Acknowledging a renewed debate about the merits and risks for protesters negotiating or communicating with the police, one of the co-founders of environmental group Extinction Rebellion claimed in February that concerns raised by other campaigners were “a proxy for the justification of violence”. He added that “as soon as you don’t talk to police, you’re more likely to provoke police violence. We try to charm the police so they’ll arrest people in a civilized way”.

Netpol has long argued that it is always inappropriate for the police to differentiate their treatment of protest groups based on whether they agree to liaison and negotiations.

Despite ostensible advantages for both police and protesters, many are wary of such interactions, not least because of concerns about their vulnerability to intelligence gathering.

They may have experienced previous policing operations that have tried to isolate supposed “risk” groups, categorised them as alleged “extremists” and targeted more aggressive policing on those the police believe pose a greater risk of criminality.

They may also have seen how different treatment can – and sometimes seems deliberately intended to – foster distrust within and between protest groups, encouraged division and had a negative impact on solidarity and mutual support.

Rather than addressing directly the disturbing accusation that victims of police violence somehow “provoke” officers to mistreat them by refusing to talk, we are instead publishing this guide on the law, the pitfalls and the occasional advantages of negotiation with the police.

We also look specifically at why avoiding Police Liaison Officers completely is still, in our view, the best option.

There is NO legal requirement to engage in negotiation with the police about any form of protest

There is a legal obligation for organisers of marches and processions to notify the police that a procession is taking place. Notifying the police simply means that letting them know that a march or procession is taking place, so that they are able to manage traffic or any other possible problems, such as another march taking place in the same area.

Section 11 of the Public Order Act 1986 says that organisers must inform the police at least six days before the procession is going to take place and to provide them with the following details:

  • The date when it is intended to hold the procession
  • The time when it is due to start
  • The proposed route
  • The name and address of the person (or one of the persons) proposing to organise it

There is no legal requirement to notify police about other forms of protest which do not involve a march, but instead remain ‘static’. Organisers of rallies, public meetings (indoors or outdoors), and other forms of protest which stay in one place, do not have to talk to the police at all.

Importantly notification is very different to asking permission, or entering into negotiation. There is no legal duty to get police permission to hold any form of protest or to negotiate with police about the way in which protest is organised.

In practice the police will usually know a protest is going to take place, even if they have been formally notified, if that protest has been publicly advertised (for example, on social media).

Taking part in protests is NOT unlawful simply because the organisers did not talk to police

The police have a duty to facilitate protest, even if they have not been formally notified in advance, as long as the organisers of that protest do not have violent intentions. This means that they must not unnecessarily disrupt or make it more difficult for people to hold protests, and they must take reasonable measures to make sure that a protest assembly can go ahead.

The police cannot lawfully arrest people simply for taking part in a protest that has not been formally notified. While the police have powers to prosecute organisers of marches and processions (not static rallies – see earlier) for not notifying the police, in practice this rarely happens.

Some protest organisers DO find it useful to negotiate with the police

Some police forces, particularly the Metropolitan Police, have become very used to dealing with big marches and processions, because they happen so frequently. Organisers of this type of protest can therefore find it useful to liaise with the police beforehand, as the police may provide help with managing logistics, such as setting up a stage, providing essential facilities (such as toilets), or managing car or coach parking.

Some campaign groups carrying out direct action forms of protest also occasionally find it useful to talk to the police beforehand, as providing information about the extent of the protest (how long it will last, for example) can mean that the police may be prepared to be more tolerant of protest, and less likely to use coercive measures to bring it to an end.

Negotiation with the police is NOT always plain sailing

Negotiations with the police may not always go smoothly. Protest organisers are advised to enter into negotiations with the police with caution, and to seek legal advice if the police try to impose conditions that place too great a burden on organisers, or conditions which restrict the time, manner or place of the protest.

Netpol has come across a number of instances in which police forces have sought to impose unreasonable demands on protest organisers, such as paying for traffic management services, sometimes through the use of a prior written agreement known as a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

The Metropolitan Police, for example, tried in 2015 to impose a pay-to-protest regime, in which organisers were told they must be prepared to pay substantial amounts of money for traffic management services. These attempts were faced down by campaigners who, with support from Netpol, mounted a successful campaign to force the police to meet their legal obligations to facilitate protest – without additional payments.

