Disruption policing: surveillance and the right to protest

From overt, intrusive surveillance to 'network demolition': disruption is central to the strategies of intelligence-led policing. Deployed within the policing of protest, it poses a grave threat to the exercise of dissent.

Val Swain
8 August 2013

Modern intelligence-led policing is a fully-fledged business model that collects large volumes of data from various sources, and carries out sophisticated network analysis. It creates personal profiles, maps networks, associations and connections, and predicts how individuals and groups will act. This does not aim merely to detect, investigate and prosecute offences, but to prevent unwanted events and activities from occurring in the first place. Disruption and deterrence sit at the heart of 'intelligence-led' policing.

A crime-prevention strategy based on surveillance, disruption and network demolition may be justified when used against serious crime and organised syndicates. But the same approach towards protest groups and political dissenters – including those which break the law – raises questions that are much less straightforward. While ostensibly acting against criminality, intelligence-led policing of protest has the potential to disrupt and deter the act of protest itself.

An intelligence-led 'control strategy'

The standard for police intelligence gathering in the UK was set out in the National Intelligence Model (NIM) in 2000. A co-ordinated strategy on the collection, analysis and use of intelligence, the NIM was produced by the National Criminal Intelligence Service, a home office policing body now subsumed within the Serious Organised Crime Agency. It identifies a "control strategy" in which resources are allocated for intelligence, prevention and enforcement, whilst "disruption" and "network demolition" are emphasised.

The NIM details the use of personal profiles to “provide a detailed picture of the (potential) offender and his associates for subsequent action”. This will include “habits, lifestyle, modus operandi, addresses, places frequented, family-tree chart, photographs, risk to public, ability to protect him/herself, and related information.” The clear reference to potential offenders reveals the wide scope for which personal profiles can be used.

Information making up this profile can be obtained from a variety of sources, some overt (such as the use of police photographers and Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) on protests) and some covert, such as the use of undercover police officers and informants. Added to that is a wide range of technological surveillance methods, such as the monitoring of websites, social media and communications data.

It is important to note that many of these strategies operate with little oversight and regulation, and the lack of emphasis on prosecution often means there is also no scrutiny by courts and the wider criminal justice system.

The police gaze

Overt surveillance has become normalised at political protest, as highlighted by campaign groups such as FITwatch. The techniques used by Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) are highly visible and invasive. Participants in protest are noticeably photographed, often at close range, and individuals identified as being ‘of interest’ may even be followed, ‘accompanied’ by uniformed officers. The tactic is defended as being effective in deterring 'criminal activity'. But FIT surveillance of those who have committed no criminal acts often deters protest itself. As academics Innes and Sheptycki identify, a 'disruption policing' strategy can include the deliberate use of obvious and invasive overt surveillance.

This "chilling effect" of surveillance on protest was recognised by Lord Collins in the Court of Appeal, hearing a case brought by Andrew Wood in 2009. Wood had been subjected to close-up photography by Metropolitan police FIT after leaving a meeting he had attended as an employee of Campaign Against the Arms Trade. As well as taking his picture, the uniformed officers followed him as he made his way home and tried to find out his identity. The surveillance was triggered by the fact Wood had briefly spoken to a woman who was an existing target of FIT surveillance. There was no suspicion he had done anything unlawful.

In this, and a later case brought by John Catt, the courts said that police actions had been disproportionate and ordered the data relating to those individuals to be deleted. But the overarching policy for retaining vast quantities of personal data remains unaffected, highlighting the centrality of personal profiles to 'disruption policing' strategies.

Forward Intelligence Teams were fiercely criticised by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in the aftermath of the 2009 G20 protests in London, and as a result the role has been restructured. This has given birth to a new public order role, one which looks likely to provoke equal controversy: Police Liaison Officers (PLOs).

A friendly chat?

The role of PLOs is ostensibly one of facilitating protest and improving communication, two objectives that are hard to criticise. PLOs claim that they act to ensure appropriate and proportionate policing, and are adamant that, unlike FIT, their ‘primary role’ is not intelligence gathering. In their distinctive baby-blue jackets, they have become a familiar presence at protests, and the role has been expanded to numerous forces across the country.

PLOs have not been consistently welcomed, however. A number of protest and legal support groups, including Netpol, have accused the police of being less than honest in the way that PLOs are used. They suggest that PLOs are exploiting the trust and dialogue they build up with protesters to extract information and intelligence, and exert an excessive level of control over protest events.

PLOs were used as part of a police operation against 182 cyclists participating in a critical mass bike ride in July 2012 during the London Olympics. In what was a clear demonstration of disruption policing, all of the cyclists were stopped, detained and ultimately arrested for breaching police-imposed conditions.

In a subsequent court case that was brought against only nine of the original 182, the role of PLOs in laying the groundwork for this operation became clear. Police Liaison Officers had attended previous Critical Mass processions in plain clothes to identify peer group influencers (critical mass has no formal ‘organisers’); they prepared for the Critical Mass by reading relevant websites and discussion forums; gathered ‘information’ about specific individuals; reviewed video footage in order to identify individuals they had interacted with; and they supported public order commanders in enforcing the disruption strategy that was used.

Interestingly the criteria for selecting the nine people to face prosecution were never made clear, although it did not appear to relate to the strength of the individual prosecution cases. There was suspicion, although it remains unproven, that the decision may have included a consideration of the disruptive impact the prosecution of ‘key individuals’ may have had on other protest and political networks.

Maintaining order - disrupting dissent

The disruption effect of overt surveillance and intelligence gathering is compounded when combined with other public order strategies such as kettling (containment) and stop and search.

Stop and search powers have been routinely misused to create disruption and obtain protester data over many years. Although there is no stop and search power that allows police to demand a name and address, they routinely insist that personal details are given, sometimes under threat of arrest. The intelligence value of such stop and search data is immense, as it provides police with a snap-shot of who was present at a set place and time.

The Climate Camp held in Kent in 2008 is a classic example of the use of stop and search as both disruption and intelligence gathering – indeed in police feedback published after the protest, Forward Intelligence Teams were commended for the ‘good intelligence and disruption’ achieved.

Police set up airport-style stop and search areas, denying access to the camp to anyone who had not been searched. At certain times people waited hours to be searched, and it is not known how many simply gave up and left. Local people in particular were deterred from engaging with the camp by both the queues and the excessive police presence. Police carried out a total of 8,218 searches (many of which were subsequently found to be unlawful), and established a specialist unit to extract and collate intelligence – names and addresses – from search documentation. Information extracted was entered on the Kent Police stop and search database.

There seems to be little will in police and government circles to critically examine the over-extension of police powers to obtain personal details. While stop and search more generally was criticised in a recent report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) intelligence was addressed only as a ‘valuable by-product’ of stop and search, which police forces should do more to retain and analyse.

Police kettles, used to detain groups of protesters to prevent a breach of the peace, also tick the boxes of being an effective form of disruption, as well as a plentiful source of protest intelligence. Larger groups have been detained in kettles for up to eight hours, often in dreadful and even dangerous conditions. The containment of smaller groups for shorter periods (typically 1-3 hours) is commonplace, and tends to result in bringing protest to an end. While the European Court of Human Rights has held that kettles should not be used to ‘directly or indirectly stifle or discourage protest’ where there is no serious risk to disorder, this is not the experience of many protesters.

The UN Special Rapporteur, in reporting on the policing of protest in the UK, condemned kettling for its ‘powerful chilling effect’ on the exercise of freedom of assembly. He also declared his concern “that kettling is used for intelligence gathering purposes, by compelling those kettled to disclose their name and address as they leave the kettle”.

Protesters contained in kettles will normally have committed no criminal offence, and as a result will not be under any legal obligation to give their data. Despite this, Netpol have received many reports of police using force to obtain photographs, dragging protesters physically in front of FIT, or pulling hair to lift a face for the camera.

Police have routinely threatened arrest under section 50 of the Police Reform Act 2002 when protesters have refused to give personal details. Section 50 grants police power to demand personal details where they suspect involvement in anti-social behaviour, and has continued to be used even though HMIC has warned that use of section 50 against peaceful protests would not be lawful.

This has been reaffirmed in the case of Susannah Mengesha who was held in a protest kettle after a demonstration near Piccadilly. There had been no violence or disorder, and Susannah was not suspected of any offence. Once released she was told she must provide her name and address and submit to being filmed by police cameras, or face arrest. Fearful of being unable to leave to pick up her young daughter from a child-minder she complied, but then brought a judicial review of the police actions.

The High Court were unequivocal, finding that it was “not lawful for the police to maintain the containment for the purposes of obtaining identification, whether by questioning or by filming [and] not lawful to require identification to be given and submission to filming as the price for release.”

Extracting individuals

Another example of intelligence-led policing in action is the use of pre-emptive arrests in advance of the royal wedding in 2011. On the basis of largely undisclosed intelligence dozens of preventative arrests were made, including people who just happened to be staying in known activist buildings, while others were rounded up on the day sitting in a café drinking coffee. No evidence was found that any of them intended to attack the wedding or accompanying celebrations.

The most disturbing royal wedding case was probably that of Brian Hicks. Although he had no criminal convictions in the last twenty years, Brian was ‘known’ to the intelligence unit of the Metropolitan police. While walking on his own in central London, carrying nothing more menacing than a packet of crisps, Brian was stopped by a Forward Intelligence Team, arrested and taken to a police station where he was strip searched and kept for several hours. Once the royal event was over, he was released without charge. He is currently seeking to appeal a high court judgement that upheld the legality of his arrest.

The right to protest?

The promise of intelligence-led policing is appealing - it claims to stop crime and prevent disorder by focusing on the ‘bad guys’. The reality, though, is that intelligence-led policing involves the systematic surveillance and detailed intelligence gathering not only on suspects, but on potential suspects. In the increasingly criminalised area of political protest, that means all of us. The police have the capacity to map the associations, connections, activity, and even, through social media, the comments and opinions, of more people than ever before.

Their ability to act on that data is, in the context of intelligence-led policing, largely uncontained by models of accountability and transparency. Operating away from the scrutiny of the criminal justice system, there are no checks and balances, no public visibility, and no effective accountability. Frequently demands from politicians that ‘better intelligence’ is developed and used to prevent the recurrence of all incidents of disorder, from the student protests in 2010 to the 2011 summer riots, bolster these police powers. In the surveillance and disruption of political protest the police are off on a frolic of their own.

Despite the promises made, intelligence-led policing is not likely to stop disorder, violence or crime.  It does, however, have the potential to blow a huge hole through our civil rights and fundamental freedoms.

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