Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

Progress Online Article (13th June 2014) – Policing through rights and respect – not kilos of water.

Police forces across the country work hard, delivering community safety and working with residents to problem solve and cut crime

Policing can only be based on partnership. ‘The police are the public and the public are the police’ is the most quoted of the Peelian principles, set out by the founder of the Metropolitan police. Few people, police, members of the public or politician would ever dispute it – except, perhaps, London mayor, Boris Johnson.

Despite the opposition of 20 of the 25 London assembly, and without the approval of the Home Office, Johnson has decided to spend up to £400,000 of public money on heavy weaponry, which cannot be targeted but only used against people at large, namely water cannon.

This is not just a decision for London – it is the first time that water cannon will feature in policing in all of England and Wales. There is no consensus for this step. Johnson shows little respect for his public in following the example of police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, who has said that ‘his’ officers are there to wage ‘total war on crime’. Londoners may be unhappy with the notion that cops are their leaders’ storm troopers rather than servants of the public. Made sceptical, through scandals such as the Lawrence case,‘plebgate’ and the deaths of Ian Tomlinson, Mark Duggan and John Charles de Menezes, Londoners may worry too about further arming the police and might ask exactly who will be defining the enemy.

Labour assembly member Joanne McCartney objects that ‘there is confusion behind exactly how the process of their deployment will work’. Police and crime commissioners across both the country and the political spectrum are against their introduction. The Association of Chief Police Officers’ briefing says that ‘water cannon are capable of causing serious injury or even death’.  The home secretary is right when she states that we need to consider the health and safety aspects before going any further. There are examples from across Europe of severe injuries caused by police using water cannon. The riots in London in 2010 could not have been stopped with these devices which only work in spaces the size of Parliament Square.

We are a country of free speech. We do not police protests through water cannon but through respect for that right and the rights of others who disagree. There were no riots where I live in Northumbria. If police there make a mistake, even a grave one, they do not retreat into defensive obfuscation but trust their public with the truth. Lost confidence which gives rise to protest and then, as respect for the rule of law evaporates, to lawlessness, is better not triggered in the first place. It will not be recovered by indiscriminate blasting of protesters, bystanders and criminals alike with thousands of kilos of water.

Since 2010, through massive spending cuts imposed by the mayor’s Conservative party, the people of London have lost 3,111 police officers. Water cannon are not a substitute for uniformed officers on the street. Nor are they a substitute for the trust of the community in their police, so lamentably weakened under Johnson’s bravado but feeble stewardship.