More than two in five forces are unprepared to help police major protests, a report found today.
The failure to ensure their plans were match-fit could undermine forces' ability to provide cross-border support if the frequency and spread of increasingly violent protests escalates, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary said.
The warning comes after Scotland Yard was caught out by the large scale of student protests last November which left officers vastly outnumbered as demonstrators piled in to the Conservative Party headquarters in Millbank, central London.
Sir Denis O'Connor, the chief inspector of constabulary, warned that forces risked being outmanoeuvred by protesters appearing in greater numbers than expected, a desire to test police resources at short notice or by the targeting of multiple venues through the use of Twitter and mobile phones.
"If the frequency and spread of events accelerates and they become more contentious, the resilience for providing cross-border support will not only be tested but potentially undermined when the arrangements put in place by forces have not been proven in practice," he said.
More than 40% of forces had not tested their plans to mobilise public order resources to help neighbouring forces and some forces may not even have sufficient numbers of trained officers to meet a request for help, inspectors found.
Forces "cannot plan for a quiet world" and the "inherently messy" nature of protests means intelligence should never be expected to be perfect, Sir Denis said.
Instead they must be ready to adapt quickly and swiftly, and change their tactics in real-time to enable them to keep up with the changing nature of protests, he said.
Large numbers of protesters could be organised in hours, changing their focus in minutes through the use of Twitter and mobile phones in a "faster moving and more unpredictable" situation.
But he warned that changes to police training may take up to two years to have an effect on the ground.
"Those in command of policing events must consider how to accelerate learning in order to respond to the sort of changes in protests that we have seen," Sir Denis said.
"Learning lessons faster and communicating better with officers on the ground, as well as with the public, will help the police minimise risk and maintain order on the streets."
Sir Denis went on: "The inescapable fact is that adaptability and preparedness come at a cost - a significant cost potentially in these straitened times."
One force said their costs for policing student protests in November and December last year amounted to at least £100,000 while other forces have increased spending on public order by up to £636,000 for 2010/11.
"The issues need to be aired openly, and reflected upon carefully, as they test some of the fundamentals of policing, not least the British practice of policing protest amongst the people - 'toe to toe'," he said.
That approach may need to be reviewed as violent protesters target officers and landmark buildings, such as during the student protests in central London on November 10, he said.
He urged forces to consider how tactics used to safeguard peaceful protest could be developed to deter those with criminal intent.
"The British policing model sets the police amongst the people, 'toe-to-toe' in public order policing terms, without recourse to some separate specialised force or unit, or, except in very exceptional circumstances, to the mechanised creators of distance between police and protesters - water cannon or baton guns.
"This situation has prevailed even in circumstances where the model is infinitely more difficult to apply successfully: where crowds are large and provocative or violent, or where large-scale frustration and discontent are vented on the police themselves or on street furniture and iconic structures and locations.
"As the police service reflects on recent protests, and the lessons emerging from them, the job of police leaders is to ensure its responses are as agile as possible for the benefit of the public and officers on the ground."
The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said the service was "constantly adapting to the challenges posed by public order policing".
Temporary Chief Constable Sue Sim, the Acpo lead on public order and public safety, said: "There is no doubt that the face and shape of protests continues to change and we continuously learn from sharing our knowledge and experience of facilitating protests across the country.
"The service has a clear commitment to ensure peaceful protest can take place and balance the rights of everyone involved - whether taking part in protest or going about their daily business.
"The Keeping the Peace manual of guidance has reshaped the nature of modern protest policing, but we acknowledge that there is more work that we need to do.
"We will continue to work with HMIC and all forces to ensure that we continuously adapt to the need of keeping order and protecting the public."Reuse content