Why do small, peaceful anti-fracking protests attract such huge policing operations and so much surveillance? New guidance on the policing of anti-fracking protests raises far more questions than it answers.
The guide, ‘Policing linked to Onshore Oil and Gas Operations‘ [, 438 kB], has been issued by the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC), which replaced the former Association of Chief Police Officers in April this year. Although ostensibly authored by the NPCC’s national lead on ‘Fracking Protests and Public Order’, Staffordshire Assistant Chief Constable Bernie O’Reilly, its main point of contact is Chief Inspector David Bird, an officer who has, according to Corporatewatch, connections to national ‘domestic extremist’ units and a background in surveillance targeting animal rights and environmental protests.
The guidance is aimed primarily at police commanders, claiming to seek “a more consistent approach” by police forces around the country, so much of the document is therefore concerned with operational planning and deployment issues, but there are a number of references to the need for building “positive relationship with protesters”. However, it is also apparent that the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU), which coordinates mass surveillance on protests movements, have heavily influenced the guidance and that ‘relationships’ are only ‘positive’ in this context when they lead to usable intelligence.
One of the more surprising claims in the guidance is that the deployment of blue-bibbed Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) has “demonstrated a successful and incremental approach to the policing of public events in recent years” [3.7.3] and was seen by police forces as aiding communication with “protesters and legal observers present at many protest sites” [5.3.6]. Having spoken extensively to protest groups up and down the country, this is not the conclusion Netpol has reached about PLOs: instead, we have found an overwhelming unwillingness amongst most protesters to talk to them at all.
Nevertheless, the guidance insists that PLOs provide opportunities to “influence a positive tone, style and manner of any protest” [3.7.4], that their presence “led to a good degree of ‘self policing’ within the protest groups” [5.3.5] and they “help to negate the threat of serious criminality” [2.13]. It is evident from the document that ‘liaison policing’ is seen as extending far beyond mere communication and includes negotiation and direct influence. Unfortunately, there is evidence from earlier anti-fracking protests suggesting that in practical terms, this has meant trying to drive a wedge between ‘ordinary’ protesters and so-called ‘extremists’. PLOs have picked out individuals as targets for arrest and encouraged ‘peaceful’ protesters to move away before arrests are made.
While ‘liaison policing’ may appear to offer potential advantages for some anti-fracking protests, the guidance fails to make clear there is no mandatory requirement or legal obligation on protesters to engage with PLOs and that many have well-founded concerns about their vulnerability to intelligence gathering and the prospect of internal conflict within their campaigns if they do so. It is important that engagement with PLOs is always a choice protest groups are able to decline if they wish and that lack of engagement does not inevitably lead to harassment, the labelling of protesters as ‘extremist’ and a justification for differentiated or more ‘robust’ policing.
It is also essential that a coercive expectation of automatic engagement with PLOs is not included within any ‘Statement of Intent’ that the guidance proposes police forces should adopt [4.6.13].
The difficulty, of course, remains explaining the difference between ‘ordinary’ and ‘extremist’ when the guidance is at pains to acknowledge that the “vast majority of protests and actions taken by protesters continue to be entirely peaceful”. The diagram above, taken from the guidance, makes several questionable distinctions about ‘levels of acceptable behaviour’ and labels ‘extremism’ as ‘serious criminality’, which it says includes ‘conspiracy’ offences.
As we pointed out in April 2014, however, the definition of ‘serious crime’ for the purposes of regulating police surveillance powers includes “conduct by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose”, which pretty much describes all forms of protest. Presumably, therefore, aggravated trespass is simply ‘activism’, but planning aggravated trespass is potentially ‘extremism’. We are aware of many activists who do not even have a criminal records who have nevertheless been targeted as ‘extremists’.
It is exactly this level of flexibility about who and what is considered ‘extremist’ – leading to anyone identified as an ‘organiser’ having this label attached to them – that prevents any prospect of a “more consistent approach” by different forces, or even between different protests.
Indeed, what the document fails completely to address is the fundamental role that Police Liaison Officers undertake during policing operations in gathering intelligence. We know PLOs played a ‘pivotal role’ in intelligence-gathering against anti-fracking protesters in Balcombe and we understand they are, in general, under considerable pressure from local Special Branch and the NDEDIU to collect data and to wear body cameras when having a ‘’friendly chat’, in order to assist with facial recognition. No matter how often senior officers claim PLOs’ are used simply to ‘aid communication’, protesters are now widely familiar with their intelligence-gathering role: it is the main reason why most refuse to interact with them.
What also remains unclear is the position of the NDEDIU during an individual protest, not only as a contributor to local intelligence assessments but in directing PLOs to gather information on the structures, alliances and growth of the anti-fracking movement itself. The guidance indicates (in 2.2) that nationally, work has been undertaken on a ‘strategic intelligence requirement’ and a ‘risk based problem profile’: sophisticated tools that suggest anti-fracking protesters, as well as local communities, are liable to intensive and sustained police surveillance activities, including targeted surveillance.
The biggest issue the guidance avoids addressing, however, is a critical one: amidst thirty pages of recommendations on how to prepare for briefings, communication, IT, officers’ welfare and for the prospects of arrests, why is there no specific advice for police commanders on how best to fulfil their positive duty to safeguard protesters’ right to assembly?
If there is genuinely a “low risk and threat assessment” from what are overwhelmingly peaceful protests then why, in most cases, is there any need for a police presence at all? Why devote considerable financial and operational resources – and a nationwide coordinated approach with the involvement of counter-terrorism police and specialist intelligence units – for protests that involve, at worst, civil disobedience leading in some instances to minor summary offences?
Anti-fracking protesters already worry that the police are on the side of the fracking industry. This new document offers little to allay those fears.
Netpol will publish a more detailed analysis of the NPCC guidance shortly.