Having had a week off to chill out, see some sunlight without wearing body armour and let my skin get used to breathing instead of being covered in polyester, I'm feeling much more normal again. I was looking at my duties the other week and was actually shocked to see the amount of cancelled rest days and non voluntary overtime (as in had no choice because of prisoners, sudden deaths etc) that I've done since January. For some reason the last couple of months worth of shifts have been nightmarish, in the last month we've had a couple of weekends that have directly compared to New Year with the number of urgent calls and prisoners, loads of which are for decent jobs like robbery, GBH and burglary.
It's nice to get a busy set of shifts to make the 12+ hours go faster, but you need a break afterwards to recover which hardly anyone has had due to the amount of aid commitments the we've been hit with such as the Tamil demos, G20 and the Israeli Embassy - the vast majority has been done on cancelled rest days meaning we get sod all but a day in lieu, that we'll have to fight to actually get back. The shift pattern we do works really well if you have the time off in between shifts but getting that thrown up in the air by being required to work just leaves everyone knackered.
I've no doubt the up coming Mayday protests down in sunny Brighton will put more officers in the spotlight, I really can't see some of the protest groups missing an opportunity to have a go at some Police officers and then film the aftermath to give to the Guardian.
The media and political storm after the G20 has definitely taken its toll on morale on frontline officers, the murmurings of dropping out of public order training has turned into outright corridor conversations with no care to who is in earshot. I'm not going to go into the Ian Tomlinson incident anymore, there has been enough speculation and comment on blogs like the Coppers Blog and Fitwatch from people who know what they are talking about, from people who haven't got a speck of a clue, and people who just want to throw their twopence in.
One thing that has come out of the G20 is the issue of public order training and exactly what we are trained to do and in what circumstances we are authorised to use certain tactics. Take for example the 'Nicky Fisher' incident - large crowd getting too close to a line of officers putting in a cordon, they are pushed back by other officers, someone takes exception to being pushed back and gobs off because she's a 'woman' and doesn't think a man should push her. She pushes the officer who again pushes her away, she shouts and swears at him and moves forward grabbing his arm, he swipes her away hitting her in the face with the back of his hand (personally I would have gone for a single or double handed push and thrown her up the street) and she STILL gobs off. All the time the officers are being surrounded by media photographers, protestors with cameras and people shouting abuse them.
The officer gives a couple of very clear 'get back' shouts to everyone and turns away from Fisher. She decides to go forwards AGAIN and the officer escalates his use of force having already given her multiple and very specific opportunities to remove herself from the situation. He draws his baton and gives her a strike to her legs (and not even full force hit because the bruise would have been different) causing her to fall over. After that the video footage shows lots of people going into 'shame on you' mode - which by the way I've never heard until the Israeli embassy demos in January, just like the new fashionable trend of throwing shoes at demos that they've adopted.
The main issue with the Fisher incident appears to be that the officer is tall with a large build and she was a munchkin. Does that mean that as Police officers we are only supposed to use any form of force on people of equal or larger size to us? Considering that most public order officers are tall males with a large build that rationale would mean we shouldn't be dealing with 90% of people at demos just in case we are larger than them, so what's the point in us being there. Do the public really want a plethora of extremely short and slightly built officers for public order duty so we don't offend other people's sensibilities by having to use force on people smaller than us?
She had more than enough chances to go away and didn't and the officer rightly - and as trained - used a single strike to the legs in escalating the use of force. How many times do people think that he should have been pushing her away before she got the hint? what if she never got the hint and refused to get back? Everyone knows the slur of 'small man syndrome' but one thing this job has taught me is that 'small gobby woman syndrome' is just as bad if not worse, and you're more likely to actually get injured by them because no one wants to start manhandling a small woman. And they have nails and pointy shoes, and like to use them.
This incident and a number of others from the G20 have really put public order policing in the spotlight along with the tactics used overall. The problem we've got is certain tactics require different levels of force from the officers on the ground. The tactic of containment requires us to be up close and within body contact distance with people who invariably don't want us there. The only way to control a crowd that doesn't want to be controlled, and is at the very least being obstructive and at most violent, is to use force. This can be anything from pushing to strikes with shields and batons, right through to a running line with long shields as we had at the Israeli Embassy.
When you compare our tactics with virtually ever other country in the world we have considerably less serious injuries. The main reason is because the preferred option in most countries is to leave well alone and then step in once trouble kicks off. The problem with that approach is that you have to use much higher levels of force in order to get control because any delay in assembling resources just gives the crowd time to cause more damage. The increased media attention on the results of having officers up close and personal where videos of people being punched, hit with shields, batoned and pushed has caused an outcry and prompted calls for a national debate on public order Policing.
Some people have been saying in the media "well I don't care what they do in other countries, the is the UK and I only care about how we do it here". Well they should care because doing nothing is not an option, so we either do it our way and look forward to more videos of people being punched, pushed, hit with shields and batoned, or we do it like everyone else in the world. This means full complete deployment of shield teams (no messing about with half kit, then short shields followed by long after we've been attacked repeatedly) and creating stand off distance from the shield lines to prevent people getting close enough to attack officers.
The only way to do this is to extend the range of your use of force beyond that of shields and batons by using projectile weapons such as baton, rubber bullets, live rounds, CS grenades and water cannon. Do we really want that over here? I know I don't, especially if the current trend of suspending is going to continue if officers are seen on video doing things that doesn't look nice, regardless of whether or not they are trained to do it. To put this into perspective for you, if a firearms officer shoots and fatally wounds someone in the course of their duty then they are removed from frontline duties pending investigation. They aren't suspended, they are still on duty and working just not in a public facing role.
During the briefing with IPCC chairman Nick Hardwick to the Home Affairs Select Committee, he said that he supported calls for a national debate on public order policing but also that "we can't train our Police officers to use certain tactics and then completely wash our hands of them when they use those tactics because we don't like how they look"
This last comment has been the point that is seriously destroying morale amongst officers at the moment, especially those who volunteer for public order roles. I've watched an awful lot of videos on youtube and on the various news sites and blogs, and I really have not seen anything that we are not trained to do in both normal officer safety training or public order training. Police officers volunteer for any specialist training such as driving, firearms, public order, searching or CBRN, and we can just as easily un-volunteer from those posts. If the everyone did that, I've no doubt the wheel would come flying off within a shift, let alone over a couple of days.
If it is going to become the norm that officers are suspended for doing what they are trained to do, how many people are likely to put themselves forwards for that? A suspension stays with you for your whole career, and no one is going to want a suspension for excessive force plaguing every promotion board or course application, especially if you just did what the instructors and the job trained you to do.
While I was working over the G20 my shifts were changing literally on a daily basis, a couple of times I was actually getting changed as I came on shift or just as I was going off. It was ridiculous. Our job absolutely relies on the goodwill of officers to both put themselves forwards for training in specialist roles and to put ourselves out to actually make things work. If that goodwill is going to be completely abused and all support is removed then no one is going to do it any more. In one of the many phone calls I had over the G20 week from the duties office (who were pulling their hair out having to chop and change at literally the last minute) I spoke to one of the Sgt's I've known for years -
"Mate, I need you to do me a favour, I need you to do a quick swing tomorrow, I know you're finishing late tonight but I need you on an early start.
Have I got a choice?
Not really, but I'd rather you agreed to do it than having to force you or someone else to.
Fair enough, if you can put me on a team that's going to get off on time that would be appreciated.
I'll try, but I owe you a less than five for helping me out.
You owe me more than that Sarge after this week, it's been shit
True, serves you right for volunteering to do the courses though, see you later"