Three and half years after UK Uncut demonstrators were assaulted with CS spray by a Metropolitan police officer, a case brought by some of the protesters has finally resulted in compensation and a formal apology.
On 30 January 2011, UK Uncut organised a protest on Oxford Street in London to highlight the tax avoidance policies of Alliance Boots, then the Swiss-based parent company of the high-street Boots pharmacy chain (it was subsequently acquired by a US company in 2012). The protest was peaceful with little police interference during an occupation of Boots and other shops, but late in the day a demonstrator was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage.
As the crowd protested her innocence, a police officer, PC James Kiddie, discharged his CS canister without warning in a broad sweep directly into the faces of the crowd, from less than a metre away. He followed this up by spraying another smaller group of protesters twice in quick succession.
Netpol member Green and Black Cross (GBC), who were on the ground providing legal observer support, gathered details from people affected, helped to collect evidence and found a solicitor to take action against the Metropolitan Police. One complainant dropped out believing, not entirely without foundation, that the police would obstruct any complaint made and that the hassle of legal proceedings were not worth the effort. However, others persisted: whilst the formal police complaints process is often a frustrating and demoralising experience, with many complaints ending with no further action after many months of waiting, this incident was different because there was video footage captured showing what had happened. Furthermore, the support provided by GBC and by UK Uncut in finding witnesses and those who had been sprayed with CS was crucial in ensuring complainants’ testimony were not sidelined.
Nevertheless, the initial internal complaints investigation by the Metropolitan Police, which absolved the officer of any wrong doing, was described by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) on appeal as “brief, poor and reveal[ing] very little evidence that sufficient inquiries [had] been made”. A further reinvestigation by the police also found the officer had done nothing wrong, but the IPCC upheld a second appeal and recommended the officer face a misconduct meeting. In March this year he was finally found to have used excessive and unlawful force.
The Met have now finally settled the civil claim by protesters – which most importantly, for those who brought the initial complaints, includes an apology from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. He has admitted not only that the force was used unlawfully, but also that it had a deterrent effect on the right to protest. Hogan-Howe also acknowledges that it should not have required two appeals to the IPCC to ensure the Met was able to tell the difference between right and wrong.
So was it worth it? Ultimately, the wrongdoing of a police officer has been held to account and the Met have been forced to publicly apologise. However, an important lesson for other protesters is that this success would not have been possible without the presence of trained legal observers and the ongoing support provided by GBC.
Furthermore, the unlawful use of force remains a persistent feature of protest policing and the police show few signs of backing away from the ‘Total Policing’ approach, but officers already complain about ‘not wanting to end up on YouTube’ because they are routinely filmed by protesters. Hopefully they will now think twice about their use of force, knowing protesters are organised and determined to fight for justice.
This is the full apology from the Commissioner:
The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis apologises to the Claimants in this claim for the actions of the officer on 30 January 2011 and for the subsequent delay in the resolution of your complaints.
We accept that the officer’s actions amount to excessive force and as such were unnecessary and unlawful. We also acknowledge that his use of CS spray caused you, variously, intense pain, momentary loss of sight, and feelings of panic and fear. We acknowledge that this has deterred you from exercising your fundamental right to protest. We apologise that this occurred.
We also apologise for the fact that it was not until you had appealed to the IPCC that in March 2014 the officer was found at a misconduct meeting to have used unlawful force against you. It is acknowledged that the delay in reaching this outcome exacerbated your distress arising from these events.
We acknowledge today that these events should never have happened.