Open letter on the policing of the student protests
I do not doubt that policing these demonstrations has been extremely challenging for the Metropolitan Police. Yet, I am sure you would agree that there are always lessons to be learnt and ways to improve the response in future.
Having listened to many people who were involved in the protests, as well as attending myself, I feel there are many areas that warrant thorough examination to understand what happened and why, that can inform planning and decision-making for future protests.
I have grouped my concerns, and those expressed to me by protesters, parents and observers, under broad headings below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but represents some of the main issues I have been made aware of.
As part of the scrutiny process, have the Met produced timelines for each protest, detailing what actions were taken, who by, and what they were in response to?
Use of kettling
It is vital to examine the decisions to kettle the crowd on the 24th November, 30th November and 9th December, as containment is a last resort tactic. What were the triggers that led to that action being taken on each occasion? Were all other options explored before kettling? Why was it seen as the solution? And, were attempts made to remove the violent element from the crowd before kettling?
On the 30th November, in anticipation of kettling, the protesters fragmented and pursued different routes around London. Can you confirm reports that relatively little damage, violence or arrests were recorded during this period, before the groups congregated in Trafalgar Square?
Duration of the kettle and the release strategy
Many protesters have complained about the length of time they were kept in the kettle, particularly given the freezing conditions, with those who had no hand in any violence detained for up to nine hours. On each occasion, was there an appropriate release strategy and were the strategies successful? Could they have been improved or better communicated?
Communication with protesters
I recognise that efforts were made to communicate with the crowd, in line with the recommendations emerging from the G20. Yet, it appears that during the containments protesters were not clear what was happening and whether they could leave. Further, many report that they did not know that there were toilets or water available. Could communications have been improved to ensure protesters knew what was happening and to try and keep them calm?
I witnessed an example of good practice on the 24th November when a message was passed down the police line that they needed to move forward to recover the damaged police van. The officers then explained to the protesters in front of them that they needed to move forward. This message disseminated and the crowd moved back allowing police to advance. In other situations, where police actions are not understood, they can be perceived as aggressive and cause panic and confusion.
Communication between management and officers
On the 9th December, protesters have reported that they were told they could leave Parliament Square on the other side by one officer, only to reach the other side and be told something completely different. The consequence seems to have been crowd surges and confusion as people tried to reach different parts of the Square. Officers told one protester that different teams were operating on different radio frequencies and were not able to contact each other. Further, one protester said that police officers he asked about the strategy had openly criticised the senior management saying there didn't seem to be a coherent plan.
What steps could be taken to improve the communication from senior commands to individual teams, and to ensure that officers within and across teams can communicate?
Use of police horses
Many comments I have received from protesters have been about the actions of the mounted police. The horses entering the crowds clearly terrified many protesters and it was not understood why they were used or what their objective was. It was also felt that there was inadequate warning of their use.
As I understand, horses going into a crowd can only be used when there is somewhere for the crowds to go. People did not feel this was the case in Parliament Square on the 9th December. Can you clarify the role of the mounted police in demonstrations and make sure they are being deployed into crowds only when absolutely necessary and for their intended purpose: to disperse a crowd that is able to escape?
Arrest and de-arrest during release
As people were released from the kettles they have reported being arrested, their details recorded, including video footage taken by Forward Intelligence Teams, and then dearrested.
What was the purpose of this action and what legal basis was there for arresting all protesters? Some officers mentioned that section 60 powers were invoked - was this correct?
The police van in the crowd on the 24th November
Many protesters feel that the police van being left in the middle of the road was incredibly unhelpful, and just provided an incentive to those wishing to cause damage. Will you investigate the circumstances that led to the van being left in that location?
Routes and duration of the protests
One of the problems of the 9th December was that different protest groups seemed ill-informed about the planned route, and there was confusion and frustration from different groups trying to join the march. Many believed they were not allowed to enter Parliament Square at all, when in fact one side of the Square was part of the agreed route. Who was the route agreed with in advance? And how was the message communicated to other groups?
When the protests ran over the agreed time this was cited as a reason why protesters were detained. Can you confirm what rules there are about protest lengths and, again, who these agreements were made with and communicated to?
I do hope that the above points will feed into the Met's review of the policing of the recent protests, and the answers will be shared.
Green Party Member of the London Assembly
Member of the Metropolitan Police Authority
cc Kit Malthouse, Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority