In the line of fire

As the G8 summit met in Genoa, Italian police were poised to counter protesters. Here is the <em>NS<

Before the recent wave of anti-globalisation demonstrations, riot police got to hit people mainly at football matches, race riots, and raves. As Tony Banks declared in a 1995 Commons speech about the mistreatment of English football fans: "If people wave [their British passport] at a Spanish policeman, a French policeman or a Belgian policeman, the police will crack their heads open." But now they have a new target.

Ever since Seattle, steadily increasing numbers of riot police have been deployed at the conferences held by international trade and finance organisations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G8 and the World Social Forum. In Genoa, between 100,000 and 150,000 people gathered in the streets outside the G8 summit to protest against American policies; 20,000 heavily armed Italian police and army troops were waiting to pounce on any misguided demonstrator who so much as pinged a wire on the wall around the conference centre.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a creeping militarisation of riot police, who are now deployed where ordinary officers would once have been deemed sufficient. The weapons used by paramilitary police forces to deal with a peacetime conflict are a legacy of the policing in Northern Ireland. Members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary were allowed to operate with a level of force far greater than would have been tolerated on the mainland, to match the degree of force being used against them. They pioneered the use in Europe of riot control weapons such as plastic and rubber bullets.

All the major European nations have riot squads, either independent of or formed from within the ranks of normal forces, which can take action quickly to put down any insurgency - with rubber and plastic bullets, water cannons and CS gas, as judged necessary. The riot policeman is dressed in full body armour, heavy boots, plexiglass shield and a large helmet that completely encases his head and neck - much in the manner of a Renaissance knight. His long baton and steel-capped boots allow him to attack aggressively and efficiently. Through a device in his visor, he has constant radio contact with a central control room, and so his movement can be coordinated.

Although the technology used by riot squads is very modern, their typical formation mimics ancient warfare, namely the Macedonian phalanx of 330BC - a slowly advancing line formation that works as long as the police stay shoulder to shoulder.

Amnesty International has asked the policemen in Genoa to show restraint. They must remember, while they are defending one international institution, that they are themselves covered by the rules of another, the United Nations. Article 3 of the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officers states: "Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty." If anyone hurls objects and attacks property or people, the police should promptly arrest them, not kick, shoot, hit or blind them. They must resist the temptation to crack open any heads, British or otherwise.

What follows is a guide to the best and worst police forces around Europe:

France Members of the French Compagnie Republicain de Securite (CRS) are not noted for their delicacy, but since there is a riot on average every ten days in France, the public is used to them breaking up gang battles, race riots, strikes and demonstrations. The CRS was formed in 1945, with the aim of maintaining public order and quelling communist initiatives. There are now 15,750 CRS paramilitary riot police in 63 units, armed with the standard tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. The biggest recent show of force by the CRS was at last December's EU summit in Nice, where they fought fierce battles with protesters trying to get near the EU summit conference centre, beating them back with stun-grenades and tear gas.

Germany Although there is the paramilitary GSG9 unit, which, rather like the SAS, deals with terrorism, there is no special riot squad in Germany. Instead, state police forces are trained to perform this function when needed. Some German states have special units trained for more physical jobs, and these often become notorious for abusing their power, so that police from regular forces have to go in and restrain them. There are a number of federal police forces, such as the Bundeskriminalamt, which deals with serious crimes, and the Bundesgrenzschutz, which is responsible for border control. The Bundeskriminalamt, a very well-armed and highly trained unit, uses water cannons and batons to break up large-scale protests.

Spain The Spanish riot police - who number around 4,000 - are used to dealing with serious threats from Basque separatists. They include the municipal police, who wear blue; the Guarda Civil (GAR), who wear green; and the national police, who wear khaki. Spanish riot police win a special award for creativity and inventiveness in the treatment of anti-globalisation protesters. The World Bank summit in June, which was planned to be in Barcelona, was held online, but 40,000 protesters turned up anyway and held a counter-conference. Police agents provocateurs, not dressed in full regalia, but with their earpieces still visible, staged a scuffle with a punk protester in a bid to incite someone from the crowd to join in. When a few members of the crowd duly rose to the bait and tried to free the punk, the police had a reason to charge into the square, firing blank bullets and using batons at will.

Sweden The Swedish riot police were caught out at the EU summit in Gothenburg in June. The police, who number 16,500 and are divided into 21 districts, had done everything they could to ensure a peaceful protest, negotiating with the main protest umbrella groups and even providing them with accommodation. And yet, what followed was carnage. The problem was the policing - which started off on too small a scale and later became too violent. There were no more than 2,000 police officers, many drafted in from smaller towns, trying to marshal 25,000 demonstrators along an agreed route through the city centre. Trouble then erupted on Gothenburg's central shopping street, where three people were shot by police armed with live rounds - rubber bullets not being available - one of whom was seriously wounded. The police rapidly made 500 arrests. A Briton, Paul Robinson, remains in a Swedish prison.

Holland Dutch policing is community-based, with an emphasis on discretion and improving social harmony, rather than the rigid enforcement of laws. While there are no permanent riot police, there are specially trained mobile units, made up of volunteers from the regular police force who can be deployed if absolutely necessary. There are 40,000 police in 25 regional forces. Marches and demonstrations are policed by ordinary uniformed officers with no special equipment. The mobile units remain out of sight, going into action if all methods of crowd control have failed. Even then, they try to avoid confrontation: the Dutch police, in situations where there is a risk of public order breaking down, try to be friendly, patient and non-aggressive. At last year's climate talks in The Hague, a very small police presence, often without riot shields or helmets, marshalled a crowd of 5,000 on a march along an agreed route through the city behind a samba band. The police horses at the head of the procession bobbed to the beat of the drums.

If anyone had felt the need to throw anything, the police vans, held in reserve, would have quickly emerged.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, In the line of fire