On the morning of 5 November the new MPA Civil Liberties Panel, which met for the first time in June to confirm its membership and terms of reference, will meet again to review the policing of the G20 protests. The meeting is open to the public, and the panel have invited questions and submissions from concerned groups and individuals - particularly those who were at the protests on 1 or 2 April.
Comments, submissions received and points raised in discussion will be used to inform the report of the Civil Liberties Panel to the Metropolitan Police in the New Year. The report will be widely circulated within the Metropolitan Police Service, the Mayor's office, HMIC and other bodies concerned with civil liberties.
So far, so good. But how much authority will this panel actually have? The lack of accountability demonstrated by the Met so far is deeply concerning, and pressure must be put on the Panel - and the MPA - if it is to produce anything other than good intentions and earnest speeches.
Andrew May of Defend Peaceful Protest has already described the mixed police response to protest since the G20. An aggressive PR campaign surrounded the policing of July's Climate Camp at Blackheath, with the Met keen to portray themselves in a positive light. Fortunately, we have not seen a repeat of the excessive violence used against protestors at the G20 and previous demonstrations. But what about justice for events that cannot be undone?
The key issue in the wake of the G20 is accountability. Of the 276 complaints made to the IPCC, very few cases have been investigated or upheld. The IPCC has instructed the MPS to discount any complaints where the officer in question cannot be identified. This is enormously problematic: in what appeared to be a deliberate and calculated effort, hundreds of officers removed their identifying numerals during the policing of G20. This alone constitutes grounds for complaint - Paul Stephenson has called it "completely unacceptable" for police on duty not to wear their numerals - but it also allows the IPCC to dismiss any allegations of excessive force made against officers who removed their ID. Any police inclined to use disproportionate force in a public order situation is thereby given a "get out of jail free" card. Technically their ranking officer should report them; it would be interesting to know how many reports of this nature have been made through official channels.
This is bad enough, but it gets worse. In only accepting complaints against individual, identified officers, the Met limits its accountability to the lowest ranks. Only individual officers can be charged - cases cannot be upheld against Bronze, Silver or Gold Commanders, or the Commissioners themselves, for the strategies which led to countless street-level officers using excessive force against protestors. When it seems to be force-wide policy to use violence, containment, intrusive surveillance, and anti-terrorism legislation to deter and intimidate peaceful protestors, this model for complaints is obviously flawed. Such tactics have become ubiquitous in the UK: the issue is clearly one of national strategy rather than a few rogue officers. And if, as happened at the G20, large numbers of police remove their numerals, how can they or their commanders be held accountable?
Even with the constraints imposed by the IPCC on what constitutes a viable complaint, very few of the accepted complaints have been resolved. Only one individual officer has been charged with misconduct at the G20; in relation to the assault on Nicola Fisher on 2 April outside Bank. (Significantly, PR specialist Max Clifford was handling her case; those pursuing a complaint without his assistance have been universally less successful.)
Transparency is also an issue. The current status of ongoing complaint investigations is not publically available. The IPCC initiated an investigation into apparent media spin by the MPS in the aftermath of Ian Tomlinson's death - a misleading and offensive portrayal of events which was picked up by the BBC and other major news outlets - but no reports have been issued on its progress. Worse, there has been no report to date on whether the officer involved in the death of Ian Tomlinson will face criminal charges, or even an official reprimand.
A month ago the IPCC announced that it will stand by its decision not to recommend disciplinary actions against the MPS officers involved in the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in July 2005. This sets a deeply worrying precedent. As Random Blowe summarised,
A criminal trial found that the Metropolitan police were guilty of endangering the public and an inquest jury, denied the opportunity to reach a verdict that Jean was unlawfully killed, refused to accept the version of events presented by the Met. Thousands of people have now expressed their disquiet and concern about the way that Jean died directly to his family.
But no-one, not the Crown Prosecution Service or the Independent Police Complaints Commission or the thoroughly pointless Metropolitan Police Authority, has ever held a single officer to account.
Will the investigation into Ian Tomlinson's death conclude so unsatisfactorily, four years from now? Or will the Civil Liberties Panel - and the ongoing media spotlight - have any power to affect the outcome?
The high number of complaints made against police over the G20 operation stands in stark relief to the number of charges made against protestors. Despite claims by police that the use of containment and force were justified in response to 'violent elements' among the demonstrators, only 27 people face prosecution for offences during the G20. Of these, 11 have been charged for 'impersonating a police officer' during the April Fool action by the 'Space Hijackers', who parked outside Bishopgate in what appeared to be an obsolete armoured car. Given that they were wearing fancy dress rather than realistic police uniform, and that no threat of violence or any unlawful action came from them, these charges seem questionable at best.
Overall, the MPS has so far failed to prove that its actions during G20 were proportionate or justified, as Chris Allison repeatedly claimed at the April MPA meeting. The two main reports issued to date - by the HMIC and by the Home Affairs Select Committee - are both unsatisfactory. The latter leaned on 'untrained officers' as the cause of the problem; unlikely given that the most high profile complaints made after G20 were against officers in the TSG, the most rigorously trained public order unit in the UK. The Select Committee also failed to adequately address the questions of strategy and senior decision making. We still do not know who, for instance, decided to pull riot police out of the Bank protest and send them to clear Climate Camp out of Bishopsgate, with no respect for the safety or personal property of the peaceful protestors there.
For the Civil Liberties Panel to have any meaning, its review of the G20 policing should address the following issues:
- Communication from the MPS, before and after protests, should be clear and transparent without resorting to spin. Chris Allison's track record as police's spin doctor in chief doesn't look great, having changed his story several times on various issues - even in an MPA meeting and in the face of his own written statements. The official story from the Met in the immediate aftermath of G20 was inconsistent, and much of it was later disproved. What improvements can we expect to see here? The MPS and the investigative reports have repeatedly stated that 'communication is key' since G20, but it was police that broke contact with Climate Camp liaisons on the day. How do they reconcile these two facts?
- The TSG seem to be implicated repeatedly in complaints and related issues, but any requests for information on relative numbers of complaints against the unit and its members are stonewalled. Moreover, the proportion of complaints involving TSG officers belies the claim that one of the problems with the G20 policing was untrained officers. Could the Panel look into this matter in more detail, and decide if there is a problem with the TSG's record, and if so, what scale of problem?
- What assurance can the MPS give us that they will hold their own officers responsible for their behaviour during the G20, rather than relying solely on complaints from protestors? Video evidence demonstrates that many police deliberately concealed their numerals or faces: each of these individuals should be accountable to their commanding officer. If no internal reports along these lines are submitted, can the MPA put pressure on the Met to ensure that chain-of-command accountability is upheld?
- What can be done to hold senior officers responsible when an operation gets out of hand in the way that G20 Bishopsgate did? The individual officers on the ground, while individually culpable for their excesses, are still moving according to the instructions of their commanders. If they hadn't been ordered to clear the street on short notice, there would have been far less opportunity for chaos and confrontations. The restrained policing of the July Climate Camp demonstrates that the Met are perfectly capable of proportional public order policing when they want to be. Their turn-around since the G20 highlights the fact that the MPS are responsible for their actions and capable of implementing effective policy change. Rather than brushing the poor decisions of the G20 under the carpet, will the senior officers and strategists who developed Operation Glencoe be held accountable for its consequences?
This article was written before the first meeting of the Civil Liberties Panel. You can read our account of the meeting here.