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The dangers of kettling: a retired London policeman speaks out

Brian Woollard, a former officer in London's Metropolitan Police, expresses his alarm at the 'kettling' of demonstrations and insists that protest needs consent and dialogue.
Brian Woollard
11 January 2011

The nature of policing in the United Kingdom is by public consent, and so it should be in any democracy. Police officers do not carry firearms, except in exceptional circumstances and by officers who are trained to use them and are required to follow a strict code of conduct. Uniform police officers assigned to crowd control duties during legitimate public demonstrations have truncheons for protection, which they are only permitted to use in exceptional circumstances.

Unfortunately these demonstrations are sometimes used as cover by extreme elements with hidden agendas, who are prepared to use violent tactics against the police and attack properties to cause wanton damage. They hijack peaceful demonstrations, injure police officers (sometimes seriously) and have a complete disregard for the law abiding demonstrators, who often get sucked into the conflict because the police are obliged to take firm action against the unruly elements, and otherwise law abiding demonstrators can suffer the consequences as the police strive to maintain public order. Quite often police receive some form of prior intelligence about those with malicious intent determined to cause mayhem during an otherwise peaceful demonstration and thus crowd control tactics adopted in advance by the police in readiness for disorder are in place to deal with worse case scenarios. 

"Kettling" - the detention of crowds of demonstrators in an area cordoned off by police - appears to be one of these tactics, but unfortunately the majority of those who suffer the consequences of this method of crowd control are the legitimate lawful demonstrators and herein lies what may be construed as a threat to the democratic right to protest. Fear of being caught 'between the devil and the deep blue sea' may deter all but the most bullish of demonstrators, because of the perception that police crowd control tactics have become inhumane and the police are indifferent to the suffering they are causing. Thus the image of policing by consent is gradually transformed to that of a 'police state', prepared to function as the draconian arm of a form of dictatorship masquerading as a democracy.

Disruptive conduct inevitably leads to casualties among both police and demonstrators, which are counterproductive, because in these situations of heightened emotions even those within the otherwise law-abiding demonstrators and officers policing the event can lose control. Police officers do not like seeing their colleagues attacked when trying to do their job and are very protective in such situations and are aware when they go out to police demonstrations that there are likely to be organised thuggish elements within these demonstrations whose objective is to sway 'the crowd mind' by their violent methods in attacking both police officers and buildings. 

Many politically motivated riots, such as those during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, were designed with publicity in mind and the more destructive the better the publicity. The intention too was to cause an overreaction by the authorities leading to the argument that the community was living in a police state. Revolution groups abroad have thrived on situations where the police lose control and the military are brought in to restore order, leading to the accusation that a state was no longer a democracy but had disintegrated into a dictatorship, thus justifying the aims of the armed struggle to overthrow the dictatorship. The more repressive the response of the state, the greater the justification of those seeking to achieve their objectives through other than democratic means.

Government ministers need to understand that they are involved in what are seen by many to be draconian and punitive methods of getting the economy back on track, which are leading to high levels of unemployment and punishing the poor educationally through policies instigated by millionaires who have never experienced the deprivation suffered by swathes of those they now govern. Professing a caring attitude while pursuing policies which can cause considerable suffering projects a public image of abject hyprocracy dressed up in financial double speak. In this situation the police are 'the piggy in the middle' and once again, if "kettling"  is to become the order of the day, may be seen as the ‘fascist pigs' of yesteryear reborn with a vengeance. 

If all Members of Parliament were to don the uniforms of police officers for just one day on crowd control duties at a mass demonstrations at which there is disorder and their duty is to protect the Houses of Parliament, I feel it would bring about a sea change in attitudes both with regard to the nature of such police work, and that of the plight of those who have a legitimate grievance which they feel the need to openly ventilate to draw attention to their predicament. Kettling is for cattle, but would probably result in prosecutions by the RSPCA if that were to occur. Health and safety goes right out of the window. There is a need to safeguard the democratic right to protest and modify police methods of crowd control with a deeper knowledge of the difficulties which the police face when even a minority of those among the protesters decide to take the law into their own hands.

For these reasons, dialogue between the police, academics, student leaders, community leaders and government ministers must set out parameters which all will understand who have responsibility for the groups participating the demonstrations, and embrace knowledge of the responsibilities which the police must bear in curtailing public disorder, particularly in the immediate areas around the Houses of Parliament when Parliament is sitting. 

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