UK
Police seeking water cannons condemned by crowd at public meeting
20.02.2014


High-ranking Metropolitan Police officers faced an angry crowd at a public meeting on Monday night as they attempted to justify their attempts to acquire water cannons for use in public order situations. Over 200 hundred people packed into City Hall, which houses the offices of the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly, to demand that the police abandon their plans to purchase three of the weapons before the summer.

The crowd was joined by Dietrich Wagner, a German pensioner who almost completely lost his sight after being blasted by a water cannon at a demonstration in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2010. [1] He now has no vision in his right eye and just 5% vision in his left.

Wagner came to London after a crowdfunding campaign raised enough money to pay for his travel. [2] He addressed both a demonstration outside City Hall and the meeting inside, saying - with the help of an interpreter - that water cannons are "a death danger".

The force of the water used against him shattered the bones underneath his eyes, and he was subsequently told by a doctor that: "If I had stayed one more second in the water... it would have gone through and hit my brain, so I would've been killed."

Public engagement

While there is some hope that the acquisition of water cannon by the police may be halted - Dietrich Wagner noted that "maybe there's still a political chance to have an effect" - many present on Monday night felt that the issue has already been decided.

The Greater London Authority publicised the meeting as a "public engagement event" rather than a formal consultation, stating that Boris Johnson, London's Mayor, "has accepted the broad principle for the Metropolitan Police to have access to water cannon but has been clear that he wants to hear the views of Londoners before the Home Secretary makes the final decision." When faced with questions from the audience, the police officers present frequently reiterated statements from their presentation rather than directly address the points being made.

The "public engagement" on water cannon runs until 28 February 2014, after which Johnson will decide whether or not to fund their purchase. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, will then have to issue a licence for their use and "procurement will be concluded." The Mayor's "Ethics Panel" will then be asked "to advise him and the police on the use of water cannon before they are operational in London". [3]

Watering down anti-austerity protests

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is currently the only police force in the UK authorised to use water cannon (they have six), but in January this year the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) requested permission from Theresa May to acquire the weapons because of the threat of "ongoing and potential future austerity measures".

ACPO has proposed buying three second-hand Ziegler Wasserwerfer 9000 from Germany at a total cost of approximately £200,000. The Wasserwerfer 9000 can reportedly "get through 9,000 litres of water in just five minutes if it is running at full pressure, although... operating for this length of time would be difficult to justify in terms of use of force." [4]

Historical examples

At Monday night's meeting, the audience was presented with four videos of situations in which the police claimed water cannon could have been used, out of a total of "seven or eight" such situations in the last 15 years: the Carnival Against Capitalism in London in 1999; the protests at the Israeli Embassy in January 2009 against Israel's military assault on Gaza; one of the numerous student demonstrations in November 2010; and the riots in Tottenham in August 2011.

Members of the audience were quick to argue that at the 2010 student demonstrations, the violence initially came from the police who inflamed a peaceful protest by kettling thousands of people. Susan Matthews, the mother of Alfie Meadows, a demonstrator who suffered bleeding on the brain after being struck by a police baton (and was later acquitted of violent disorder), [5] said that violence at the student protests was caused by "bad policing decisions". "I don't buy for a moment that the British police can use them [water cannon] safely," she said.

There was also widespread anger amongst the audience when it was suggested that water cannon could have been deployed in Tottenham during the August 2011 riots. Numerous people argued that the riots would never have happened had the police not killed Mark Duggan, lied about the details of the shooting, and then disrespected his family by refusing to speak with them for hours afterwards. Boris Johnson has said that "water cannon would not have made a blind bit of difference in Tottenham". [6]

Questions were also raised about the role of the police in the Carnival Against Capitalism, for which an undercover officer, Jim Boyling, was part of the planning group. A court case related to Boyling's role in the protest and subsequent court cases is currently ongoing. [7]

Exerting control

One member of the audience, a photojournalist, had his arm broken in two places by a police officer whilst covering the G20 protests in London in 2009. He asked how the police would differentiate between protesters and journalists when using water cannon and suggested that the police improve their public order and general policing tactics and spend the money intended for water cannon on finding ways to "make people happy" instead, because "happy people don't riot".

Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent Peter Terry responded by saying that he couldn't make people happy, but he could use a "differentiated level of control".

One of the police's arguments for the use of water cannon is that they can "exert control from a distance" and that they will fill a "gap" in current public order equipment, with the only current equivalents being horse charges, rubber bullets, and the use of dogs.

The police made clear that they intend to maintain their current approach to large-scale protests: one of the first comments made at the meeting came from the Met's Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, who said that the police "have no intention of changing our policing style in terms of dealing with protests or disorder." The police and other officials who are in favour of the acquisition of water cannon, such as Boris Johnson, have repeatedly said that the weapons would be "rarely used and rarely seen". [8]

Popular opinion

Over 35,000 people have signed a petition against the police's acquisition of water cannon, [9] and five of the six largest police forces do not want the weapons. One police chief has said they would be "as much use as a chocolate teapot" for dealing with disorder. [10]

Joanne McCartney, chair of the Greater London Assembly's elected Police and Crime Committee, told the audience that the Committee recently voted 20 to 5 in favour of a non-binding report opposing the introduction of water cannon. Members from all four parties represented on the Assembly voted in favour of the report. [11]

McCartney said the police have failed to justify themselves: "We keep being shown footage of the 2011 riots," even though it had since been made clear that water cannon would not have been of any use.

However, the police point to public polls that show widespread support for water cannon. One poll conducted by YouGov in 2011, following the riots, found that 90% of people asked thought police should be able to use the weapons to deal with rioters. [12]

A new poll of 3,000 people is due to be carried out soon. Whatever the results, many people will remain resolutely opposed to the police acquiring new weaponry. As one audience member said to the police officers present: "We cannot trust you with protests, we cannot trust you with stop and search, we cannot trust you with hard stops. Why should we trust you with water cannon?"


Further reading


Footnotes
[1] 'Injured Stuttgart 21 protestor could stay blind', The Local, 6 October 2010
[2] 'Water cannons took away Dietrich's sight, let's give him a voice', Crowdfunder.co.uk
[3] Greater London Authority, 'Water cannon'
[4] Alan Travis, 'Police to ask home secretary to approve use of water cannon across country', The Guardian, 22 January 2014; ACPO/College of Policing, 'National Water Cannon Asset', 8 January 2014
[5] Defend the Right to Protest, 'ALFIE MEADOWS & ZAK KING FOUND NOT GUILTY!', 8 March 2013
[6] Martin Hoscik, 'Assembly Members express doubt over Met's water cannon plans', MayorWatch, 29 January 2014
[7] Rob Evans, 'Prosecutors 'behaving ludicrously' in case of alleged undercover officer', The Guardian, 27 January 2014
[8] Martin Hoscik, 'Assembly Members express doubt over Met's water cannon plans', MayorWatch, 29 January 2014
[9] Justin Davenport, '35,000 sign petition against water cannon', Evening Standard, 17 February 2014
[10] Vikram Dodd, 'Five of six largest police forces do not want water cannon', The Guardian, 4 February 2014
[11] Martin Hocsik, 'Tory AMs join opponents and urge Boris to defer water cannon decision', MayorWatch, 14 February 2014
[12] Anthony Wells, 'Polling indicates support for curfews, water cannons, plastic bullets, and bringing in the army to deal with rioters', British Politics and Policy at LSE, 11 August 2011


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