"There's a history of violent protest in this country"

Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, speaks frankly about extreme policing tactics and dealing with a new generation of activists that make police look like "complete amateurs"
February 2, 2011
Click here to read Shiv Malik and Ed Howker's cover story on the new age of protest

Shiv Malik: The first big union march of the year is 26th March, and the students are laughing at that, saying: "Why is it taking four months to organise one protest when we’ve organised four protests in one month?"

HO: It is a whole new dimension to public order: speed. And a lack of willingness, or less willingness, to engage pre-event, partly because you don’t have pre-event.

SM: When you joined the police force, one of your early assignments was with the Territorial Support Group (TSG)?

HO: I was superintendent in charge of TSG Southwest for two years—that would be late 1980s early 1990s. It was when Le Pen came over and there was serious disorder in London—it must have been mid-1990s.

SM: People talk about riots now, but historically speaking it’s been far more violent in the past. You were in Brixton in the early 1980s. How has policing come on from that?

HO: You could go back further than that. There’s always been outbreaks of serious disorder going back through the mists of time. And they’re not put down by dragoons anymore, but you know there’s a history of violent protest in this country.

Brixton was an explosion around a community rebelling against what was perceived to be extremely heavy-handed [policing] aimed at young black men in Brixton. The start of the riots was SWAMP 82—a stop and search to try and reduce violent robbery that was, as a matter of fact, being committed by young black men in Brixton. But the reaction was perceived as totally disproportionate, and the consequence of that was this huge uprising.

I wasn’t actually policing the riots, but colleagues who did said it was terrifying—the level of violence [towards] what were then unarmed cops armed with dustbin lids. What you saw there was a coming together of a whole new response to a police tactic in terms of violence, and a police force that was so used to policing by consent that it was ill-prepared to deal with that in any other way. What you saw on the television were emergency tactics [by the police]... doing their best in very difficult circumstances.

SM: And the Territorial Support Group (TSG) was formed soon after that…

HO: Well after that, when I was in Brixton in 1983, we had what we called district support units which were the pre-runners to TSGs. These units were drawn from groups of local officers who had been trained to a higher standard, but nothing like the standard that TSGs are trained to now. They then metamorphosed over time into a more permanent area-led structure called TSGs. So the initial response to the riots was to mobilise or create units to deal with [public order] across London and that was then followed by the centralisation of that resource into Territorial Support Groups you see today.

SM: And that was partly as a response to the murder of PC Keith Blakelock during the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985.

HO: Yes. Part of the issue [around violent events such as Broadwater] is around policing, but with many of these events, it is a case of people who feel disenfranchised in the far broader sense exhibiting their displeasure with the current government through attacking the cops—not far different from what you saw [at the student protests].

Now, the very heavy response to a very serious crime problem was, without question, a contributing factor to the Brixton riots. But there is a consistent theme to protests, or violent protests. If you looked at the housing, wealth and unemployment of young black men in Brixton [at that time], all of that came together, which led to extreme civil disobedience. And as a result the first image of the state that any of these people see is a cop in uniform.

SM: What is it about a riot? Especially on the 10th November [the first of the recent round of student demonstrations, when protestors occupied Conservative headquarters on Millbank]. There’s something about a crowd isn’t there?

HO: You can sense it. I’m not an expert in crowd dynamics. Some disorderly events are without question spontaneous. Others are more planned, there’s no question about that. Now I wasn’t involved in policing the student disorder at all, but I had to go to the House of Commons to see the home secretary on the day of the vote on tuition fees. [On that day] I could still walk from here to the House of Commons relatively untroubled despite the fact that there were thousands of people on the streets. My sense of it was that the vast majority of people were exercising their democratic right to protest. But embedded in that crowd were people absolutely determined to cause as much disorder and mayhem as they could.

SM: Do people get caught up in that? At the protests I saw 16 year old girls with bricks in their hands and I said, put it down, you don’t know what you’re doing...

HO: Well I think you’ve summed it up: they don’t. They get caught up in the event.

SM: Paul Stevenson [head of the Metropolitan police] has been saying the same thing. The people they’ve been arresting don’t have criminal records and when they turn up there’s tears all round with their parents.

