‘People come first’: Police say they will prevent disorder over protecting statues at Black Lives Matter protests

Downing Street says protests violate coronavirus laws and urges people not to take part, but police will not prevent them

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 11 June 2020 13:23 BST
Edward Colston statue fished out of Bristol harbour

Police will not protect statues from protesters if it would put officers or the public at risk of harm, senior officers have said.

The toppling of a slave trader’s statue in Bristol has sparked a wave of activity across Britain, and clashes are feared this weekend after right-wing groups vowed to “defend” selected memorials against Black Lives Matter demonstrators.

Chief Constable Ben-Julian Harrington, the national lead for public disorder, said local police commanders would decide whether to intervene depending on the circumstances.

“I’m not saying officers will or won’t protect statues, it will depend on what they see and the threat to the public and property,” he told a remote press conference on Thursday.

“They will protect property but people come first, so I can’t describe what they will or won’t do.”

Priti Patel reportedly had a “firm” conversation with Avon and Somerset’s chief constable where she demanded an explanation of why officers did not stop campaigners tearing down the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and throwing it in the harbour.

But police said they were outnumbered and that the statue was taken down quickly, adding that attempting to prevent it could have caused injuries and “violent confrontation”.

Mr Harrington said police leaders across England and Wales were working with the authorities responsible for statues and memorials that could be targeted to put “appropriate plans are in place”.

“Commanders weigh up all the issues that face them to take the appropriate response,” he added.

“Sometimes that will see people arrested there and then, sometimes it will be a warning, and sometimes it will be gathering evidence and investigating after to bring people to justice.”

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said the debate around statues was not primarily a matter for policing.

“What happened in Bristol has created a wave of activity,” he added.

“It’s not a matter for police unless a criminal offence has been committed, it’s a matter for the guardians of the statues dealing with those people who feel very strongly.

“That’s how it should go forward … it should be done peacefully and it shouldn’t be dealt with by criminal acts.”

He said that anyone vandalising or tearing down statues would still be investigated and “dealt with”.

Since George Floyd’s death in Minnesota on 25 May, police have recorded 199 protests across the UK attended by an estimated 155,000 people.

As of Wednesday, there had been 137 arrests and 62 police officers injured.

Large protests are illegal under coronavirus lockdown laws, which still ban public gatherings of more than six people.

The prime minister's official spokesperson said that while Boris Johnson understood the strength of feeling on the issue, rules were in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“He has been very clear that any gatherings of more than six people would be illegal and would urge people not to take part in protests if they can't be conducted in a lawful way,” the spokesperson said.

Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell statue to be removed in Poole

But police leaders said they had no plans to shut protests down or tell organisers to call them off.

“We don’t tell people not to protest because it’s an important right,” Mr Harrington said. “We are advising them that a group of more than six is against the law.”

Mr Hewitt said officers were balancing the “competing demands” of the coronavirus outbreak, Health Protection Regulations and right to protest.

“People have not been engaging with police in advance of protests, so we are presented with large numbers of people and at that point, you have to balance the risks that are there,” he added.

“If the police go into a crowd where people have gathered for a highly emotive issue – that fundamentally relates to police action from what happened in the US – then the potential is there for something that creates a lot more risk for people to get injured and situations to escalate out of control.”

Mr Hewitt said: “Ultimately, we want to reduce the potential for any people or property to be harmed and we don’t want to be taking action in a way that then leads to greater problems and further harm to be caused.”

The warning came after a government adviser warned of the potential for “serious public disorder” on the scale of the 2011 riots.

Professor Clifford Stott predicted a tinderbox from a combination of inequality, anger at the police and coronavirus restrictions, and said that “localised lockdowns” would escalate tensions further.

Mr Hewitt said he had read the report but described it as very “conditional” and said police leaders routinely monitor potential disorder in the summer months.

He said the combination of the coronavirus lockdown, the oncoming recession, inequality and Black Lives Matter protests “have the potential, if things come together, to cause concerns”.

“But that’s the kind of thinking we do all the time,” he added. “We are talking to the government about the way they are dealing with Covid and policing of Covid.”

New laws were brought in this week aiming to enforce a 14-day quarantine for people entering England, although police will not conduct checks unless asked to by health officials.

From Saturday, lockdown restrictions will be relaxed further in England only to allow single parents and those living alone to form “support bubbles” with other households.

Police will not be enforcing a new requirement for people to wear masks on public transport, which is being made a “condition of carriage” with operators.

The number of fines handed out for violating the lockdown has fallen sharply since the rules were relaxed on 13 May to allow people to spend time outside and meet a friend.

Only 1,500 of around 18,000 fines issued since 27 March in England and Wales were handed out after that date.

When asked if the Dominic Cummings scandal had affected enforcement, Mr Hewitt said there had been a “natural curve” and added: “As the reasons people can be outside increase it’s been inevitable that the number of tickets has reduced.”

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