Coming soon to a British town square near you: trigger-happy and power-corrupted police officers, newly armed with water cannon, ready to hose you down with a cooling blast of high powered icy water if the authorities do not approve of the cause or tone of your protest.
The Association of Chief Police Officers, or ACPO, is submitting a request to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to authorise the use of water cannon in any town or city across England and Wales. They are doing this, they insist, to bolster their ability to control anticipated protests from what they call “ongoing and potential future austerity measures”.
The Guardian reports on this unprecedented move against the public:
The Association of Chief Police Officers says that the need to control continued protests “from ongoing and potential future austerity measures” justifies the introduction of water cannon across Britain for the first time.
The London mayor, Boris Johnson, has already announced a consultation on the introduction of water cannon on to the streets of London ready for use by this summer.
A new Acpo/College of Policing briefing paper makes clear that chief constables across England and Wales have also been asked to discuss water cannon with their police and crime commissioners and “it is anticipated that the home secretary will be approached in early 2014 in respect of water cannon authorisation”.
This attempt by ACPO to raise the spectre of an implausible large-scale breakdown in public order is complete and utter nonsense, a risible and transparent excuse to bring draconian tools of crowd control to the streets of a generally calm and peaceful liberal democracy.
This is not Ukraine or Greece. And even if we were, like Ukraine, in the grip of large-scale civil disturbances, there is every chance that the fault would rest primarily with the fictitious government and not the fictitious protesters; so why further tilt the odds even further in favour of government power to suppress dissent by arming the police with water cannon?
But the really chilling disclosure comes next:
The police envisage using their water cannon to “exert control from a distance and critically to provide a graduated and flexible application of force ranging from spray to forceful water jets. The mere presence of water cannon can have a deterrent effect and experience from Northern Ireland demonstrates that water cannon are often deployed without being employed.”
Behold the power of the deterrent effect on freedom of speech and assembly. The ACPO will make it widely known that they are purchasing some new, state-of-the-art water cannon, weapons capable of blasting 9000 litres of water into a crowd in just five minutes at potentially deadly force, and sit back and watch the anticipated protests about this or that suddenly fail to materialise – or so the theory goes. But here the enemies of civil liberties may have underestimated the level of public opposition to their scheme.
We may rarely give a second thought to the scenes of plucky, unfortunate foreign demonstrators being blasted off their feet by high power jets of water often shown in television news reports from overseas, but if such a thing were to begin happening in Trafalgar Square or in the shadow of Parliament it would be another matter entirely. The British people will not abide a bully.
Scraping the barrel for recent examples of civil disorder to justify their unprecedented request, the chief police constables produced three very weak cases:
[David Shaw, West Mercia Chief Constable] cites three occasions in the past 10 years when police commanders would have considered using water cannon on the streets of London had they been available.
He names them as the Countryside Alliance demonstration in Parliament Square in 2010, the Gaza demonstrations against the Israeli embassy in 2008-09 and “potentially” the student protests of 2010, when specific locations were targeted.
They would also have been considered during the August riots of 2011 but he concedes they would have had only limited impact on the “fast, agile disorder” seen then.
So apparently farmers and bolshy students number among the most grave threats to law and order currently on the radar of the British police. How heartening it is to know that police chiefs up and down the country are so in tune with the fears and concerns of the communities that they purportedly serve.
More ridiculous still, ACPO themselves admit that water cannon would have been entirely useless in confronting the most recent case of serious civil disturbance in Britain, the August 2011 riots, because the looting and damaging was too fleet-footed and agile. It turns out that people intent on smashing and grabbing merchandise from the windows of electronic goods stores tend not to stand still at the scene of their crime, link arms and form orderly ranks so as to be efficiently mowed down by a hastily-scrambled water cannon.
So what is this really all about? One explanation could be that ACPO are politically agitating, and trying to send a message of their disapproval of coalition austerity policies to the public and their elected representatives, essentially saying “we told you that cutting government spending would lead to chaos and disorder and we were right; now we have to take the draconian step of procuring water cannon to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy”.
This is one plausible possibility – as we have seen only too recently with the Andrew Mitchell “plebgate” scandal, there are those in the police force with very hardened agendas who would stop at nothing to discredit or cast doubt on the performance of Conservative ministers.
But in truth, a more convincing explanation is that the police just really fancy having these new toys to scare and intimidate people, that they have decided that building good community relations with the public and doing the hard work of policing large scale events just isn’t worth the effort when they can just bully the public into cowed obedience much more easily.
They likely pursued this strategy in the belief that vague and nebulous references to potential future instances of moderate civil disorder would be sufficient prompting for Theresa May to roll over and grant their wish in her desire to appear tough on the issue of law and order. The British public can only hope that she has the political courage and commitment to civil liberties to tell ACPO to back off – but based on her record, the signs are not encouraging.
The saving grace of this worrying affair will be the newly-created police and crime commissioners, now in place throughout many parts of the country – officials whose primary job it is to advocate for the local population, highlight their concerns and see them addressed by the police forces.
This brazen move by ACPO will be a good early test of the new commissioners. Do they have real teeth, and the strength to dig in their heels and make the police chiefs focus on local priorities rather than their own private Orwellian ambitions, or will they merely act as a fawning rubber stamp to power?
We may soon find out.