HO: And their parents will be devastated. It was a tactic in Northern Ireland a lot—if we couldn’t catch people on the day we made it absolutely plain, as the Met is doing now, that we’ll be investigating this and pursuing those who have committed serious offences to the ends of the Earth. And my line would be: "Parents do you know where your young people were? And if you do hear a knock at the door at six in the morning don’t be surprised if it is cops outside with a warrant to arrest your son or daughter for committing an offence during that demonstration."

At some point, do people lose control in crowds? Yes they do. You saw it in Ireland. Though Ireland was pretty orchestrated, we still arrested people who had little previous [criminal record] who were part of the general mêlée, but got caught up. So there’s no question there were students who on the next day would have worried about their actions of the previous day.

SM: Going back to what you said prior, one way to keep demonstrations peaceful is to negotiate with the leadership of the protest. But one of the themes is that these protests are leaderless, or certainly without official leadership.

HO: Well I’m not sure I’m persuaded by "leaderless." They are led and there are people in positions of responsibility. And if you look at the starting point on this, from a policing perspective, the role of police is to aid those who want to carry out peaceful protest. The Human Rights Act is pretty clear on this stuff.

SM: But you can’t negotiate with 2,000 people individually...

HO: No you can’t, but the student union has a responsibility. It is unreasonable to think that you can all pile into London and disrupt the lives of Londoners because [you think] your rights are over and above other people’s rights. They’re not. Now, sometimes there are competing issues. Our role is trying to balance these issues. So we can facilitate the protest but also facilitate the other citizens going about their everyday business. Of course, there will be inconvenience to people and you have to accept that—that’s what democratic society is all about. But there is no room for people who go down to cause extreme violence.

My sense is that the majority of people don’t want to cause extreme violence, and I still believe that it is not good enough to throw our hands up in the air and say "Oh, we can’t negotiate because there is no one to negotiate with." There are lots of people we can talk to, but they need to stand up and lead their people too. If they don’t, we must be clear that the people who wish to demonstrate won’t engage, communicate or share what they intend to do with us, and so our policing tactics will have to be different. And the public [will] have a much better understanding of why police tactics have to be slightly more extreme, if the public understands that the only reason these tactics are necessary is that protestors will not engage with us pre-event. If the protestors will not talk to us, well, we can’t just not police the event.

And there’s no reason why people shouldn’t cooperate. Why not talk to the cops? In Northern Ireland we had this principle of no surprises. If I could talk to them, I could tell them what I was going to do. But the two situations are different. In Northern Ireland what you were dealing with was two groups who, in some areas, hated each other, and we were in the middle of it. With the students we had one amorphous mass, pretty disorganised in some parts, who were demonstrating against the government rather than another group. We were between the state and the people, which is a bad place for police to be. We have to make it explicit that all we are doing is policing the event so citizens can exercise their rights. We are not state enforcers of government policy. This is a critical distinction and the only way of [making that clear] is by talking. If people don’t want to talk, then you have a problem.

SM: Going back to your interview with Vikram Dodd in the Guardian in December, you made a really good point about the citizen in uniform vs the citizen. The difference being that the police are licensed to use violence and this is…

HO: They are licensed to use force—

SM: Yes

HO: But we start off with the basic principle in policing, and this is the current style of British policing, that we’re completely free from political interference, which in my view is entirely non-negotiable. We have to make operational decisions unencumbered by any political pressure. And then we have to be held to account for what we do. That’s the deal and we are held to account by the citizens—currently 17 citizens hold each chief constable to account. Now that’s going to change and that’s a different issue, but that’s how it works now.

You start off from the basic principles of minimum intervention on the rights of the citizen and minimum use of force. You don’t start at the top, you start at the lowest level. So then, if you have to respond to violence against you, you start to escalate. There’s a huge risk at coming in at the top end.

SM: On kettling or containment—whatever you want to term it. I think kettling gets at how people feel: frustrated and pent up, because obviously their liberty is being restrained. Personally I think it is a better tactic than water cannons or tear gas. And I was amazed at the Whitehall kettle with the police bringing in portaloos and water. That’s incredibly advanced, especially compared to other police forces.