Other forces have also sought to make use of a MoU to impose an excessive burden of responsibility on protest organisers. These documents can be highly prescriptive and can seek to place liability for any instances of criminality or disorder directly on those organising the event.

Netpol have previously reported, for example, that Bedfordshire Police sought a written agreement from protest organisers that they would make sure ‘all persons remain on the public right of way’ and that they would instruct stewards to point out ‘troublemakers’ by telling a Police Liaison Officer if ‘during the event they become aware of individuals who are not complying [with the terms of the agreement]’.

Negotiation is NOT the same as liaison

A potential disadvantage of engaging in prior negotiation with the police is that it invariably involves accepting the concept of ‘liaison policing’.

Rather than negotiate directly with senior officers or public order commanders, protest organisers are often directed to talk instead to police liaison officers. Liaison policing (or dialogue policing as it is sometimes known) is often ‘sold’ to protest organisers as the means by which they can negotiate with the police prior to an event.

What organisers are expected to agree to in return, however, is a complete ‘liaison policing’ package which involves significant elements of coercive control and surveillance.

As Netpol has repeatedly demonstrated, a primary role of Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) is to obtain information and intelligence about protest and the people that participate in it. They will do this through negotiation with protest organisers, but also by embedding themselves within protest crowds and by seeking to establish personal relationships with both organisers and participants over the longer term.

“…a complete ‘liaison policing’ package… involves significant elements of coercive control and surveillance.

During a protest, part of their role is to direct police surveillance and target coercive policing measures on anyone they think might pose a ‘risk’ of any kind. Over the longer term the intelligence they gather may help to construct a detailed picture of the protest group or movement in question: its values, structures, strengths and weaknesses, as well as comprehensive profiles of those seen as prominent activists.

The fact that this sort of information is obtained, processed and retained by police, even in relation to entirely peaceful protest groups, is no longer in doubt.

It may be difficult to engage in prior negotiation with the police without accepting the presence of PLOs, but organisers may wish to seek specific assurances about their role and request that they maintain a distance rather than ‘embed’ themselves within the middle of a protest crowd.

Our view remains that because of their primary intelligence-gathering role, both individual protesters and protest organisers should seriously consider whether it is safe to engage with PLOs at all.

If prior agreements have been made, protest organisers and the police make sure any communication takes place between named contacts agreed in advance. This can help to avoid any operational need for PLOs to intervene with protestors.

Some protest groups prefer NOT to negotiate with police

Given the potential pitfalls that arise from prior negotiation with the police, it is perhaps no surprise that some groups prefer not to do so. There is no legal obligation on any organiser of a political assembly to talk to the police before the event and it is completely legitimate for protest groups to take the decision not to do this.

It is internationally recognised that freedom to protest is unacceptably restricted if it is dependent on the need to seek prior agreements with state authorities

Many protest groups view negotiated protests as a form of control, because it allows only those forms of protest considered ‘acceptable’ by the state. There is, therefore, a danger that negotiation can render protest ‘harmless’ and ultimately meaningless, because it removes the ability of protest to challenge state interests.

There is no legal obligation on any organiser of a political assembly to talk to the police before the event and it is completely legitimate for protest groups to take the decision not to do this.

It is sometimes suggested – not only by Extinction Rebellion’s co-founder – that only ‘troublemakers’ hold protests without talking to the police and that the senior officers are justified in using more coercive measures if there has been no prior negotiation.

However, the European Court of Human Rights has made it clear that in the absence of dialogue, the police must start from an initial assumption that protest organisers have no violent intent, unless there is tangible evidence to the contrary.

Whether you decide to talk to the police or not, there are five points to remember:

  1. The police do not grant permission for protests.
  2. If organisers talk to the police, this should mean you have assessed that it will help make a protest more successful, rather than seeing it as an expectation on everyone who takes part.
  3. If the police seek to impose conditions that are too restrictive, you do not have to accept them.
  4. If the police want you to agree to ‘liaison policing’, you can instead insist on nominating your own liaison person to communicate directly with the senior officer on the day – or choose not to liaise with the police at all.
  5. If you decide not to talk to the police, make sure you have legal observers present. Contact Green and Black Cross as early as possible to make arrangements