UK: Cordon designed for chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents deployed by Metropolitan Police at protest by public sector workers

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14.12.2011 A number of commentators have noted the use by the Metropolitan Police of a large steel barrier during the strike march by public sector workers on November 30th. [1] Emblazoned with the words 'POLICE CORDON' [2] and approximately eight feet tall, it now emerges that the solid steel fence that separated protestors on the Strand from tourists in Trafalgar Square was originally developed for deployment during chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) incidents.

An article at Open Democracy suggests that the cordon was developed for this purpose, with the author quoting posts from blogs and message boards frequented by police officers. Confirmation of this can be found in a brochure produced by the firm Cobham ("an international company engaged in the development, delivery and support of leading edge aerospace and defence systems in the air, on land and at sea" [3]).

CBRN solutions

Under the heading 'CBRN Solutions from Cobham Surveillance', the origins and intended purposes of the 'Scene Management Barrier System' can be found. [4] In partnership with the UK's Police National CBRN Centre, and another firm called Indespension ("the leading specialists in towbars and trailers" [5]), the barrier "can be quickly deployed by two officers in full CBRN protective clothing, ensuring minimal time in the contact zone".

One trailer contains approximately 13 metres of barrier, which is "equivalent to a conventional cordon of approximately twenty officers, greatly reducing staffing requirements in order to maintain the containment". Furthermore, multiple barriers can be connected "to create an extended blockade".

The final paragraph of the firm's description of the cordon notes that it may be deployed for purposes other than CBRN incidents:

"A lockable rear door enables rapid access of police in full CBRN or public order PPE [personal protective equipment]. Polycarbonate viewing portals with privacy shutters allow monitoring of crowd activities and assessment of intent, while the roof provides some hard cover protection from a hostile crowd."

Public communications

There is more to Cobham's CBRN 'solutions' than simply a sturdy steel fence. The Scene Management Barrier System can be combined with the Public Communications System "to protect key assets and control crowd movement during public order events".

The Public Communications System is essentially a trailer with two loudspeakers and an LED screen sat on top. Although not used on the main march on 30th November, it was deployed later in the day when a number of people were kettled following an attempted occupation of Panton House, headquarters of the mining company Xstrata, whose chief executive is the highest paid of any FTSE 100 company. [6]

Those held in the kettle were first informed by loudspeaker that they were being contained due to a police fear of an "imminent breach of the peace". This message was later repeated via the LED screens of the Cobham Public Communications System, with a number of messages being displayed as the time passed. "You are being contained because we fear an imminent breach of the peace" was followed by "If you have any questions, please ask a police officer", and "You are being released. Turn left".

According to the Cobham brochure, the LED screen "displays text messages up to 52 characters in length", and is designed for "day and night operation". The individual operating the system(s) need not even be present at the scene:

"For safety, a hand-held portable controller provides remote control of audio and text broadcasts from distances greater than 500m (non-line of sight)."

Communication breakdown

The police would claim two days later in a statement that covered arrests at Panton House, and in a number of other places, that a number of the groups "unconnected to the march were intent on crime". [7] Certainly, individuals present at Panton House were arrested for various reasons. However, such a statement contradicts a statement published by the would-be occupiers:

"The protesters today are making the connection between the slashing of private and public sector pensions, while supposed 'top' executives cash in by increasing their own pay levels, leaving many without pensions."

In branding those at Panton House solely as criminals, a separation is made between those who went to the main march ("a peaceful affair with participants exercising their right to protest" [8]) and those who chose to engage in more provocative forms of protest.

This separation is reflected physically in the deployment by the police of the Scene Management Barrier System. It first of all acted as a method by which the police could prevent protestors from entering Trafalgar Square whilst passing along the route of the march. This, combined with the use of smaller steel barriers; cordons of officers; and the use of dogs and horses along the route of the march, help to separate the protestors from the public (although nowhere near entirely).

After the march, the CBRN cordon in Trafalgar Square also helped to prevent the public from seeing demonstrators, most of who were by this time on their way home. A small gap was opened at the eastern end of the barrier, and individuals wishing to pass through were only permitted through to do so if they handed placards and banners to officers manning what was effectively a checkpoint.

Previous appearances

The Scene Management Barrier System has been seen before. It was employed by West Midlands police during demonstrations against the Conservative Party Conference in October 2010, as well as by the police forces of South Wales, Leicestershire, and Greater Manchester. [9] The Cobham Public Communications System was also deployed by the Metropolitan and City of London Police during the first day of the Occupy London protests outside St Paul's Cathedral.

[1] Chris Slack, 'The tin blue line: Met unveils revolutionary police barrier to prevent anti-cuts demonstrators marching on the Houses of Parliament', The Daily Mail, 1st December 2011, ; Network for Police Monitoring, 'Kettling the powers of the police - November policing', 7th December 2011 ; Pete Riches, 'Met police erect steel riot wall to block union protestors - London', Demotix, 30th November 2011
[2] The Cobham brochure notes that the text on the cordon is designed to be compliant with Section 33 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which states that "(1) An area is a cordoned area for the purposes of this Act if its designated under this section… (4) The person making a designation shall arrange for the demarcation of the cordoned area, so far as is reasonably practicable - (a) by means of tape marked with the word "police" or (b) in such other manner as a constable considers appropriate."
[3] Cobham, 'About Us'
[4] Cobham, 'CBRN Solutions from Cobham Surveillance', p.69
[5] Indespension
[6] Occupy London, 'Occupy London targets UK's highest paid FTSE CEO', 30th November 2011
[7] Metropolitan Police, 'TUC march update - police thank organisers and stewards', 2nd December 2011 [8] Ibid.
[9] Dan Hancox, 'Britain's policing: Kettling 2.0 and the Olympic State of Exception', Open Democracy, 11th December 2011 

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