by Toby Thomas.
In an exclusive interview with London Student, the Metropolitan Police officer in charge of handling tomorrow’s student demonstration has suggested that, if available, rubber bullets could have been fired by police during the chaotic scenes at Milbank last year.
Commander Simon Pountain said: “If you ask me whether at that stage when you saw those pictures of those criminals pulling those windows down around those officers and throwing things at them and they were unprotected, if there were baton gunners nearby, could that have been a situation when baton gunners could have been used? Then, maybe.”
His comments came as Michael Chessum, a leading figure in the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, one of the main organisations behind the demonstrations, voiced his displeasure with the use of baton guns in a Guardian article today.
Commander Pountain went on to reveal that baton gun teams “were available through the second of the student demonstrations of last year” as well as “at other demonstrations through the year”. However, he added that they have never been used by police on the British mainland, “and I don’t want to be the first person to do that”.
The Met Police Commander also said that he was “not aware” of the criticism that police were heavy-handed in dealing with students at last year’s demonstration, pointing out that there have been no judicial reviews or successful convictions of officers for violence.
He urged students to stay peaceful. He went on to justify the massive increase in police numbers from last year – 4,000 police officers as opposed to the 225 who struggled to contain the 50,000 protesters last November at Milbank– noting several factors that have made him fear trouble.
He said: “History and experience is telling me that this demonstration has the potential to go in the same way as those other ones – the same people involved, the anniversary of the Milbank demonstration, and the information that is out there that’s available for all to see indicates that some people might be coming along to cause trouble.”
1) What is your general advice to students on the march?
“The whole precept of planning the police operation around the march is about planning for peaceful protest. We’re working with the organisers and our aim is to allow the march to go from its starting point to its end point…for students to come along, to make their point, and for everyone to go home peacefully.
“Should there be disorder, then I would ask for people to stay back, keep out the way and don’t get involved, because I think an awful lot of students, in fact the vast majority, are law-abiding, want to enjoy themselves, as I know to my cost with my daughter, and want to make their point, which is absolutely fine, but doing so in a way which causes criminal behaviour is not fine.”
“Should people get caught up in disorder, then I would be saying to them to think about the consequences of their actions. We’ve been trying to point out to people that over the last month or so… we’ve seen some students’ lives that’ve been ruined by spontaneous acts of criminality.
“Clearly, at a lot of demonstrations, but hopefully not tomorrow, there are people who go there with the intent of stirring things up and getting involved in trouble and they’re the people that don’t care and hopefully the people that your general student readership would not want to get involved with.”
2) The Met has had a difficult job policing student demonstrations over the last 12 months. Do you accept criticism that policing was heavy handed at last year’s demonstration?
“No. Not aware of that being a criticism, of us being heavy handed at last year’s student protest. Or of there being any successful judicial reviews etc that have actually proven that, or even criminal convictions of officers etc that show that was the case.
“I’ve got a lot more officers available. In order to achieve peaceful protest hopefully I’d be able to police it with very few officers and those others wouldn’t be seen. Those others potentially are there for my contingency because if there was trouble I would be completely criticised and probably lose my job – bit of a joke there – if there was disorder tomorrow and I hadn’t put the right number of resources on it based on those other things we’ve seen before.”
3) Last year there were originally 225 police officers for an expected 20,000 students. The number of protestors obviously increased substantially, but nonetheless isn’t 4,000 police for 10,000 students a disproportionate number?
“You can argue that there is a big difference in the numbers. I think that what we did last year with… what became the Milbank demonstration, is we policed it according to what we would always have policed it as: a group of compliant and peaceful protesters who would go from A to B and go home, and if that was certainly the case tomorrow and I could see it in a crystal ball then I would have the same number of officer.
“History and experience is telling me that this demonstration has the potential to go in the same way as those other ones – the same people involved, the anniversary of the Milbank demonstration, and the information that is out there that’s available for all to see indicates that some people might be coming along to cause trouble.”
4) Under what circumstances would rubber bullets be used? If they’d been available would they have been used at Milbank?
“It’s not about them being used tomorrow, it’s about them being available.
“Baton guns… were available through the second of the student demonstrations of last year, they were available at other demonstrations through the year, and they certainly were available in the second and third days of what we call the riots in the summer. What the difference is here is that that’s become public knowledge and we’ve made people more aware that that was there.
“It’s a valid tactic, it’s authorised.”
Expanding on the use of rubber bullets, Mr Pountain said: “If life is at risk and there is an absolutely serious disorder and my officers come in for sustained attack, it has to be a consideration.”
However, Commander Pountain added, the Met Police had “no access to water cannons” for the demonstration.
He said at Milbank “normal bobbies” had no special protection on them.
“If you ask me whether at that stage when you saw those pictures of those criminals pulling those windows down around those officers and throwing things at them and they were unprotected, if there were baton gunners nearby, could that have been a situation when baton gunners could have been used? Then, maybe.”
He pointed out that rubber bullets have “never been used before on the UK mainland” – though they had in Northern Ireland – “and I don’t want to be the first person to do that.”
5) With all the cuts the police are facing, is there any sympathy with the students’ cause?
He pointed out that the police have to be apolitical, so he could not comment on this question.
6) What would be his advice to those looking to avoid being ‘kettled’?
He said containment was “right high up on the list of tactics not to be used to start with”. He said the police would try to avoid kettling peaceful protests, but that it was hard to distinguish in the midst of violence.
7) How have the riots over the summer affected your approach?
“The big difference is that the disorder in the summer was spontaneous and arguably not – in the early stages to do with police and things like that – the first day was due to something different. This is a preplanned demonstration and therefore we have to deal with it accordingly. Has the disorder changed the way that we do things? Maybe they make us make sure we have sufficient resources on duty, and that’s key.”