HO: I think that’s a really good point. And the [Met] commissioner made the point, when Prince Charles was attacked, if that had been in Washington, that would have been very different. I would have gone further, I think it would have been a bloodbath. I’ve met presidents of the United States eight or nine times, and at least once a year when I was in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, as well, the whole approach to protecting people is based on overwhelming force if necessary. There is absolutely no question in my mind that [in America] they would defend the president in a very robust way.

Likewise, look at cases like the LA riots. The notion that the police would be providing [toilet] facilities in cases like that—not in a million years. So when people chose to criticise the British style of policing they need to benchmark it against other styles of policing, such as 1999 in Seattle or Genoa with the carabinieri.

In 2002- 2003 I went over to America to speak to opinion formers who were critical of our policing in Northern Ireland. One of the first things I showed them was a video. I didn’t say where the footage was from. And up on the screen came Seattle. Then I did a couple of others. And then I showed some of the 12th July footage [12th July is the day, frequently marked by violence during the Troubles, when the Protestant Orangemen march through cities across Northern Ireland]. When we are accused of extreme tactics it is valid to say we’re doing our best under difficult circumstances. It doesn’t excuse individual misbehaviour at all, but benchmark British policing on public against anywhere in Europe or America and form a view on where you would rather demonstrate.

SM: The response to that is that the kettling tactics on 9th December were very different. There seemed to be something else going on—hyper-kettling—which is when you squeeze people in to a space and constrain that space further and further. We had video evidence of that and lots of testimony —so people assume that it was deliberate. Is that dangerous?

HO: Well I can’t talk about individual cases. In terms of tactics, the first thing we must have is consistency of approach across the country. I think it will become increasingly important. There is no desire from this government to review the current police force structure, so we are trying to deliver 21st century policing against a 20th century policing structure—a big mistake. However, what we can do is have a broad consensus about what tactics can be deployed. I do see mutual aid becoming more important, certainly if there are going to be more protests coming up—so you know chiefs are signed up to a board code on public order which sets some standards at a strategic and tactical level: tactics that can be used as consistently in Newcastle or in London. Otherwise when you borrow cops [from other forces] you do get potentially a far more extreme situation where cops think they are doing the same thing but they are not.

In terms of deployment, that has to be a matter for ground commanders. I can understand the need for kettling as a tactic, but, as with all these things, the tactic evolves over time, and it is the role of police leadership what is effective and what is not. Without question there are times when you have to keep some people away from other people. In the recent demonstrations there were situations where severe violence was going on up the road and the last thing the ground commander there needed was a load of people—law abiding or not—piling into the back of it. So sometimes containment interferes with the rights of citizens for the greater good and that’s the really complex part of policing. Because you know you’re stopping people from going where they want to go—but if they do go where they like that can make a problem a whole lot worse somewhere else. And that’s this real delicate balancing act about rights of individual citizens and the collective good.

The best way to deal with that is communication: explaining to people why they are contained and keeping them informed about the situation. An intelligent approach to containment recognises that when you do it, there will be some in that group who will be more vulnerable than others and who you may be able to deal with in a different way. Indeed the commissioner recently made the point to me that one of the major containments, which started with thousands of people, contained, at the end, only 10 per cent of the original number of people. This was because people had been allowed to drift out or, you know, the cop on the cordons had identified those who he thought were not dangerous and let them move out away from the rabble and hopefully not towards it. The last thing you’d want on these occasions is to let people out, whether law abiding or not, into an area where there is other disorder going on. That’s just the complexity of this imprecise situation

SM: There is this evolution of tactics as well. It was interesting watching the protesters learning how to break a kettle by doing different things, and splitting off and moving in different direction—the protest on the 30th of Dec. And on the 9th the police got scared, because they were worried by that metal banner, which turned into a wedge. And that had been deliberately brought along to break a police lines.

HO: If people come determined to cause violence, that’s very different. And a small group of people can have a disproportionate impact if they can agitate a crowd to come in behind them.

SM: But if you break a police line with your own body, so you don’t hit anyone, you just push—people don’t see that as violence.

HO: No

SM: It’s a narrow thing, because they are being stopped from moving, so they see themselves as imprisoned or trapped against their will. How do you get around that?

