A tweet sent by Sussex Police Liaison on New Years Eve has angered campaigners, as it appears to show a less than positive attitude towards the right to protest. Police Liaison Officers say their role is to support protest rights by developing dialogue and communication, but they have faced attack previously by activists and monitoring groups who have accused them of harassing activists and exploiting trust to gather intelligence on protest groups

The offending tweet invited people to ‘quit protesting’ on New Years Eve, suggesting protest was an anti-social habit that should be jettisoned with a New Year resolution, like giving up smoking. It was possibly intended to be a bit of ‘light-hearted banter’, but has perhaps revealed an attitude towards protest that is not so amiable. The critical response on twitter to the @SusPolPLO tweet even prompted the local paper the Argus to report on the incident. One protest group, Smash EDO responded:

Police Liaison Officers are now a common sight at protest, both in London and in regions around the country. They are the ‘friendly face’ of public order policing, but the smiles are always backed up by the threat of force. As one Sussex based Police Liaison Officer explained to a Netpol monitor, “We are the nice cops. If you won’t engage with us, we can just send in the nasty cops.”

Speaking to the Argus, Chief Inspector Justin Burtenshaw of Sussex police maintained that PLOs ‘support the right to peaceful protest’, but in practical terms PLOs are more likely to support the needs of public order policing. A common role of PLOs, especially in London, has been to make sure that protesters are confined to ‘designated areas’, contained in despised ‘protest pens’ constructed from crowd control barriers. They are more suited to sheep than people.

Netpol has received reports of PLO behaviour at a recent demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy in London, at which the police had enforced a protest pen on the far side of a busy road. One man objected that the police were moving people away from where they wanted to protest – outside the embassy. He was told in response, by a Police Liaison Officer, that the restrictions were necessary as “businesses have a right to stay open”. Setting aside the question of whether the constraints applied to the protest really did make a difference to local businesses, the officer’s reply suggests that the need to support business had greater weight than the duty to support peaceful protest.

Observers noted that Police Liaison officers worked tirelessly to persuade, cajole and bully protesters into the inadequate protest pen. They even convinced the organisers to halt speeches until they had managed to move people into the ‘designated area’.

Many Police Liaison Officers in London are drawn from officers already working in the Public Order Unit, and have a background in providing tactical advice or intelligence gathering. We have seen little evidence that PLOs genuinely mediate between protesters and public order commanders; instead the role appears to be primarily a PR exercise, to ease the enforcement of public order policing and to make it more palatable in the glare of the media spotlight.

Given all this, it is perhaps not surprising that activists objected to the ‘light-hearted comment’ from @SusPolPLO. It is entirely possible that a number of PLOs really would prefer a world where people ‘gave up protest’ on New Years Eve.