Posts Tagged 'demonstration'

Wolf at the door…

How far is too far when it comes to demonstrations? A review has been ordered following this Unite protest (Image from BBC)

If I owned a front drive then on it I’d probably expect to see my car, some weeds and possibly next door’s cat.

An auto-mobile, dandelions and a feline are all perfectly acceptable things to have on a driveway and so wouldn’t cause the owner of said drive to phone the police, or at least if they did then attending officers wouldn’t be particularly impressed.

Replace the visiting cat with thirty demonstrators waving banners accompanied by an inflatable rat though and it’s a different story.

As you’ll probably have noticed in the news recently, this was the form a protest by Unite union members took during the course of the dispute over the closure of the Grangemouth refinery last month.

With industrial relations at a low point and job losses threatened, Unite members had turned up at the home address of one of the refinery bosses to show that they had “nowhere to hide”.

The PM described the union’s tactics as ‘shocking’ and now Bruce Carr QC is going to conduct an enquiry into the demonstration tactics used by the union and whether the law needs changing to prevent harassment and intimidation.

The inquiry I find interesting as I’d been wondering about the course of action I may have taken had I been one of the officers sent to attend the protest when it happened.

The right to peaceful protest is an important one – I’d describe it as a legal ‘biggie’ – and is rightfully protected in law as one of the basic human rights.

Infringements on the right to protest have to be very carefully considered and us police have a duty to ensure that people are able to hold demonstrations to uphold their views, even in cases such as BNP whose views and values the same officers will totally abhor.

Set against this though, the right to protest doesn’t equate to a right to bully and nor does it allow people the right to cause people fear and upset in their own homes.

The articles of the Human Rights Act 1998 set out the balancing act that needs to be achieved, it guarantees freedom of expression and at the same time, the right to respect for privacy and family life.

As such the first thing I’d have done on arrival would probably have been to grab my legal scales, throw on an Old Bailey-style dress and to think how to weigh up the two competing demands.

The decision I’d make would be based on the understanding that whilst the right to protest is important, I’d feel very uncomfortable should this right extend so far as to allow a ‘mob’ to descend on a person’s home and no doubt cause great distress to young children or other persons completely unconnected with the dispute who may be present.

Targeting a demonstration outside an office is one thing, taking a giant rat to someone’s front door quite another.

As such I’d be requesting the demonstrators dissipate which I’m sure they’d do peacefully, hopefully that could be considered the end of the matter.

As a bobby it can be tempting to look at such incidents in relation to what criminal action could be taken.

Due to the sensitivities outlined above I’d be reluctant to go down this route although for serious occurrences, such demonstrations may drift towards being considered to represent a public order offence or perhaps give grounds for an allegation of harassment.

Arguments over the public interest to bring about prosecutions and whether the protests were ‘reasonable’ would then invariably spring up left, right and centre.

It’s hard to judge how appropriate considering criminal charges would be when it comes to policing demonstrations such as that in Scotland, rather though it’d be much more preferable were the organisers of the demonstrations to conduct them in such a way that these questions need not be asked in the first place.

Working from seven to eleven every night…

Demonstrations in Birmingham over the weekend saw us officers switched to twelve hour shifts. Sudden developments such as this are a part of the job we have to learn to live with.

Unpredictability is pretty much the only thing about police work that can be predicted with any certainty.

Even the simplest ambitions for a shift get thrown out the window when you walk into the station and get told ‘such and such has happened, kit up and get on the carrier’.

Such was the case this week when on Wednesday I came into work to first meet someone in the locker room who said “Have you heard, we’re all on until two in the morning?”.

Always preferring to double check, my sergeant says the same as I walked into the office and then there it was on the intranet – all officers now to work twelve hour shifts with immediate effect.

Knowing that there’s no wriggle room when the message has come from one of our Assistant Chief Constables, the next thing that happens is that you suddenly realise you’re going to need to rearrange any plans you had.

The work to-do list is one thing, the real issues come though when officers realise they’re not going to be able to pick up their children from school, they won’t be able to make the evening’s dinner party or the last train home.

