Police in England and Wales need to be more robust in how they tackle protests that cause excessive disruption, according to a report by the official watchdog that also warned officers over “taking the knee.”
The study, published today by the Inspectorate of Constabulary, was commissioned by the Home Office in the wake of last year’s clutch of protests under the banner of Extinction Rebellion and BLM.
“We found that the police too often do not find the balance between protecting the rights of the protesters and preventing excessive disruption to daily life, which even peaceful protest can sometimes cause,” said Inspector of Constabulary Matt Parr in a statement.
The report gave examples of an Extinction Rebellion protest in Bristol that caused chaos at rush hour in the city centre, and a BLM protest in the West Midlands that closed the M6 motorway.
Earlier this week, the Home Office announced a bill that would give greater powers to police to break up protests that disrupt businesses and transport links.
The 157-page inspectorate report said that a “modest reset of the scales” was needed to get the balance right.
It made 12 recommendations, including improved intelligence, the possible adoption of more on-the-spot fines like those used to enforce lockdown legislation, the greater use of AI-powered facial recognition, and greater road-closure powers.
The report also recommends police identify more clearly the threshold of disruption after which they will act against protesters, and that they improve the way they assess potential disruption on local residents and critical infrastructure.
On the matter of whether officers should be “taking the knee,” the report stated: “We understand why police leaders may wish to demonstrate to their officers and staff from minority groups, and to the wider public, that they support principles of equality.”
“However, they should be cautious about how they do this; the act of taking the knee has become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement, and this is particularly so when it occurs at a Black Lives Matter protest.”
“On balance, we believe that police leaders should think very carefully before they take any actions which may be interpreted as showing support for, or aversion towards, any protest or its stated aims; it will rarely be appropriate.”
For similar reasons, the report also singled for criticism police who joined in with Extinction Rebellion protesters and using skateboards on a cordoned-off bridge.
The National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) said that they would carefully consider the recommendations of the report.
“Protest policing is challenging and complex—and even more so during this current pandemic,” said Chief Constable BJ Harrington, the NPCC lead on public order policing.
“Police officers seek to find the right balance between the rights of protestors and those of local residents and businesses while doing all they can to prevent violence and criminality in fast-moving situations, dealing with varied and new protest tactics. As the inspectorate recognises, it is a particularly difficult balancing act when protests are non-violent and peaceful but highly disruptive.”
The inspectorate carried out public surveys as part of the report, which found more than two-thirds of people thought it was unacceptable for protests to involve violence or serious disruption to residents and businesses.
“While public opinion is not determinative of whether the police are acting appropriately or lawfully, it is nevertheless an important factor to consider because the British policing model is based on consent,” said the report.
With peaceful protests that caused only minor local inconvenience, however, there is little public appetite for police to use force.
Earlier this week, some human rights organizations expressed concern over the wider-ranging revamp of policing proposed in the Policing, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill. The bill included new restrictions on protest, new stop and search powers, and tougher crimes for damaging statues.