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Police chief defends right to ‘make difficult operational decisions’ amid protest row

Gavin Stephens says its ‘really important that public debate doesn’t feature in our operational decision making’

Margaret Davis
Friday 10 November 2023 05:16 GMT
Related video: Rishi Sunak ‘too weak’ to sack Suella Braverman, says Keir Starmer

One of the UK’s most senior police officers has spoken out to defend force chiefs’ rights to make independent operational decisions amid intense political pressure linked to Armistice weekend protests.

Gavin Stephens, who is chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said that political views could not be allowed to influence decision making.

His comments came after the head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Mark Rowley, refused to ban a pro-Palestine protest in central London on Saturday, despite pointed public comments by the prime minister and home secretary.

Mr Stephens said: “In policing we need the space to make difficult operational decisions in an independent manner.

“That space is set out very clearly in law in the Policing Protocol Order which was refreshed earlier this year.

“The decisions that we take are not easy ones, but we do so impartially, without fear or favour, and in line with both the law and our authorised professional practice.”

Speaking to journalists ahead of the national demonstrations calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Mr Stephens said he considers it one of his civic responsibilities to use language carefully and not stoke up community tensions.

“In everything that we do, whether that’s the policing plans that we put in place, the breadth of the community engagement activity… the conversations that we have with individuals or community groups, all of that should be directed towards keeping people safe and feeling safe, and how we choose to describe that activity in the public arena can set the context in which we police.

“So I consider that as one of my civic responsibilities, that I do what I can to give that reassurance to keep temperatures low, when we are in times of such awful, tragic international conflict that is affecting so many families across across the world.

“Language is important and our actions in defusing tensions are important, and we take those very seriously in policing.”

Home secretary Suella Braverman has been criticised for describing pro-Palestinian demonstrations as hate marches, and accusing the police of favouring left-wing groups over right in an extraordinary broadside in The Times.

Mr Stephens said it is “really important that the public debate doesn’t feature in our operational decision making” because it would “fundamentally undermine” how policing works in the UK.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak earlier made marked comments that Sir Mark would be accountable for maintaining order over the weekend.

Chief constable Chris Haward, who is leading the national police response to the renewed conflict in Gaza, said that even if a march were banned, the right for protesters to gather in one location would remain.

“Even if you ban the march, you cannot ban the assembly,” he said.

“You will still expect to have 100,000 people, maybe more, turning up who will then be in a static position.”

He added: “The threshold (for a ban) is extremely high. It is about serious violence, and not about the words that might be chanted.”

The NPCC has stressed that demonstrations outside London have largely been peaceful. In 67 protests between 2 and 5 November, just eight arrests were made.

According to the Met, 57 people have been arrested for public order offences including violence during protests in the English capital since the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October.

Mr Haward said that the rise in hate crime amid the renewed conflict in the region was more intense than previous spikes in 2014 and 2021.

The biggest surge has been in London, with the Met currently accounting for more than 70 per cent of hate crime nationally, compared to normal levels of around a quarter.

A significant policing operation is set to take place in central London over the weekend, with more than 1,000 officers being drafted in from outside forces – 778 on Saturday and 288 on Sunday.

Police chiefs are contacting organisers of protests across England and Wales to mitigate the risk of disorder or events on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday being disrupted.

Mr Haward said counter-protests will be facilitated “without bias” as long as they are peaceful, but issued stern warnings that hate crime or law-breaking during demonstrations would not be tolerated.

He said: “As emotive as this situation can be, let me be clear that there is absolutely no excuse for anybody to use it to engage in criminality. Hate crime will not be tolerated.

“Committing offences during protests will not be tolerated. We have made arrests and are well prepared to continue to do so.

“When we are alerted to crimes, particularly those which are inflammatory and fuelled by hate, we will take action either making the arrests at the time or conducting thorough investigations afterwards to bring offenders to justice.”

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