A flurry of phone calls follows with partners, probably not for the first time, working out how they’re going to ensure the cat still gets fed that night.

Whilst it’s not uncommon to find officers working an hour or two past the time at which they thought they might have been going home, thankfully blanket shift extensions are much rarer.

Awkward they can be, they do have the effect though of pulling everyone together with officers helping each other cope with the toll of the longer days and lack of rest.

With applications for Specials opening at some point soon and regular recruitment perhaps to follow*, this unpredictable side of the job needs to be factored in when those interested think if the job’s really for them.

The public comes first and they always will – being able to put the public first requires a flexibility that few other jobs will ever call for.

* Nope, haven’t heard anything about us recruiting but will let you know when I do!

One time and one time only…

A year on from the August Riots the canteen at the station is a much more peaceful place – what perspective has the year put on the disorders though?

A year ago this week officers from Walsall, from Birmingham, London and across the country found themselves in the midst of some of the worst rioting seen in England for years.

The destruction seemed wholesale, the rioters shockingly ambitious and at the same time random in their choice of victims. Images of police lines stretched across a blazing skyline shot across the world, leaving in their wake tough questions about how the riots had come to be.

Writing now, a year on, it’s hard to believe that a year has passed since those three days in August.

Repairs to the stricken areas continue, buildings have been torn down and the empty gaps they’ve left stand as a stark reminder of what can happen when the perception spreads that law and order has broken down.

I can’t claim to have played a particularly important role in the riots myself. I wasn’t one of the officers charging past broken shops near the Bullring, nor was I stood watching the Carpetright shop engulfed by a firestorm in Haringey.

Instead I was one of the many officers working extended shifts to restore the impression that the law still stood, that those who had come to riot would face the consequences and that the public ought not be panicked by what they saw each night on the news.

Looking back, what stood out to me at the time and what still stands today is the impression that whilst the rioters seemed to enjoy a fleeting taste of the upper hand, the police and other emergency services reacted and adapted with a professionalism that was nothing short of inspiring.

Rest days were cancelled, officers found themselves in unfamiliar situations and faced people on the streets who appeared set upon harming them by any means possible.

Faced with such apparent hatred the officers I worked alongside didn’t buckle, didn’t hesitate – instead they volunteered to work on, shift after shift in unimaginable situations and without a word of complaint.

To me the riots were particularly disturbing owing to the suddenness with which they took hold.

Riots, I’d always thought, would be prefaced by a period of visible tension, by rising discontent leading to a tipping point at which tensions boiled over and barricades sprung up.

A great deal of work has been done investigating the cause of the riots, notably through the Guardian and LSE’s collaborative project Reading The Riots, with various reasons raised by the rioters themselves in attempts to explain why they had taken to the streets.

Frustration at the use of Stop & Search powers in some areas has been floated as one reason and as a contributor; an argument could be made that these frustrations represent the preface I’d have expected with shooting of Mark Duggan representing the tipping point.

Sensible use of stop powers allied with better communication with the affected communities seem to be the way forward to address perceptions of frustration, and indeed forces across the country have already done a great deal of work to bridge divides.

Other explanations have looked towards gangs, social media and simple opportunism, the latter of which I think seems the most convincing explanation for why people, sometimes even those with no criminal background, found their way to the trouble spots and began to loot.

A year’s hindsight has suggested to me that whatever the cause of the original riots in Tottenham, the disorders that followed were able to take place because the idea had taken hold that ‘everyone was at it’, that the opportunity had unexpectedly presented itself to loot with impunity and that this, for some, was an opportunity that could not be missed.

As for why the riots came to a close, officers being made available in large numbers through Mutual Aid, some 16,000 in London alone, now appears to have been the principle deterrent to those thinking of returning to the streets for another night of disorder.

Proposed cuts to police numbers in this respect need to keep this in view – financial circumstances make cuts necessary but not at the expense of our ability to raise large numbers should the need arise.

The tragic deaths of the three men on Dudley Road, Birmingham, similarly arrested the further development of the riots, accompanied as they were by the impassioned appeal for calm of Tariq Jahan, father of one of those lost.

The riots, already sinister in tone, had taken on a direction that even those originally enthusiastic about the looting seemed reluctant to follow.

