Is dialogue with Police Liaison Officers really ‘voluntary’?

Police Liaison Officers at the March against Austerity in June 2014. PHOTO: Netpol

A cluster of Police Liaison Officers at the March against Austerity in June 2014. PHOTO: Netpol

Nearly a year after we first raised concerns about new guidelines on the policing of anti-fracking protests, we have finally had some answers to questions we raised with the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC).

In the third of four posts, we look at police attitudes to the use of ‘dialogue’ and ‘liaison’ and whether senior officers have a different understanding from protesters about what these words really mean. Earlier posts cover intelligence-gathering operations and body-worn cameras at anti-fracking protests.

Senior police officers insist communication and ‘engagement’ is fundamental to the policing of anti-fracking protests, in order to develop what last year’s NPCC guidance called ‘a relationship of trust between police and protesters’.

To achieve this, commanders are relying heavily on the deployment of Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) – the officers in the blue bibs – who have become a ubiquitous part of protests around the country.

The trouble is, this strategy has largely failed. Protesters widely distrust PLOs because of the overwhelming evidence of their role as intelligence-gatherers. Understandable concerns about surveillance (particularly at anti-fracking camps) are fuelled further by the use by officers of body-worn cameras and the involvement of counter-terrorism officers in policing operations.

Senior officers have previously denied PLOs participate in collecting intelligence. However, the NPCC now repeats an agreed position we increasingly hear from policing circles, that whilst PLOs are “not tasked to gather intelligence by a police commander, they may be presented with intelligence during the course of events”. They will in turn submit this “as per their usual force procedure”.

With so few people choosing to voluntarily talk to them, we highlighted last summer how PLOs are now encouraged to intervene directly to “influence a positive tone, style and manner of any protest” – in other words, to actively try to mould the tactics and decisions made by protesters.

Engagement “entirely voluntary”

The NPCC’s pledge that contact with PLOs is “entirely voluntary and protesters will not be coerced into engagement” does therefore seem like a useful and potentially significant clarification – not least because this has not always been the case.

In an effort to ‘engage’, we have heard repeated reports of unexpected phone calls and unwelcome visits from police at campaigners’ homes and workplaces. Recently, one senior officer even rang an anti-fracking campaign group demanding the removal of a posting on social media.

Unfortunately, it is also extremely difficult to maintain any meaningful sense of a ‘voluntary’ boundary when PLOs are actively working the crowds at rallies and demonstrations. Where once officers kept their distance, PLOs are invariable positioned within assembled groups, constantly seeking to chat and ask questions.

They are often in such close proximity that they can overhear conversations between protesters. PLOs are also deployed irrespective of whether protest organisers wish to engage in communication with the police and there seems no easy way to ask them to leave.

Furthermore, the promise that protesters are never obliged to talk to PLOs is somewhat undermined by the NPCC’s lack of any alternatives for communicating with protest groups. What the NPCC calls a “continuous partnership liaison” is not the only way to provide two-way dialogue.

Other options do exist: police commanders can respond constructively to requests for communication instigated by protest groups themselves and can respect the way protesters wish to determine when and how this takes place. Protest groups have, for example, decided in the past to appoint their own ‘police liaison’ who simply conveys messages to and from the senior officer on the ground.

Nevertheless, Assistant Chief Constable Sarah Hamlin in her correspondence to Netpol on behalf of the NPCC insisted that “even if protesters decide not to engage with PLOs, this does not mean that PLOs are not able to provide important information to commanders” and are “therefore likely to be deployed even at events where non-engagement is believed to be likely”.

Even in situations where police commanders know protesters are likely to actively avoid contact with PLOs, their deployment remains the only strategy the NPCC is prepared to consider – we suspect because of the surveillance advantages that these officers provide.

‘Self Regulation’

There are, however, many reasons for protesters to continue to treat the police’s motives for engagement with suspicion. The most obvious is a genuine concern about the prevailing emphasis on intelligence-gathering, but there is also what the NPCC calls efforts by PLOs to “increase self-regulation with regard to criminal activity”.

Most groups will reject the idea that the police has any business intervening in the “tone, style and manner” of a protest. Protesters make decisions within their groups based on shared values and discussion: how they choose to ‘self-regulate’ is entirely a matter for them.

Our concern is that attempts by PLOs to encourage ‘self-regulation’ carry real risks of becoming routinely coercive, a way to try to moderate or disrupt protesters’ plans. They are also seemingly intended to encourage division and internal conflict and deliberately isolate anyone advocating civil disobedience tactics.

That is why questions of proportionality are vital to the tactics police choose to adopt. In the words of the OSCE’s guidelines on freedom of assembly, “the least intrusive means of achieving the legitimate objective being pursued by the authorities should always be given preference”. It adds that as a fundamental right, protests should “insofar as possible, be enjoyed without regulation”.

In our view, that must extend to coercive efforts to impose and then shape intrusive ‘self-regulation’ of protest groups from outside.

The NPCC insists that “the fact that protesters have chosen not to engage… is not a trigger to deploy additional or alternative tactics”. We wait to see, however, whether this is true in practice.

The experience of anti-fracking camps at Upton and Horse Hill over the last twelve months does strongly indicate that local forces are simply not abiding by this message.

The National Police Chiefs Council’s full response is available here [ pdf_icon,183 kB]