Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) have become a regular part of the policing of political protest up and down the country, ostensibly to promote ‘dialogue and communication’. Jason Parkinson, in a film made for the Guardian, has questioned the extent to which the PLO’s are also using their role to intimidate, harass, and gather intelligence on political activists.

Netpol has been monitoring the use of Police Liaison Officers in Sussex and London. We have concerns, based on our observations, that PLOs are taking on some of the intelligence gathering tasks that were previously done by the now widely distrusted ‘Forward Intelligence Teams’ (FIT).

The collection and retention of personal data relating to protesters forms part of police strategy. It has been well established that the police have retained personal data relating to thousands of protesters, regardless of whether or not they have ever been arrested or convicted of a criminal offence. John Catt found that even at 85 years old, his attendance at protest was being monitored by a national police unit dealing with ‘domestic extremism’. Regular participation in protest activity is, in itself, seen as sufficient justification for the police retaining personal information on databases which are searchable to provide a pattern of individual protest activity over time.

In the wake of controversy over the policing of the G20 protests, at which Ian Tomlinson was killed, official recommendations were made to ‘clarify’ the role of Forward Intelligence Teams. Forward Intelligence teams had a remit to gather evidence and intelligence on groups and individual protesters. This included:

• to establish a dialogue with individuals and groups to gather information and intelligence;
• to gather intelligence by observation and conversation supplemented with the effective use of camera, video and/or other technical equipment;
• to monitor marshalling, assembly and dispersal areas;
• to identify demonstrators by using intelligence gathering and photographic teams;
• to obtain information about participants and future events.

While there is still little in the way of official clarity or transparency on the way these strategies are used, our monitoring has detected a change in the way the tactics have been implemented. There now appear to be three distinct roles: Evidence Gathering Teams (EGTs) which are deployed with cameras; Forward Intelligence Teams, whose role it is to collect detailed ‘intelligence’ based on observation; and PLOs, whose role it is to obtain information through dialogue.

Sussex police insist that the ‘primary role’ of PLO’s is not data gathering, but “to increase engagement with protest groups by supporting an open and honest two-way dialogue with them, before during and after events.” They have so far been less forthcoming in describing what happens to any information gathered by PLOs in the course of this dialogue, or whether that information is retained on police databases or made available to other policing bodies.

PLOs have been deployed at a range of events, including Ukuncut and DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) protests, anti-EDL demonstrations and Critical Mass. Observers have repeatedly reported that PLOs have made attempts to obtain personal details or information relating to individuals thought to have played a role in the organisation of protest. While the PLOs insist that this information is purely to facilitate communication and dialogue, protesters may be forgiven for being less than convinced.

Those identified may not always wish to be the targets for ‘communication and dialogue’. The Guardian film shows Sussex PLOs making an unannounced and unwelcome visit to an activists home, during which she was interrogated as to whether she was a member of protest group Ukuncut, and told that she had been identified as a ‘leader’ by observing her participation in demonstrations.

PLO’s are of immense value as an intelligence gathering tool. Rather than stay on the peripheries of a demonstration, as other police units do, they embed themselves within it. Working in ones and twos they move amongst the crowd, chatting, watching, and building relationships with protesters. It is surely highly unlikely that this capacity for intelligence gathering would not be exploited.

Both Sussex and Metropolitan Police forces have recruited PLOs with a background in intelligence. Sean McDonald, (who features in the Guardian film, but has now retired from Sussex Police) was well known by activists in Brighton for his previous role in forward intelligence and public order policing. The Metropolitan police have also deployed PLOs with an intelligence or counter-terrorism background.

Few object to courteous, friendly and helpful policing. But this police initiative is dishonest and manipulative. Far from actively facilitating protest, it forms part of a wider policing strategy that seems focussed on deterring and preventing it.