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10 November 2023

Why politicians should stay out of policing

The risks and responsibilities of policing protests are ones Suella Braverman should be relieved do not belong to her.

By Helen King

Over the past week, media coverage of Suella Braverman’s opinions on the policing of protest has shifted from anything to do with the Met Police and the provisions of the Public Order Act, to the principle of independent policing and the significance of Armistice Day to the nation, and, finally, to the murky world of cabinet members’ ambitions and the wider power struggles within the Conservative Party.

So, let’s just wind the clock back a bit: this Home Secretary isn’t the first politician to think they would make better decisions than police officers, with the underlying assumption that policing is easy. When police and crime commissioners (PCCs) were first elected in 2012, a number of them behaved rather too much like they were entering a virtual reality game where they could play at being cops. They wanted access to the exciting bits of policing, with their views on operational matters treated as directives. Wiser chief constables patiently exposed PCCs to enough of the risks and responsibilities that come with policing that they were more than relieved to back off. 

At such a sensitive time, with huge gatherings of people exercising their right to protest, and the risk of words and actions that may be threatening or contravene legislation, how do the police go about making operational decisions? As a former public order commander and Met assistant commissioner, with no inside knowledge of the planning of this weekend’s operation, let me take you through what the police planning approach is likely to be. 

It always starts and ends with what is known: the information and intelligence that is available (and how reliable it is). This also includes identifying what is not known and determining how much more can be discovered through open or, where proportionate and legal, covert means. For a protest this will include what organisers of the event (and any counter-protest) are sharing about their plans, intentions and stewarding arrangements. Their track record will be taken into account, as will the likelihood of the event being infiltrated by more extreme groups intent on criminality and disorder. This intelligence picture will be dynamic and be updated regularly right up to and during the event.

[See also: How the Conservatives ended up at war with the police]

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From the intelligence picture, risk and threats are identified and then assessed for their probability and impact. This leads to the formulation of priorities for the operation, in order to counter or minimise the known and likely threats. Usually the top priorities are the preservation of life and the safety of protesters, members of the public and officers. The facilitation of peaceful protest will also feature very highly. Then, variously: protection of property and detection of crime; maximising public confidence, especially of those from the most affected communities; minimising disruption to those not involved in the protest; and a swift return to normality. It will be a long list of sometimes conflicting priorities, and will recognise the impact on all communities, especially given the horrendous surge in reported anti-Semitic and Islamophobic crime over the past month.

Then comes the task of identifying tactical options. Some will be mutually exclusive, others can be combined. They will include the use of legal powers, such as those in the Public Order Act. Tactical options will be developed by specialist tactical advisers and operational leads. The strategic and tactical commanders will agree which of the tactics in which combination are most likely to achieve the priorities already established, with any infringement of human rights being assessed as to whether it is necessary, proportionate, legal and accountable. 

A command structure will be established to ensure everyone knows their specific responsibilities and is qualified and briefed to fulfil them. Contingencies will be developed for a range of potential scenarios, to ensure readiness if the intelligence picture changes before or during the event. I imagine one of these will be to ask the Home Secretary to ban the march if the intelligence picture reaches the threshold to do so. If this happens, there is no legal provision to ban a static assembly, so the need for a large-scale policing operation remains. This will be at least the second major operation in central London that day, with a modified version of the usual Armistice Day operation also in place.

Alongside all this planning, logistics teams will be organising to have the right numbers of officers on duty, with the right skills and training, uniform, equipment, and vehicles. Each officer will need to be notified of their shifts, booking on location, briefing time and location, and feeding arrangements. The Met does not have a large dedicated public order reserve, so this means taking officers away from their rostered shift in a local neighbourhood team, in a response or traffic car, or from investigative work, leaving all of London’s 32 boroughs shorter-staffed. It will also mean cancelling hundreds of officers’ weekends, with the disappointment of missed birthday parties, anniversaries and family outings.

All of this, or something like it, will be going on behind the headlines, along with briefings to the Met Commissioner, who in turn will be ensuring the mayor of London, the Home Secretary and other legitimate stakeholders are briefed. 

If they have any sense, politicians will recognise that the police are in a no-win situation. Whatever happens on Saturday, some and probably all groups will feel the police didn’t take their side. The police are used to being no one’s “favourite”, but know that they uphold the integrity of their office by steadfastly focusing on their role. That’s what they’ll be doing this weekend, while the Met’s busy press office continues to try to keep operational policing decisions out of party politics – where they belong.

[See also: Will Rishi Sunak sack Suella Braverman]

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