The year of lockdowns has been bookended by two murders, both of which sparked spontaneous and highly charged protest movements. In normal times these protests would have been permitted, with policing proportionate to the risk of violence from radical and opportunistic elements. However, these are not normal times and a raft of ever-changing lockdown rules have collided with the right to free assembly. This has caused confusion, not just for the protesters and public, but also for the Police, who can seem to do no right.
At root are the arbitrary consequences of regulating in haste. Laws attached to the right of free assembly and its restriction have evolved over centuries. After first establishing the right, then came the balancing act of limiting it as little as possible, while respecting the right of others to go about their business. Today, this should mean peaceful protestors are left alone, while those engaging in violent behaviour are arrested.
However, when the act of assembling in public outdoors is deemed a safety risk by our politicians who, arguably, pander to the most virus risk-averse, then the police are left in a near-impossible situation.
Extinction Rebellion’s method of protest often depends on being objectionable. The more extreme members will gladly block roads and make as much noise as possible in residential areas. The former is already illegal, the latter is subject to increased restriction in the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Having experienced Extinction Rebellion indirectly broadcasting into our office at a volume so high it can be considered a form of torture (>79dB), I have a degree of sympathy with this change. It will, however, be hard to set clear rules. Noise may have many sources, and the impact is conditioned by the environment. It will then be equally hard to police, and that policing will be inconsistent.
The hysteria around causes is also undermining the fifth Peelite principle of policing that the “Police gain and keep public favour by constantly demonstrating absolute impartiality to the law, not by pandering to public opinion.”
The initial Police response to Extinction Rebellion in 2019 and Black Lives Matter in 2020 was not impartial. The leadership invited Officers to show empathy with the protests they were policing, which undermined the Police’s authority and led to escalating public order offences. As a result, some assume that the Reclaim The Streets protests (following the alleged murder of Sarah Everard) should have been given special treatment.
This assumption is not a question of poor operational decisions within those protests, proportionality, or whether these rules should exist at all. It is a view that police should be political, in alliance with approved causes, rather than agents of the written law with a duty to prevent crime and disorder. The latter invites public consent to be policed through fair treatment. The former polarises the public with the unapproved or victimised side withdrawing their consent. Consent is also undermined when the entire edifice of laws and their enforcement seem disproportionate and arbitrary.
The Police then will have some grounds for feeling confused and fed up. Their leadership should be held accountable for bad operational decisions, which have been made profoundly more likely by politicians engaging in virtue signalling and making clumsy legislation.
Policing protests does require empathy. But this should be expressed as sensitivity to unlawful conduct and serious threats to public safety, not to the cause being protested. It requires the Police to be a calming presence, while not allowing the escalation of violence and brutality. What they cannot do is be expected to provide the wisdom on all these matters that those making the laws evidently lack. We need to return to the neutral policing of protests as soon as possible, and not encourage the Police to take sides.