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Call to action to improve protest policing

Posted on 23 February 2016

Researchers at the University of York and Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) have published a new report into the policing of an anti-fracking protest site, calling for an overhaul in police tactics and policies.

Credit: Steve Speed

In a collaboration between the University of York’s Centre for Urban Research (CURB) and LJMU’s Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion (CCSE), researchers investigated the policing of Barton Moss Community Protection Camp in Salford, Greater Manchester.

From November 2013 to April 2014, the camp promoted a campaign of peaceful protest to raise awareness of the potential environmental dangers of exploratory hydraulic fracturing (fracking) taking place in the area. Protest activities included ‘slow walking’ in front of vehicles accessing the site and other forms of non-violent direct action, as well as rallies, hosting music events, and family days.

Amid conflicting media accounts of violence attributed to both protestors and Greater Manchester Police (GMP), researchers at York and LJMU made a series of visits to the camp, conducted interviews with camp residents and analysed figures from ongoing criminal justice cases of those arrested.

The research aimed to provide a rare insight into the experiences of anti-fracking protesters. The report is grounded in the experiences of camp residents and supporters, and the researchers concluded that independence from GMP in this research was essential to their gaining access to the camp and the lawyers involved in the ongoing cases.

Documenting concerns about the nature, function and proportionality of the policing operation at the camp, and the deployment of policing methods, the peer-reviewed report provides a range of findings and recommendations. These include:

  • The protest at Barton Moss was overwhelmingly peaceful and non-violent
  • The nature and scale of the policing operation was found to be disproportionate to the activities of the camp. Policing tactics had the effect of undermining the rights of those protesting peacefully, meaning GMP failed in their obligation to facilitate peaceful protest as stated by the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • GMP officers – from planning stages to conclusion – prioritised the commercial interests of the fracking company over the right of local residents and supporters to exercise their right to protest
  • The communication strategy of GMP focused primarily on justifying the policing operation and questioning the legitimacy of the protest rather than providing the public with clear information about the protest and policing operation.
  • The overwhelming majority (98 percent) of arrests made at Barton Moss were for non-violent offences. These figures cast doubt on the legitimacy of GMP’s characterisation of the protest in public statements made during the policing operation.
  • Two thirds (66 percent) of arrested protesters have had their cases dropped, dismissed or been found not guilty by the courts. This conviction rate is significantly lower than that occurring within the criminal justice system as a whole.
  • Police bail powers were routinely abused in order to restrict the right to protest
  • Overall, the cumulative impact of these processes showcases the routine abuse of police powers at the expense of protesters’ civil liberties

Dr Joanna Gilmore, Lecturer at the York Law School and a co-author of the report, said: “Our research provides a unique insight into the experiences of anti-fracking protesters – whose voices have often been excluded from academic research and official policing policy.

“The report highlights a number of concerns about the proportionality of the policing operation at Barton Moss, drawing on testimonies provided by camp residents and those involved in direct action. Given the centrality of the right to protest in a liberal democracy, and that public opposition to fracking continues to be a live issue in the UK, it is in the public interest that these concerns are investigated thoroughly and transparently.”

Dr Will Jackson, Lecturer in Criminology at LJMU and co-author of the report, said: “Our findings raise important questions about environmental regulation, corporate accountability, police powers and the future of legal aid. Ultimately, we hope that this research will help to facilitate a ‘culture of learning’ – to inform the ways in which activists engage in future protests, and also inform the way official bodies and media organisations monitor the policing of protests.”

Dr Helen Monk, Lecturer in Criminology at LJMU and co-author of the report, added: “The voices of protesters are central in this report and they raise a series of important questions about the way in which opposition to fracking is being responded to in the UK. The findings will hopefully contribute to both debates about the policing of protest, and about the ways in which local communities are able to have their say on fracking.”

 

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