Lawton: "As a service, we need to think about the difference between peaceful protest and lawful protest." Protesters believe that if they are peaceful and only offer passive resistance, then the police response should not and will not be aggressive; the Met, on the other hand, appear to consider police aggression a proportionate response to non-violent but unlawful demonstration and public disturbance. This is hugely important: open consultation between police and public on this could make a massive difference to the future policing of protests.
- I would love to see a public consultation on police responses to different types of public behaviour, offering transparency and consistency of information. In an ideal world, this would be openly negotiated with the public, so that anyone going to a protest knows exactly what level of policing they're signing up for, and the police can be held to account if they overstep this bargain. (Something to campaign for?)
- Jennette Arnold raised the topic of CCTV, asking what it was useful for if not identifying incidents of police misconduct. Chris Allison argued that there was too much data to analyse for CCTV to be useful in preventing crime. He, he said, was in the control room and saw the live footage of police medics attending Ian Tomlinson, but had not seen police have any contact with him before that. Despite this, surely CCTV tapes should be used in investigation allegations of misconduct (ideally by a separate team to the one scouring the footage for violent protestors; at the moment this is done by the City of London police).
- Chris Boothman and Reshard Auladin both called for a review of TSG; its training, its culture and its deployment. The Commissioners again went immediately on the defensive, saying what a difficult and stressful job it was, how courageous its highly trained officers were under pressure, etc. A statement from Allison that the police need to support TSG was cleverly turned around by the Members to a commitment to working with TSG to make sure they don't become battle-hardened and desensitised to violence. There was talk of distributing the squads among the boroughs to re-engage them with people in normal, non-confrontational situations.
- Joanna McCartney took Boris Johnson to task on the inconsistency between the comments he made deploring the "media hype" in the build up to the G20, claiming that it had exacerbated things by "talking up" the risk of violence, and his own article in the Telegraph published just before the G20. In this incisive piece of political journalism he claimed that protesters would "surge like the Orcs of Mordor in the general direction of the Bank of England. They will taunt the police, they will paralyse traffic, they will do their utmost to spoil your day." McCartney pointed out that this was exactly the sort of media hype he had publically condemned, and asked that he account for himself. Boris blustered a lot (he does that so well), claimed his comments were appropriate and that everything he said was proved justified by events. When informed that he hadn't answered the question, he claimed that her "literary analysis" had missed the subtle humour of his satire, that his intention was to ridicule the protestors in the hope that, so shamed, none of them would bother turning up on the day. (Yeah, Boris, you might have had a Cambridge degree's worth of practice making shit up on the spot, but you're Chair of the MPA now, this isn't Have I Got News For You.)
- Toby Harris raised the issue of police medics, citing the now infamous photograph4; he asked the Commissioners to define what their role was precisely. Allison replied that they are trained medics, attached to a police unit but not part of that unit; they are deployed at the rear of the lines, and are specifically not used as part of crowd control. Their role is administering aid, in the "golden ten minutes" before paramedics can arrive, to police officers or members of the public that have been injured." ("Not least by them," quipped Boris). Are they meant to carry batons, Reshard Auladin pressed; are they meant to join in the fray? The official line is that they're not used for manouvers such as clearing an area; however they're allowed to support the unit they're part of and defend it under attack if necessary, and they can be issued with defensive equipment such as shields. None of the Members picked up on the blatant contradiction here between Allison's initial statement that they aren't part of a unit, and his later statement that they are, but the "if under attack" clause seems to be all the justification the Met feel they need.
Tim Godwin and Chris Allison accepted responsibility in vague terms for events, while denying any specific culpability, and persistently washed their hands of the actions of "individuals". They couldn't give detailed answers on the subjects of any pending investigations. But they were also reasonably conciliatory, and accepted the need for a review of police strategy, to "learn lessons for the future".
Jenny Jones, Dee Doocey, Caroline Pidgeon, Chris Boothman, Valerie Brasse, Reshard Auladin, Toby Harris, Clive Lawton all impressed me with their clear-sightedness and integrity. Joanne McCartney, Jennette Arnold and Kristen Hearn were all very sympathetic and made points I agreed with, but were (I felt) slightly less practised politicians and less incisive under pressure. Still, I smiled when McCartney mentioned the concern of her constituents (that's me, that is!) and I feel better represented than I did before this morning. John Biggs, the Labour Whip, seemed basically sound despite some political posturing. Kit Malthouse was the smoothest diplomat in the room, but nonetheless listened to the others' concerns and proposed the Amendment which was passed by consensus. I am very glad that these people are on the overseeing committee for the Met; whether they're dispassionately ethical like Valerie Brasse or passionately invested like Jenny Jones, I trust that they will try to do the right thing.
After the Met Commissioners defensively refusing to confront the truth or accept culpability, and Boris self-righteously siding with them, a fog seemed to clear from everyone's heads as Dee Doocey stood up and proposed a motion stating that "the strategy and tactics adopted by the Metropolitan Police were fundamentally wrong". After so much bluster and jargon it was refreshing to see that none of the Members had been convinced either. Joanne McCartney proposed a second motion, to set up a body within the MPA to investigate these and ongoing issues. Kit Malthouse neatly combined the two by suggesting an amendment in which the Civil Liberties Panel, proposed three months ago in a "prescient" MPA meeting, address these concerns; it was passed unanimously.
I would be interested to discover why this Civil Liberties Panel was proposed in February, how its members will be chosen, and what powers it will have. However, I'm cautiously optimistic that if the Members of the MPA have anything to do with it, the investigation will be sympathetic and conscientious.
However unstable the Met may be at present, the MPA seem to be a more solid body to place some trust in - judging by today's meeting at least.
Other posts about the MPA meeting:
Sketch: Boris takes on the hecklers - Alex Stevenson, 30 Apr 2009.
Boris establishes G20 civil liberty review - Ian Dunt, 30 Apr 2009
G20 policing: today at the MPA - Dave Hill, 30 April 2009
Boris Johnson threatens to halt G20 policing meeting as protesters heckle officers - The Guardian, 30 April 2009
Change is coming to London's police - Jenny Jones, April 30 2009
G20 protests: Met police accused of misleading watchdog - The Guardian, 1 May 2009
The Met must stop spinning its actions - by Guy Aitchison and Andy May, May 1 2009
Me Watchdog criticises G20 tactics -Anna Bragga, 1 May 2009
Mordor versus the Met - Guy Aitchison, May 1 2009
1. It is true that many of the photos show a mixture of identifiable and non-identifiable officers, and the ones with their badges removed tend to be the ones with their faces covered.
2. Are we remembering correctly that one of the videos of Tomlinson shows the officer who pushed him talking to his supervisor afterwards? If so, that would suggest that there should be a corresponding report...
3. Jenny called him on the fact that the report given at the informal briefing last week claimed that the cordon was originally established to keep these violent elements out of the camp; now they were claiming that the violent protesters were already inside the camp, which is why it was kettled. Allison blankly stated that today's version was the true one. One can't help wondering how many more times it's going to change.
4. This is the one Andy May referred to when he insisted on the review taking evidence from protesters, and involving protest groups in discussions going forward.
5. He didn't mention the equally disturbing video, showing a police medic wearing a green shoulder patch hitting protesters at 2:09 onwards.