A year seems like a long time but as I’ve said, looking back it’s hard to believe that twelve months now stand between today and those chaotic, hellish scenes.

The need to maintain a visible, believable presence, alongside an ability to rapidly respond to incidents before they are able to escalate, will likely be the key elements in preventing a repeat of history and I think are some of the most important considerations to take from the riots.

Whilst the riots thankfully reached their conclusion after a few long days, a conclusion is yet to be reached on their legacy, with this anniversary reminding us that time does not heal all wounds.

The IPCC, for example, is yet to report on Mark Duggan’s death and investigations are ongoing to identify outstanding rioters with Operation View still yielding results in the West Midlands.

We have the flexibility in our structure and the quality in our people to deal with situations such as those seen during last August.

The real measure of our response to the riots will come not on this anniversary but in ten, twenty or thirty years time – should those decades pass without a repeat of the 2011 riots then we’ll know the steps we took away from Tottenham were steps taken in the right direction.

Olympics update – apologies for the lack of blogs over the past few weeks, I’d been down in London helping Lord Coe out at the games. I’m looking at putting a blog together about the experience of living and working in the capital just as soon as the games themselves draw to a close – highlights include the torch relay, Team USA and Wimbledon so stay tuned!.

March in the morning sun…

The Police Federation is encouraging officers to come to London today and take part in a protest march against the Winsor Report – why are they doing this though and what’s in the report itself?

If you keep your peepers on the news today, you’re probably going to see something about a rather orderly demonstration making its way through the streets of Westminster. You’ll notice that it’s a little over-policed (pretty much every marcher is a police officer) and that the participants are opposing something called the Winsor Report.

What’s going on though? What’s the reason for this mass foot patrol and why are some members of the police force not happy about the changes to their pay and conditions as proposed by Winsor?

First of all, this is a pretty difficult one to write about for a range of reasons.

The Winsor Report itself is spread over a few hundred fact-filled pages and doesn’t make the easiest bedtime reading so summing it up is far from easy.

There are also a range of opinions about what the proposals really mean and how they’re likely to affect the police – representing all sides fairly is far from straightforward.

This said, I’ll try my best – who is Tom Winsor and what’s he got to say about policing?

Mr. Winsor is a lawyer and Great Britain’s former Rail Regulator. In 2010 the Home Secretary, Theresa May, asked him to sit down and take a look at how police pay and conditions could be reviewed with the objective of improving the efficiency of how the police manage their manpower and to ensure that remuneration and working conditions are fair.

This is set within the context of the harsh economic climate – a national debt of around £18 billion and an estimated cost to the taxpayer for public sector pensions of £32 billion, out of which £1.9 billion is accounted for by police pensions.

Review he did and in March last year the first part of his report was published looking at recommendations aimed at making short term improvements. It predicted that if the changes suggested were adopted, savings from the police pay bill of £1.1 billion were possible over a three year period.

Before Part One could be brought into force, negotiations took place with the Police Federation (who represent rank and file officers) as to which of the recommendations would be accepted. At the conclusion of this process, the Home Secretary announced that she would support the implementation of Part One’s recommendations.

After a pregnant pause lasting a year, the second part of the Winsor Report was published. Part Two looks at longer term changes to the police force with some of the key suggestions being as follows -

  • A new direct entry scheme to Inspector level
  • Pension age to be raised from 55 to 60
  • Compulsory severance for police officers
  • A reduction in pay for officers not in a position requiring the use of their warranted powers and for those on medical restrictions
  • Introduction of an annual fitness test
  • Changes to how officers progress through the pay scales including shorter intervals and payment linked to skills

In favour of these recommendations, Winsor argues that they will reward the hardest working officers and in his words ‘create a more skilled and effective workforce fit to face the challenges of the next thirty years’.

Raising the retirement age should help address the funding gap in public sector pensions and by opening up direct entry to senior ranks, it is proposed that policing will appear a more attractive career path and so attract the best candidates.

Winsor believes the ability to make police officers redundant will help Chief Constables better manage their resources in times of financial hardship and that the skills base of forces will be improved by introducing a stronger financial incentive to gain valued training and experience.

