David Davies MP: Don't rush to condemn the police who prevented the G20 protests from becoming a full-scale riot
David Davies has been MP for Monmouth since 2005 and is a member of the Home Affairs select committee. He also serves as a special constable and was patrolling the streets of London the night before the G20 protests. Here he explains some of the techniques used by the police in such situations and says that the death of Ian Tomlinson requires an investigation, not a witch-hunt.
Few people today will remember the name of PC Mulhall.
One night in 2007, PC Mulhall was called to a nightclub to arrest a woman. A security film which was then repeatedly shown on the news appeared to show him striking her several times, apparently without any cause. An uproar followed with complaints about the police and demands that Mulhall be disciplined. He was suspended from frontline duties. Months later, an enquiry revealed that the woman had become violent after being thrown out of the nightclub and was damaging cars. As Mulhall approached she had grabbed his genitals. He had simply been using an approved Home Office technique to dislodge the woman’s grip. This involves repeated strikes on the bicep to release the hand. At the time many said “The camera never lies.” When he was finally cleared, there was little publicity and tragically PC Mulhall died last year whilst on a walking holiday.
Unlike the news commentators who condemned PC Mulhall before the facts were clear, police officers are taught that when investigating an offence one must never allow personal feelings to get in the way of facts or to jump to conclusions based on prejudice or emotion. The facts and evidence must be carefully considered before making a decision about whether an offence has occurred and if so who is responsible.
The lesson has apparently already been forgotten by those who are now lining up to condemn the police once again over the tragic death of Ian Tomlinson. We can all agree that his death should be fully investigated, but let us await the conclusions before rushing to condemn. I was not at the scene of the G20 protests, but I have a better idea than most of the pressures under which police were operating.
On the evening before the protest, I was working as a Special Constable with several regular officers doing a routine patrol just south of the City of London area. At one station where we stopped, a colleague and I were jeered at by people, who, by their dress, were clearly planning to take part in the protests. “Looking forward to the riot tomorrow?” said one bizarrely dressed woman. “We are - we will be waiting for you,” said another, and so it went on.
There was a constant undertone of malice in these gloating questions. Clearly many were spoiling for a fight. Police officers always maintain a confident air, but they are only human, and many that night were worried.
On the Wednesday I was on duty again. After a brief visit to London Bridge, where the atmosphere was tense, I was sent on to another police station where officers were being held in reserve to relieve others as necessary.
I must now confess that my not very glorious role in policing the G20 protests was to spend the afternoon in a police canteen with colleagues drinking tea and watching the action unfolding on Sky TV. However, this was not a relaxing day for anyone. We were waiting for an order to go and relieve others which we were certain would come. The general feeling was that by late afternoon/early evening there could be a massive outbreak of violence. The order never came because the violence did not spread.
This may have been because the protestors were not as violent as they had pretended or it may have been because the actions of the police in the City of London nipped things in the bud.
However, it should be remembered that the organisers of the demonstration had been calling for violence and, as I can testify, participants had boasted to police that violence would happen.
Sure enough, after a bit of peaceful protesting, violence broke out. The police then had two options. One was to allow the smallish number of rioters to continue damaging property throughout the city. The danger with standing back is that if the police had appeared unwilling to challenge this behaviour, the spectators may have seen this as a carte blanche to join in and a full scale riot could have ensued.
The police took the second option, which was to try and contain the protests in one area - a procedure known as bubbling (not “kettling”). The idea is to prevent violence from spreading.
For the officers, this involves standing in line in a human barricade and moving forwards or backwards as necessary. Those making up the thin blue line can expect to be spat at, sworn at, hit with missiles, pushed, shoved and thumped. All of this happened and one officer who was there told me that in addition to putting up with this for hours, she was also “pissed on”.
The police are taught that some will try to fight their way out of the bubble, or to break it by pushing against the police line or refusing to move forwards with it. If this happens, the police will shout commands “keep moving”, “move forward” etc and ultimately, if these commands are not heeded, will use a measure of force. A failure to do so would break the bubble and the situation would be out of control.
Police are also taught, that in any confrontational situation they should not allow people to get within arms' reach of them. To do so is to invite an attack. If angry people start moving close, then you shout a warning and if necessary push them back. You cannot afford to take risks. I have seen police officers being assaulted for no reason by people who were too close and on at least one occasion I narrowly missed being assaulted by pushing someone back who was coming towards me threatening violence.
London is not Toytown, it is a violent place and people are being naive if they think that officers should put themselves at risk by acting like PC Plod.
When the police bubbled the G20 protesters on Wednesday, innocent people would have been severely inconvenienced. I feel sorry for the people who had wanted no part in that protest but ended up being herded with the protesters. The inconvenience they would have suffered has to be measured against the inconvenience that would have been caused if a rioting mob had been given a licence to go on a wrecking spree through London.
I have rather less sympathy for the protesters. Whatever their stated intentions, they willingly went on a protest which had been organised by people advocating violence. I have been on a number of protests myself over the years but I wouldn’t in a million years go on a protest if the organisers had advocated violence or if I felt that there was the remotest chance that violence could happen.
Numerically the police were heavily outnumbered. Police are taught to maintain a calm front and never to look scared, despite the situations in which they find themselves. I will admit publicly what some will only admit in private (and others never at all) and that is that there have been a number of occasions where I have been extremely scared for my own safety working as a Special Constable. I am proud to say that I have never backed down. Confronted by a crowd, many of whom were violent and who outnumbered them by a factor of ten or more, the officers policing the G20 protests did not back down.
I know some of the officers who were there. They were not out there looking forward to a fight, they were out there wishing they were back home with their families drinking a cup of tea. The commentators who are currently so keen to throw harsh words around should ask themselves how many other people would have been pushed over and how many inadvertent deaths might have been caused if the officers on duty on Wednesday had decided to let the demonstrators do as they wished throughout London.
The G20 organisers who are now so keen to turn the sad death of Mr Tomlinson into a political statement should remember that they went out that morning to a protest knowing that there was likely to be violence.
We need a full investigation into the events of last Wednesday but what we don’t need is a witch-hunt.