Theresa May’s refusal to authorize the use of water cannon on our streets is a significant and welcome decision. It is rare that campaigners get to hear their arguments repeated in the House of Commons and credit should go the No To Water Cannon group which waged an extremely successful campaign – notably raising funds to fly 69 year old Dietrich Wagner over to London to speak out against this “tool of violence” which left him with just 8% sight after his eye balls were blasted from their sockets at a protest in 2010. During that campaign almost 50,000 people signed a national petition opposing water cannon and around 98% of the 2,606 people who responded to Boris Johnson’s “public engagement” were against its introduction.
There has been much speculation as to the part played by other considerations in May’s decision, not least the opportunity to humiliate fellow leadership contender Boris Johnson, who wasted £328,883 on faulty water cannon, offering himself up for a test blast on LBC radio. This is also not the first time May has said No to the police in her attempts to restore public faith in an institution badly damaged by a series of scandals and injustices, from hacking and spying to the Hillsborough disaster.
In this instance, however, May’s decision was undoubtedly made easier by the fact that many senior police officers and politicians were opposed to the use of water cannon.
It was the suggestion that water cannon would have been more effective in quelling the August 2011 riots that grabbed the media headlines. Few criticized the perverse terms of such a debate given the uprisings were sparked by the use of lethal force the police; in this case the killing of Mark Duggan on the streets of Tottenham.
Senior police rejected the idea anyway, questioning the utility of such an unwieldy piece of military hardware in densely populated urban areas which could not only cause serious injury but had the potential to become “significantly counterproductive’, attracting crowds and becoming a target for “civil disobedience”. The chief commissioner for Merseyside Police was at pains to point out the threat to “police legitimacy” in deploying a tactic “closely associated with protracted political disorder in Northern Ireland or the suppression of political protest in Egypt.”
Meanwhile the Association for Chief Police Officers’ briefing was much more candid about the proposed use of water cannon in the context of “ongoing and potential future austerity measures [that] are likely to lead to continued protest.” Theresa May also consulted a number of senior serving and former chief constables on the viability of using water cannon during “public order events” - including the G20, student and Gaza protests.
One interesting side effect of this consultation was that police officers keen to win approval for their plans were much less guarded than usual about the dangers of already existing police weaponry in these situations. Chief constable David Shaw reported “significant injuries” caused to people protesting outside the Israeli Embassy during the 2009 assault on Gaza by baton strikes and the use “of force with the edge of shields”. Injuries to students protesting against fees in 2010 as a result of “conventional policing methods were also highlighted.” Met commissioner Bernard Hogan Howe suggested water cannon would prevent the use of “more brutal alternatives” such as “going toe-to-toe with batons and shields, deploying dogs or horses, CS spray and Tasers or ultimately using baton rounds and even firearms”.
May’s decision then, offers an opportunity to re-examine the process of police militarisation underway since the early 1990s and the increasingly hostile stance taken towards protest.
From the introduction of longer and side handled “US style” batons in 1994, to CS spray in 1996 and Tasers in 2006, the public was assured that these “less lethal” weapons had been subjected to vigorous tests and would empower police to deploy less harmful tactics than would otherwise have been the case.
In practice however the use of these military weapons by police has simply become normalised and the evidence of their fatal impact ignored.
Seven months after the introduction of US style batons, Brian Douglas was killed after a blow to the head caused “massive and irreversible” brain damage. In the wake of the inquest, the coroner warned that officers should be “taught the specific dangers….that can follow a baton blow to the head”. According to the IPCC however, of the 304 public complaints involving batons recorded since April 2008, 88 involved serious injury (“fracture, deep cut, a deep laceration or injury causing damage to an internal organ/impairment of bodily function) and 25 “alleged a blow to the head or face”.
It was just two weeks into a six month trial of CS spray before the weapon claimed its first victim: Ibrahima Sey died in a police station after been sprayed whilst handcuffed. The Home Office nevertheless approved its general use. In May this year Shekou Bayoh suffocated to death after an incident involving nine police using CS and pepper spray.
This month an inquest jury found a police officers use of a Taser had contributed to the death of 23 year old Jordan Begley. Initially only issued to specialist fire arms officers, Tasers were rolled out to all forces in 2008, with Home Office figures showing a 50% increase in their use over the last five years. Amnesty International recently criticised police for drawing a Taser gun (and using CS spray) against protesting students at Warwick University.
The IPCC have investigated 11 cases in which a person has died after been hit with a Taser gun. In the meantime deaths by shooting have continued – with 16 recorded by INQUEST since 2006.
In the wake of May’s decision, campaigners have called for the withdrawal of water cannon in the North of Ireland where the risks of broken bones and serious eye injures cited by experts are presumably no less.
Now is surely the time for an overhaul of the expanding armoury of “less lethal weapons” that have been made available to the police.
Whilst the physical threat of water cannon has been removed, the debate over its introduction derives from an attitude that treats protesters as the enemy and condones police violence perpetrated on our streets. May’s refusal to authorise water canon is welcome, but until the “brutal alternatives” and their human cost is addressed, her attempts to rescue the notion of “policing by consent” will fail.
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By Hannah Dee Chair of Defend the Right to Protest - first appeared in openDemocracy