The Metropolitan Police Commissioner says he wants the Met to have water cannon – they come in packs of three – and has found a willing supporter in the Mayor of London. Before the Home Secretary makes the final decision the Mayor has said he wants to hear people’s views. I’ve been scrutinising the Met police since I was elected over 13 years ago and I think water cannon are a terrible idea; I think it would be deeply damaging to the principle of policing by consent if the Mayor of London was to allow this military weapon onto our streets.
London is our capital, home to Parliament and by extension the focus of national protests from people who live all over the country. The senior police organisation, ACPO, eventually want water cannon to be made available for deployment on the British mainland, because they assume ongoing and future austerity is likely to lead to protest– despite, by their own admission, no intelligence to suggest such an increased likelihood of serious disorder.
The police might now be saying they need this weapon but that’s not what they said following the riots of 2011. In the aftermath the then-Commissioner said “they are not the answer.” ACPO President Sir Hugh Orde – who has experience in ordering the deployment of water cannon in Northern Ireland – made clear that water cannon would not have countered criminal behaviour during the riots and would be inappropriate for circumstances involving disparate groups of uncoordinated individuals spread out over wide areas. Water cannon is an indiscriminate weapon that, in addition to being unhelpful in these situations, risks injuring and distressing innocent bystanders and ratcheting up tense situations rather than containing them.
The Mayor’s own policing deputy at the time told the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee “(we) fall slightly into the trap of thinking there is a technological solution to these issues, and the truth is water cannon does not stop a riot.”
Liberty were told by experts that water cannon work by effectively suffocating individuals through water particles in their air, rather than just providing an unpleasant drenching. In my view this seems a very cruel approach which is liable to induce panic. Evidence from other countries shows that water cannon can cause serious injuries such as damage to internal organs and loss of hearing, and it’s hard to forget the brutal images of Dietrich Wagner, the German pensioner whose eyes were severely damaged after he was hit by water cannon. Also, tucked away in the ACPO background briefing is the chilling acceptance that water cannon are capable of causing death. My greatest fear is that we could soon have a weapon on the streets of London that could lead to tragic consequences.
People responding to the Mayor’s consultation should bear in mind the sort of public order situations in which water cannon could (according to the police) be used would include anything from students protesting about losing their EMA and their university fees being trebled, to Countryside Alliance members demonstrating against the foxhunting ban outside parliament, or residents of east London standing up against racist groups marching through their communities.
I am relieved that in this country we have a system of policing by consent and an essential part of that is our unarmed police service that is the envy of the world. The Mayor’s ‘engagement’ (the word consultation does not feature once on the water cannon webpage) is aimed at Londoners, but where London leads other cities may follow. I urge everyone to make their views heard now.