Water cannon and plastic bullets, but don't start panicking yet

Alan Lewis: Rex Features
By Tom Hennessey

On 30 November the Metropolitan Police published the second part of its interim report into the widespread rioting in August 2011. The report has found that numbers of police on the streets of London were insufficient to deal with the disorder, and those that were there did not arrive quickly enough. It acknowledges the possibility that pre-existing tension went unnoticed, and that intelligence gathering systems could not keep pace with the scale and speed of the riots.

However, news coverage has focused on two headline-grabbers: the announcement that the Met is considering buying three water cannons, and that more officers will be trained in the use of baton rounds (plastic bullets). Are we now liable to be pummelled and soaked by a trigger-happy Met? Probably not.

At an eye-watering £1.3m each, and never before used in mainland Britain, the water cannon should certainly raise eyebrows. But the report only states that training in baton rounds will be increased. They were in fact available for use during the summer’s riots, but were apparently not deployed due to the fast-moving nature of the rioting and, importantly, the availability of other tactical options.

Granted, the report acknowledges that: “This increase in capacity will enable the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] to make more agile use of this tactic in the future”, and that, “The MPS is also considering the establishment of this tactic as a spontaneous response,  thereby making it more readily available across London at short notice”, but it also makes clear that, “…any tactical deployment must be a proportionate and necessary response to the incident and officers need to be able to account for their decision and subsequent actions.”

Authority for the use of “reasonable force” by police officers is provided by s 117 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and s 3(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1967.

According to the CPS guidance on reasonable force:

“In assessing the reasonableness of the force used, two questions need to be asked:

  • was the use of force justified in the circumstances (i.e. was there a need for any force at all)?; and
  • was the force used excessive in the circumstances?

The following must be considered:

  • the nature and degree of force used;
  • the seriousness of the offence which is being prevented or in respect of which an arrest is being made;
  • the nature and degree of any force used against an officer by a person resisting arrest.”

I argued in the summer that the police were right to apply restraint in reacting to the rioting, even if this was partly necessitated by a lack of resources. The use of plastic bullets then would only have aggravated the situation, and when they were made available during recent student protests, the Met made clear in a statement that they would only be used in the most “extreme” circumstances. Certainly the CPS guidelines suggest that police officers would need to be faced with a scale and degree of violence that has perhaps not been seen in London since the 1985 Brixton riots.

The fact that plastic bullets were available during the summer and were not used makes it slightly odd that a review into the riots would now advocate their increased availability, but these announcements may be partly designed to reassure the portion of the public who felt let down by the Met’s response. Thankfully, as long as the guidelines are followed and the country doesn‘t descend into Armageddon, we should, hopefully, have little to fear from these developments other than the cost of a robust umbrella.      


  1. says

    You are very trusting of the authorities.

    If you consider how the US police forces are dealing with Occupy protestors, you might reconsider your faith in the police force. THere we have seen police officers on Uni campuses pepper spraying sitting protestors directly and methodically in the face. We have seen a passive protestor struck in the head by some type of police missle which hospitalised him and caused brain injuries which he is, thankfully, recovering from. In another horrible scene, a plain clothes policeman forces a woman back into a bank after she had just taken out her savings in protest against corporate control.

    Police in the US have been dealing with these boisterous but, on the whole, non-violent protests with real brutality. Journalists have had their press passes pulled off their necks and barred from covering incidents – or simply dragged to the ground and arrested.

    You might say that this is the US, not the UK. But, how do we know how the UK authorities would react with large scale protests, as we have seen in the US? We do not know – and I hope that it would be with less brutality – but I am not so sure. As we know, the UK takes many leads from the US.

    Finally, it is unfortunate that you use the phrase “raising eyebrows” referring to water cannons. Water cannons can cause serious injury, including damaging eyes and, in one reported case, damaging a spleen.

    Whilst there is a case for police to have weapons, we should be very wary of what types we give them. The opportunity for misuse and state oppression are too large to give them carte blanche – or, as you say, hope that, in the midst of a raucous protest, guidelines will be followed.

  2. Tom Hennessey says

    Thanks for your comment.

    I have tried to make the point that the Met has recently policed large scale protest/rioting and has chosen not to use the plastic bullets that were apparently available to them. So in that sense they have shown a tendency to avoid brutality.

    The CPS guidelines are very far from a carte blanche, and I put considerable faith in the desire of the police to avoid prosecution.

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