HO: It is very difficult. Cops have this hugely complex and imprecise situation to work with and you know the competing rights of all the people involved—the protestors, the people saying ‘I want to go about my everyday business’ etc. So cops get it from both sides. It’s back to Vikram Dodd’s piece. You can solve a lot of this by the no surprises principle; that is, if you can get relationships pre-event. I think the more everyone can work towards discussing things sensibly, the more we’ll maximise the rights of the sensible citizen to do what they want to do—because we know what they’re going to do. People say that’s naive, well it isn’t naive actually. Most people wanted to protest, they didn’t want to riot.

SM: Did they want to storm parliament? That was my sense. They were right there and they could have left because kettling didn’t start until 16:00. But there were loudhailers telling the crowd, ‘Keep going up to Trafalgar Square’ but they wanted to stay where they were, as the vote hadn’t passed. But there was also a sense of wanting to get into parliament.

HO: Well that’s very straightforward from a police perspective: they can’t. You cannot let the house of the government be overrun. It’s a primary [rule]—without question we’ve got to protect the dignity of parliament. And that’s what the cops did. No one [i.e. no protestors] got in. People going about their lawful business of government were allowed to go in, and the police did extremely well in managing both those think. But that’s straightforward, pre-event I feel the police made it absolutely clear that there is no possibility that you are going to attack the houses of Parliament.

SM: Or occupy non violently—that’s they way they would have put it.

HO: Well if we’d had these conversation pre-event I’m sure some accommodation could have been made whereby a group could have sent their representations [into parliament] without offending the dignity of parliament. If people don’t want to communicate and think that sheer force of numbers will allow them to do it, it won’t. This non-cooperation pre-event puts huge pressure on policing, police budgets and every single cop. To deploy [more cops than would otherwise be necessary in order to police these protests] means a cop off the streets in the protestors’ communities, where bizarrely their parents are screaming for more cops.

SM: Now, I have to ask about water cannons.

HO: The proportionate and minimum use of force does not mean, sadly, that you do not use quite substantial force, but it has to be proportionate. And Nothern Ireland is a case study in that. In 2005 we returned live fire in a public order situation, as did the military. The reason was quite simple—we were being shot at. And the ombudsman’s investigation and a huge oversight [investigation] found that on every occasion what we did was lawful and proportionate.

A water cannon is quite an extreme tactic and I can utterly understand why the commissioner would not have even thought of deploying it. The water cannon is used to buy distance and [in the past] we’ve deployed water cannon to keep people with bombs and guns away from police lines and away from the opposing section of the community.

SM: I’ve seen them in Belgium

HO: Oh, ours are far better than the Belgian ones! They are a brilliant piece of kit. And we’ve used them against crowds which are universally violent. And these are crowds that put women and kids in front of them. But they’re very difficult things to use at the best of times. And one has to make those difficult decisions. But when you’re being shot at, a water cannon is actually better than returning live fire. The other thing is that you can’t contain a crowd that you’re using a water cannon on. You have to give them and escape route. So I think the commissioner is 100 per cent right that it would be an entirely inappropriate tactic at present. That’s not to say that there may not come a time when you do see water cannon being used somewhere on the mainland in the United Kingdom.

SM: Horse charges? Are they extreme?

HO: I didn’t see the horse charging—that wasn’t a charge, I saw them moving into a crowd. It’s not fair for me to comment because I don’t know the circumstances around the event. As a tactic I think horse charges are very useful, but it is up to the ground commander to decide whether it’s proportionate or not.

SM: If this is the year of protest, the hypothesis is that protests could get more violent. If demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails, what would the police do?

HO: Again it’s back to some basic principles. It’s back to minimum intervention and the rights of citizens and proportionality. The response has to be proportionate to the threat. Now if the hypothesis is that students will start throwing petrol bombs at cops, it is something that we have to consider, but police are well used to dealing with petrol bombs. Sadly, it will completely ruin the peaceful protest. Because then, of course, the tactics have to escalate and lots of innocent people would have to be moved because of it. One would hope there comes a point where the citizens themselves take action to stop those in the crowds causing violence. You may have seen that fantastic picture of the schoolchild protecting the carrier. Is it possible? Yes it is possible. And what you are seeing are very quickly changing tactics used by demonstrators. The saddest thing about that is that our policing becomes about trying to stop disruption rather than to facilitate peaceful protest. You know, [with] splinter groups, everyone shooting off everywhere.