Opposing the report, the Police Federation has expressed concern that the review could ‘dismantle’ the British police service.

It is said that the first part of the review, alongside the Hutton report on public sector pensions, have already dented morale and that officers feel betrayed that the conditions for which they signed up for are apparently being weakened with the perception being that they will have to work longer and contribute more but end up with less on retirement. Job security could be threatened by compulsory redundancies and the report’s focus on front line duties may undervalue important backroom functions.

In addition to these concerns, the Federation say their members are expressing wider frustrations with the series of financial cuts expected of the service (20% across four years) as well as staff reductions and perceived moves towards ‘privatisation’ of the police.

As I said at the start of this blog, this isn’t an easy one to sum up in under a thousand words and as such I think the best I can do, having given a brief overview, is to point you in the right direction to find out a little more about the issues raised by the march. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin -

Did you see the stylish kids in the riot? Shovelled up like muck, set the night on fire…

Do you remember the riots back in August? Well, we do. Rather well in fact.

Thanks to this fantastic memory of ours, coupled with hours of CCTV footage and a huge investigation assisted by yourselves, the good public, we’re still actively out arresting those involved and bringing them to justice.

New images are being added to the Operation View website and I’d encourage you to cast your eye over the gallery and see if you recognise any of the outstanding offenders. We’ll then be able to pay a friendly visit to them, as you can see us doing in the above video, and see whether we can’t find them a Christmas break courtesy of Her Majesty’s Prison Service.

You can get in touch with us directly by dialing 101 or via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

As an incentive to make the call you can also see some of the rioters’ court results on the Operation View website. You’ll notice the large number of custodial sentences handed out, in many cases thanks to public help in identifying offenders.

I heard it through the grapevine…

The image of the station I uploaded to help quell internet rumours that it'd burnt down.

For myself, I’d say that by far Tuesday August 9th was the busiest day of the ‘Birmingham Riots’. Funnily enough this wasn’t because there were any riots, not in Walsall anyway, but because in the wake of the disorder seen in the city centre the night before, the social media networks were alive with rumour and speculation about where the trouble would next spread.

Before I tell you about my experience over that thirteen hour shift, I think it’d be useful to give a little background to why I became involved in social media in the first place.

Two important things came together to result in me starting on behalf of the police firstly a Twitter account and later a blog. These were the fact that I’m a geek and also the fact that being a geek and having some knowledge of how social media works, I could see the obvious benefits of using it as a police officer to communicate directly with the public.

I’ve written before about why we tweet and why I think social media has such an important part to play in modern day policing. The positive results can be seen daily across the force with officers able to give short, interesting updates to keep those they police updated.

With the riots starting in Tottenham and then spreading north the value and importance of maintaining a police presence on sites such as Twitter was quickly brought into sharp focus with accounts such as my own attracting thousands of additional followers, all people keen for reliable, real time updates on what was happening.

Last Tuesday saw me spending most of the shift sitting in the passenger seat of a patrol car with my phone in my lap. @replies were flooding in on Twitter from people around Walsall and further afield and I was both able to monitor the rumours and also gauge and then respond to people’s concerns.

As one of the first events of a scale capable of touching everyone in the country to have unfolded since of the establishment of social media, it was fascinating to see how quickly rumours caught hold and how willingly people would accept them.

That I was able to respond the quell such rumours there and then I think was incredibly valuable in that I believe, or at least hope, that an update from a policeman on the scene would have far more weight attached to it than would a groundless ‘I’ve heard…’ update, and so help reassure people accordingly.

One of the best rumours of the day was that my police station was on fire. Despite assurances that it wasn’t, I eventually had to publish a photo of the station very much not on fire to convince the rather worried population of Twitter. This photo was then forwarded on over a hundred times by my followers.

Since the disorder has died down, there has been debate about the role played by social media in the riots and indeed whether it was to blame. Some have even called for social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook to be shut down during times of turmoil.

