In January, Netpol discovered that the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) was planning to hold a national conference on the policing of protest.
Initially a solicitor who is also a member of the Netpol Lawyers Group was approached by the NPCC – what was previously known as the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) – and asked to participate in the conference, speaking about protests against fracking. This is a key area of Netpol’s work and so we therefore contacted Norfolk Police’s Assistant Chief Constable Sarah Hamlin, who leads the NPCC working group on Public Order & Public Safety and is organising the event, to ask if we could attend as observers.
We expected to hear nothing more, but Hamlin agreed we could attend and then went further, asked if we wanted to speak.
Last year we sent a detailed briefing to the NPCC on the policing of anti-fracking protests, which included eighteen questions on their new policy that we felt, after talking to anti-fracking groups, required urgent clarification. After receiving an acknowledgement, we received no further reply.
The NPCC conference, which is about developing future strategy and takes place on 16 March in Derby, thus provides us with a new opportunity to put these questions again, directly to policing commanders with public order responsibilities. It raises the possibility that this time, we might receive a response, if not full and genuine transparency.
We thought long and hard about speaking at the event and the possibility that the police would try to misrepresent our attendance as endorsing a policy of generally engaging directly with the police. That is not why we even considered it. The only reason to turn up is to demand answers, not to offer a viewpoint that is simply ignored.
This is why we said yes. Kevin Blowe and Val Swain from Netpol will give a presentation specifically on our briefing. The organisers have given us 30 minutes.
The police’s communications plan for the conference says its aim is “highlighting the pro-active steps forces are taking to improve the policing of protests” and that key messages include exploring ways that the police can better ‘facilitate peaceful protest’.
However, this is neither our aim nor our key message. Our aim is greater accountability for the extraordinarily disproportionate policing of anti-fracking protests; greater justice for protesters who repeatedly complain about wrongful arrests and the way they are treated; and greater transparency about the branding and criminalisation of campaigners as violent ‘domestic extremists’.
Our key message is the police certainly do have a duty to facilitate protest – the problem is not that they need to improve, but that they repeatedly fail to fulfil this duty in any way.
In the interests of our own transparency, we will post the presentation we give on our website the day after the event.