The less precise the strategy of the demonstrators, the less precise the policing tactics have to be. So you have to be able to respond very quickly to spontaneous disorder around the capital, if that’s what they are going to do—rather than have a well-planned march where people can show their frustrations with government without stepping over the mark into criminality

SM: You’ve talked about not wanting political interference, but could it go the other way—police interfering with the politicians, asking them to stop passing things that are so unpopular?

HO: No that’s not our role. You see that’s a legal question…

SM: But you don’t want to be caught in the middle

HO: By definition, we’re caught in the middle because we’re seen as the physical manifestation of the state because we wear uniforms and we go around in white trucks. If you’re frustrated with the state and your response to that is to demonstrate, the first person you’re going to come up against is the fellow citizen in uniform saying, ‘I’m sorry you can’t do that, you can’t go down here, you must go here.’ And then your frustration boils over into attacking the cop. In terms of legislation, my role is to advise government on the professional opinion of the service, not a political one. For example, it does not matter whether I like or dislike the new form of accountability. Government has a mandate to change the accountability mechanisms leading to a single policing type commissioner supported by a policing crime panel. That’s absolutely their business. My role is to ask how that works from an operational perspective.

SM: But what if the government says they are going to increase fees to £12,000? Suddenly you might say 'Hang on, this is our advice.'

HO: Well I don’t know what I would tell them. If they were thinking of doing that, we would be able to give them a professional opinion on the level of protest that would be likely to generate and the consequences and costs of policing. That’s our role. I think we would certainly be able to give them an opinion so they could then form a judgement from a fully informed basis.

A higher level of violence can develop if there is a lack of understanding about what our role is. ‘Pre-event’ discussions give you that opportunity to say 'Look here’s what we’re here to do and here’s what we’re not here to do.' The moment the people in a crowd think that we are the state enforcing a specific law—and this [the student legislation] has got nothing to do with policing, it’s about students fees—then I think the propensity to violence may increase.

SM: What about cyber police? With the Anonymous protests taking down Mastercard, they are the same constituency as the students.

HO: The next generation; they make us look like complete amateurs. Even people of our generation are not in the same league as the next generation.

S: You could download that computer code [which helped bring down the Mastercard website] from Facebook. It was very simple code. How do the police deal with this?

HO: I think where the new national crime agency will have a key role will be coordinating the response to the new threats. I believe cyber crime and terrorism are the two biggest threats to the country’s economic wellbeing in the future. This comes back to the point that 44 forces are not well able to deal with that sort of thing. That's why you have to reorganise and why the government plan around the national crime agency is not bad, providing it is well resourced. Of course with budgets as they are, it’s going to be a challenge and cybercrime is an emerging area, so it need more resources, not less. But if we are putting more into cybercrime, then we are taking more away from local policing and again it’s up to the operational judgement of chiefs to decide how the money is spent.

SM: It’s a case of policing public order on the net.

HO: It is. And the power of the internet is the volume of people that engage in it. So, again, police tactics will have to change continually to meet the new tactics of demonstrators. But there is this thing called the law. Demonstrators have to understand that if they step over the law they will get arrested and they will have to think through the consequences of that. Walking into Topshop with an intent to cause damage, the moment you walk through the door you’re actually a burglar…

SM: Trespasser?

HO: No, if you’re going in with intent to cause damage when you’re in there…

SM: But they haven’t so far.

HO: No they haven’t so far but the point being, if you walk into Boots and do nothing then you are simply a trespasser. It’s a civil matter and the role of the police is to stand by to prevent a breach of the peace. Again you’re going to have to see a far more mobile response of officers to prevent breaches of the peace when this happens. Stores will have to adapt to make sure they’ve got sufficient staff to eject these people with no more force than is necessary. And they will no doubt put an injuction on these people, and all these sorts of things, post-event

I predict that policing these new kinds of protest will shift resources more towards public order and potentially away from community policing in a time of financial crises.

SM: The Met commander Bob Broadhurst knows this. He says [in the Metro newspaper] “We can’t keep throwing hundreds of officers at these events.” Isn’t there going to be a limit to this? Protestors know this too. If they just keep turning up...