My thoughts on this are that for any message that encouraged people to meet up in Birmingham or Wolverhampton, as examples, the networks were clogged with hundreds of other false and fruitless ‘It’s going to kick off at…’ tweets meaning the rumour mill itself impacted of social media’s apparent ability to focus people at a certain time and place as the ‘plans’ became so diluted and disorganised.

Furthermore I’m quite skeptical that it’d be either technically possible or indeed ethical to deny access to networks which the majority of the public use for peaceful ends. Think of the uproar that occurs when Facebook goes offline for even a few hours – people depend on it to keep in touch with their friends and family and I think proposing to shut down the service shows that this aspect of social media is not being properly considered.

There’d also be the obvious problem that with one service removed, another pops up offering the same capability and so where would media controls end? Closing down message boards? Stopping text messages? Blocking the millions of chat rooms? The era of mass communication is not something that can be switched off.

Riots are things that have been happening way before the advent of social media – no one Tweeted about the violent Poll Tax demonstrations – and I believe that periods of disorder are when the police and other emergency services most need an ability to directly interact with the public.

It’s in the immediate aftermath of a major incident – a fire or serious crash for example – that my Twitter account attracts the greatest amount of attention and this is because people value a direct response from those ‘in the know’.

This is not to say that some of the rioters didn’t get the idea to join in the ‘fun’ having received the call on BBM, I’m sure they did, but the merits of social networking still far, far outweigh the disadvantages at the time of a crisis.

Yes, misinformation can spread and spread fast but so can reliable, reassuring updates and at a time of unrest, this is what people need most of all.

It’s all over now, Baby Blue…

My 'Dedication' pic - 39,000 something views, over 2000 retweets, picked up by Sky News, ITV, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Express & Star to name a few...

Whilst I’m writing this, many officers across the West Midlands and further afield are slowly returning to normality after the tumultuous days of the previous week.

As the pic above shows, the shifts we’ve worked have been long, they’ve been tiring and demanding but at the same time have been necessary. Our job is to serve the public and when such an extraordinary set of circumstances arises, we are compelled to do all we can to return a sense of order to the streets.

When I talk about ‘normality’ of course, I guess it’s important to recognise that when it comes to the job of a police officer, there’s really no such thing.

‘Normality’ for officers in Walsall yesterday meant dealing with a major factory fire in the centre of the town. Normality meant the helicopter hovering overhead as units rushed around sealing off roads, evacuating houses and us looking like fluorescent windmills as we directed traffic around the scene of the incident.

I’d said earlier in the week how important the support of the public has been in helping officers through the longer shifts and giving us that extra boost when we reached four in the morning having worked however many hours and upon trying to write a statement, felt so tired that the words on the paper appeared to jump out of order and dance around the room.

The level of support that we’ve received, particularly through the social media sites, has in my experience been quite unprecedented and through my Twitter account alone I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of messages wishing us well and congratulating us for our work.

I’ve been making sure that these messages find their way to the officers who are not quite as technically minded as myself and am really struggling to put into writing how much they’ve meant to us or what a difference it makes to know that whilst a small band of hoodlums have been out causing trouble, the vast majority of the public have been as shocked as we were at the scale of the disorder.

From talking to people whilst we’ve been out on foot patrols it is clear that this support is evenly distributed and there have been some superb acts of kindness shown by the public, locally with biscuits being dropped in at Willenhall Police Station and some rather delicious cakes finding their way to the nick at Walsall.

Of course from one point of view, the title of this blog is a little misleading (sorry Bob) as yes, whilst police officers are slowly resuming their normal duties, a wider discussion is now taking place on the cause of the riots and how to prevent their re-occurrence. We’re looking at ‘Broken Britain’, enhanced policing powers and importing super cops. Whilst the disorders have subsided, they were symptoms of a wider disease and it is the disease itself that needs a cure.

In addition to this discussion, efforts to identify and prosecute those sophisticated criminals who took part in the looting are ongoing with Operation View in the West Midlands now well established and yielding successes on a daily basis.

Eight days ago I don’t imagine anyone could have predicted how the rest of the week would have panned out. This is the nature of policing though, the unpredictability is something we’re used to but this isn’t to say that makes it any easier to deal with. What has helped though is your support, support that’ll not be readily forgotten.


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