"Today is all about listening to you - we're not here to speak for the Met, nor to defend them," said Victoria Borwick, chair of the MPA's newly convened Civil Liberties Panel, opening this morning's public meeting. The scope of the meeting - an evidence gathering session on public order policing, and more specifically the G20 demonstrations in April - had been unclear to some. Many people had brought questions demanding immediate answers, but instead their concerns have been 'noted', with no clear idea if answers will be forthcoming.
It may seem late in the day for a data-gathering session on the policing of G20. Photos, video footage, eyewitness accounts and the Climate Camp Legal Report have been publically available for months. Hundreds of complaints have been submitted to the IPCC, although few have been considered. The HMIC and Select Committee on Human Rights have both compiled investigative reports. This morning, however, the human aspect of hearing personal testimonies felt significant. People spoke emotively and powerfully about their experiences. For many people, this meeting was their first chance to express their grievances publically to those with the authority to address them. The chair handled the flow of speakers well, and all the most significant points of concern were granted a hearing. Some members of the panel, even if they were already familiar with the issues, seemed surprised and affected by what they heard. While the lack of clear answers was frustrating, the opportunity for dialogue was nonetheless valuable.
Significantly, engagement and human points of contact were a theme of the morning's discussion. Some flagged up the breakdown of communication between police and protestors - sometimes, as with the Bishopsgate Climate Camp, despite the best efforts of activists. One speaker suggested text messages as a communication tool for police on the ground to maintain contact with police liaisons, and another pointed out that confiscating the loudspeaker used by the Bishopsgate camp prevented the protestors from discussion and making decisions amongst themselves. Police have a responsibility to respond to efforts from protestors to engage them in dialogue and to maintain that communication - as much to humanise the disagreements between both parties as for any resolutions that might be found.
Not only this, but we have the right to expect honest and trustworthy communication from the MPS, and not be subjected to the spin and lies which emerged through official channels in the wake of the G20. The Met Press Office should be flagged for review, given its inconsistences and inaccuracies both in recent statements regarding armed police patrols, and in the official reports following Ian Tomlinson's death.
Many of the grievances aired this morning demanded an immediate response. Ian Tomlinson's family believe they have not been fairly treated by the Met, and that there was a deliberate cover-up surrounding their father's death. The abuse of terrorism legislation, techniques of data-gathering and pre-emptive arrests were flagged as serious concerns. Many people brought up the issue of police ID and the apparent ease with which numerals are lost or obscured - after a frustrating non-reply from the chair about 'sub-standard velcro', both Dee Doocey and Jo McCartney said there was 'absolutely no excuse' for missing numerals, and on this point at least, improvement seems realistic. Other concerns raised included the conduct and deployment of TSG; the welfare of vulnerable or disabled people who have as much right as anyone to exercise their democratic right to protest; the misleading conflation of lawful with peaceful protest (unlawful civil disobedience can still be peaceful, and has been a necessary part of successful civil rights campaigns in the past); the rights of the press to access public demonstrations without hindrance or intimidation; and of course, the issue of whether kettling is justified in situations where the majority of protestors are not engaged in violent disorder.
But did this morning achieve anything more than a collective airing of grievances? The authority of the Civil Liberties Panel seems disappointingly limited. All this evidence will inform a report on public order policing to be released at the end of this year. The Panel seems largely sympathetic to the experiences of protestors, but the whole MPA has to approve its recommendations. Even the MPA are not involved with day-to-day or disciplinary policing issues, and can only advise on the overall framework of policy. Once made, it is unclear what power the MPA has to enforce its recommendations. Implementing change is a slow and frustrating process, steeped in bureaucracy, each stage of representation more distanced than the last.
The next stage is the full report from the HMIC, whose interim report earlier this month at least displayed a willingness to confront the issues. I doubt that many of the questions raised today will receive satisfactory answers. Preoccupied with improvements for the future, the Panel may not hold the Met accountable for past mistakes.
However, focussing on improvement is a good start. Police training was repeatedly raised as a key area for reform, a process that should be aided by continuing dialogue with activists. 'Soft skills' of negotiation and conflict resolution are needed to balance out the reactive nature of current police briefings, which focus counter-productively on worst-case scenarios. By training recruits to engage with protest in a more human and flexible way, the MPA may be able to successfully challenge the testosterone-fuelled culture of aggression prevalent in certain parts of the force.
Disappointing as it is not to receive satisfactory answers to our questions, I can see the sense in an approach founded on encouraging slow cultural change. The problems that led to the poor policing of recent protests were not one-off errors, but systemic issues which need to be addressed at root. We may not see improvement fast, but as it comes, we can hope it will be here to stay.