HO: In a way the tragedy of people not engaging is that we have to put more cops on it. And the more cops we put on this the fewer cops we will have available to do the things that the public want us to do. So there is a balance [to be struck]. But there are some things we can’t do. In Northern Ireland for example I could not be in a position where Stormont was invaded. It’s the home of local government and democracy. You can’t allow it. So you have to do that as a priority.

SM: But the students are non-hierarchical?

HO: So you’re right that it is down to individual responsibility not collective. Students have to ask themselves the hard questions: If I go and do this with all my mates and the consequence of that is (A) they might get arrested and (B) in the bigger picture loads of cops who should be around my mums’ village or dealing with that murder inquiry or dealing with some serious sex attacker across the north of England are going to be drawn away or reduced because I’m doing this, I need to think about what I want to do. Or at least we should make sure that within my people we are communicating with the cops beforehand so we know we can exercise our rights [responsibly].

They’ll come a point when responsibility has to kick in and if it doesn’t then all they’re doing is sapping police resources. But in terms of my role, we can mobilise nationally very quickly now. If the police commissioner wants assistance, like he did the other week, then we can supply it very quickly. But there’s huge costs to that.

SM: The police questioning of the 12-year old schoolboy, Nicky Wishart, and the case of Paul Saville, the university student who faced a trial for criminal damage after writing civil liberties messages on the pavement in chalk—those things really seem to upset and anger a section of Middle England, mainly Tory supporters. That is a powerful group of people. Is there a fear that in the face of uncommunicative protestors, the police overstep that civil liberties line?

HO: Do individual examples of something that people see as wrong have a hugely disproportionate impact on the image of the cops? Yes. And that is ever increasing. And I think that is down to the speed of media now. Some media organisations take huge steps to validate material before they put it out, others don’t but it doesn’t matter. If the perception is out there of one particular event, one event in a massive operation—[the death of Ian] Tomlison is a case study in this I suppose—it was a tragic event, but captured on video it colours people’s views of policing generally.

That’s why, we had to be absolutely clear that individual cases of police malpractice should be dealt with very robustly. Because at best it sounds like a mitigation that the overwhelming majority of people operated entirely professionally. Remember this is an operation of 8,000 cops where they take huge abuse with incredible restraint as part of the day job—and these are human beings. But that doesn’t really balance the equation [in serious cases of police malpractice] and never will.

SM: On a different topic, the gun crime unit Trident, was that your operation? They might be scrapping it…

HO: That wasn’t mine but I had the privilege of leading it for a bit. I wish it was mine, it was far too good an idea for me. The great thing about Trident was that this needed to be (A) set up and (B) kept going. And the strength of Trident has been its longevity.

In the current climate I fully understand why everything in the Met is being reviewed. But when I was involved in Trident, it was hugely important. One of its biggest benefits was that it kept people alive. In addition it reassured the black community that we were absolutely determined to protect them. And the trust we got on the back of Trident was awesome. And I used to have meetings with nightclub owners and some very interesting characters, people who historically the cops wouldn’t have been taking advice from, which was critical to its success. It was a success because it was a joint effort. Jamaica was critical to us, we went out there, settling stuff out there. There’s no doubt it kept people alive. And it has continued to this day. And it has huge credibility. That being said, our role is to inform government of what we are going to have to do and the fact that some of it is risk. You know cops carry huge risk anyway. Chiefs carry huge risk, that’s what they are paid to do. We are going to have to carry even more risk and make even more hard calls in the current climate.

SM: Anything else to add?

HO: The Police reform and social responsibility bill will be the next big issue going through the house. It’s a complex legislation. So I think that that’s the next thing to watch out for.

SM: And the protests on 29th January the big thing. From a policing angle is there something to be hopeful about the unions joining [with the students] because they are an organised force?

HO: My sincere hope would be that they engage and they show leadership. That’s all we ask for—they lead their people and show they can they can exhibit and exercise their rights to protest and the fewer surprises that both sides have, the more likely it is to be peaceful. The union movement has a very good history of cooperating with cops and informing us, so I like to think that that won’t have changed.

SM: Thank you

Click here to read Shiv Malik and Ed Howker's cover story on the new age of protest