Can protesters believe anything Sussex Police tells them?

Sussex Police officer argues with protester

PHOTO: Jon O’Houston

Within 24 hours of the start of drilling on 31 May by UK Oil and Gas Investments (UKOG) at its Broadford Bridge well in West Sussex, Operation Edmond – the response by Sussex Police to protests at the site – is already raising the same concerns we highlighted last year about unpredictable policing and an unwillingness by officers to accommodate minor disruption to unconventional energy exploration without making arrests.

A week after a somewhat bizarre arrest for alleged obstruction of the highway that involved a protester clearly walking on a grass verge, members of the recently established Broadford Bridge Community Protection Camp were handed a map (below) by a Bronze operational commander offering a “tolerated slow walking area” along 600 metres heading towards the UKOG site from a scrap yard on Adversane Lane. Members of the camp had neither negotiated nor agreed to this proposal but it seemed to indicate that senior officers were intending a less confrontational attitude to the presence of protesters.

The first test of ‘tolerated slow walking’ came on 1 June with the arrival of two lorries delivering to the site at around 1.30pm. There was a small group of protesters gathered outside the scrap yard and Netpol was present, along with a Green & Black Cross trained legal observer, to monitor the police. Both lorries stopped close to the point where protesters were standing and the sudden disappearance of traffic indicated that police had closed the normally busy road.

After around 15 minutes, with bemused protesters starting to walk slowly along the lane and then realising the lorries were not following them, the vehicles began to move and officers suddenly started to issue warnings about obstruction of the highway, while a police Evidence Gathering Team filmed everyone. This was no more than 20 metres into the area indicated on Sussex Police map, something that protesters tried unsuccessfully to point out to the Police Liaison Officers who were present.

Photo: Netpol

We saw some officers quickly become very aggressive and one protester was arrested for failing to give his name and address under Section 50 powers designed for tackling anti-social behaviour (the officer claimed the protester had allegedly called him a ‘pig’ and said this constituted “anti-social behaviour”). As Netpol pointed out in 2013, this power has been regularly misused in the past, a fact acknowledged by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) in their ‘Adapting to Protest‘ report in 2009.

What was evident from the events we witnessed at Broadford Bridge was that officers had either not been briefed about a ‘tolerated slow walking area’ or that Sussex Police had abandoned the proposal, without informing protesters, within hours of offering it.

This has echoes of the policing operation we also witnessed last year at Horse Hill in Surrey, where its commander, Superintendent Clive Davies, told a magistrates court that his officers tolerated “slow-walking” protests. However, police have a considerable degree of discretion when it comes to the relatively minor offence of obstructing the highway and we saw and documented an uncompromising attitude to anyone stepping into the road. A number of protesters arrested at Horse Hill for obstructing the highway were later found not-guilty at trial.

This contrast between promises made by senior officers and what actually happens on the ground is an issue Netpol has heard time and again at anti-fracking protests around the country. It leads to the uncertainty about what might trigger an arrest that is part of the ‘chilling effect’ on rights to protest we warned about last year.

It also explains the increasing reluctance by protesters to believe anything they are told by the police. Sussex Police does seem to have set a new record, however, in how quickly it says it plans to conduct an operation and then how quickly its officers deliver the exact opposite.

This is why Netpol continues to call on Police & Crime Commissioners to ensure greater transparency and accountability from the forces they oversee by publishing clear plans for protecting rights to freedom of assembly.