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Water Cannon – preventing disorder or quelling democratic rights?

Posted on 2nd April 2015

Last month the Home Secretary postponed a decision about whether to allow the use of water cannon on the streets of Britain until after the election. Theresa May had previously said she would make a ruling by April but it seems work is still continuing to evaluate the equipment.

Despite not having approval to use water cannon, the 30th June 2014 saw the handover to the Metropolitan Police of the first water cannon to be used on the British mainland, purchased from German federal police at a cost of £218,000 to the taxpayer. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, justified his decision to press ahead with the purchase prior to authorisation on the basis that they were available at a ‘good price’ and needed for the summer months, when disorder was apparently considered most likely.

Public support and justifications for introduction

According to a poll conducted by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime, the potential introduction enjoys a measure of public support, finding a small majority (60 per cent) agreeing that water cannon would be useful for policing London and a somewhat larger majority (68 per cent) agreeing there was a ‘small limited role’ for water cannon in dealing with the most serious public disorder in London. However, the vast majority of respondents to a written consultation raised concerns about the introduction, while a petition against the purchase has been signed by 48,881 people.

The degree of support appears to stem in large part from the widely used argument that water cannon could have assisted police during the London riots of August 2011. Indeed, their introduction was first discussed in the wake of the riots, when consideration was being given to how such a situation could be better managed in the future.

However, as noted by former Green party mayoral candidate and London Assembly member Baroness Jenny Jones: “The sort of disorder that’s happened in last few years is often by small groups of people, moving quickly, staying in touch with mobile phones and social media. Water cannon would be useless in that situation.”

Reservations of this nature are not limited to opposition politicians but mirrored, for example, by Chief Constable of Greater Manchester police, Peter Fahy, who told the Home Affairs Select Committee on the riots that using water cannon and baton rounds would have been ‘very, very difficult’ in the sort of ‘fluid…fast moving situation’ that his officers faced during the 2011 disturbances. Even Boris Johnson had previously expressed similar reservations.

The fact that the instruments are known to be better suited for use at large, static, pre-planned events has led the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to point out that unless the circumstances which they are to be used is clearly defined, there is a possibility of ‘mission creep’ whereby water cannon are deployed at events or protests for which they are neither suitable nor required, potentially conflicting with the police’s obligation to facilitate peaceful protest.

To date, there are strong indications that water cannon are intended to be used against some political protests: at public engagement meetings in the lead up to its introduction, police showed videos of horse charges at student protesters in 2010, as well as the 2009 Gaza demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy in London. While they suggested that water cannon would be a less forceful way to disperse the crowd, there was no re-assessment about the level of force used nor explanation of where the crowd might have been able to go if water cannon had been used. Furthermore, consideration was not given to the way in which a lively but peaceful protest could be provoked and turn violent as a result of such a weapon being used.

The concern about inflaming a situation is an important one. It was noted in the Home Affairs Select Committee report on the riots, which not only dismisses the ‘usefulness’ of water cannon in the situation but goes on to state ‘that such use could have escalated and inflamed the situation further. The lessons learned in the past in Northern Ireland over such equipment should not be lost on policing in the mainland when rioting occurs. Water cannon… could have affected innocent bystanders, as well as rioters.’

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) have expressed similar reservations but gone on to refer to the cannon’s potential effectiveness in situations such as ‘defending a fixed and vulnerable / iconic location [and] separation of hostile crowds during demonstrations / disorder; creating distance between police and opposing factions,’ suggesting that there may be an intention to use the threat of water cannon against anti-fascist protests, or to disperse demonstrations outside embassies such as those seen in response to the Israeli bombings of Gaza.

Recent examples from public order policing show how quickly a protest that causes some level of disruption can be met with measures which may have initially been envisaged for more extreme situations. For example, the critical mass bike ride at the Olympic opening ceremony in July 2012 and two demonstrations against the English Defence League in London in 2013 were both considered serious enough by the police that conditions were imposed under sections 12 and 14 of the Public Order Act, with mass arrests made for breaches of those conditions. The UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai has since reported that the threshold for using sections 12 and 14 is ‘too low’ and presented a threat to the right to protest.

Therefore, while advocates of water cannon emphasise the fact that its use would need to be authorised by the most senior officers, it is difficult to be confident that this would prevent their deployment against peaceful protesters. It is also hard to understand why in a time of austerity, when cuts are being made to front line community policing, a substantial sum of money would be spent on instruments which are expected to be used extremely rarely and to have no impact on those protesting against cuts.

The idea that water cannon is a preferable option to other public order tactics is exemplified by the Association of Chief Police Officers’ statement that ‘in the absence of the availability of water cannon tactics it is likely that police commanders would have to authorise alternative tactics (involving significant force) which may include … batons, mounted officers, vehicle tactics, police dogs or even firearms.’ Apart from the fact that the use of these other weapons in public order situations is highly questionable, as noted above, it is simply not correct to assume that the use of water cannon is just unpleasant and does not cause serious injury.

It is concerning that, despite having been accepted as being of little use for the situation which was the original idea for its introduction (the 2011 riots), the measure is still under consideration. In effect, the fear of future disorder on the streets has been used as justification for a measure that could, instead, be used to clamp down on future dissent against austerity measures and other unpopular Government policies.

It is likely that the risk of such instruments being used will combine with other factors, including the threat of surveillance and inclusion on ‘national domestic extremism’ databases, to deter involvement in peaceful protest. Viewed in this context, the drive to introduce water cannon appears to be part and parcel of an increasing intolerance towards protests causing any type of disruption, even where they are not violent. As such, and particularly at a time when a final decision on authorising their use remains outstanding, it is important to campaign against the introduction of this further repressive measure in the interests of preserving rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Autumn 2014’s Socialist Lawyer magazine.

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