Was the arrest and detention of six anti-monarchist campaigners at Charles III’s coronation on Saturday a pre-mediated exercise of draconian powers bestowed by the Conservative government’s new Public Order Act? Were those powers properly used? Or were they, perhaps, ineptly misused by officers in a state of high anxiety about possible major disruptions to the event on London’s streets? And here’s another question. Will Londoners will get a proper explanation, and who will see to it that any failings on the Met’s part are identified and addressed?
Already, police and political responses to the carting off of Graham Smith – chief executive of the Republic campaign group (pictured) – and fellow protesters, all of whom were eventually released without charge, are following a familiar and perhaps discouraging path.
Yesterday, straight after the Bank Holiday, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley stuck up for his troops and their work on the big day, citing “rapidly developing” intelligence about planned vandalism and horse-scaring. He wrote in the Evening Standard that it was “unfortunate” that Smith and co were prevented from joining protests – which, as Rowley stressed, did go ahead – but added that he supported his officers’ actions against them.
Also yesterday, in the House of Commons, policing minister Chris Philp, who is also the MP for Croydon South, echoed Rowley’s account of plots against the pageantry and his praise for those who foiled them.
Asked about the arrests of the Republic activists, Philp, whose main achievement in politics has been to make the three wise monkeys redundant, first said he didn’t want to get into the detail because he didn’t have “all the facts” but nonetheless continued, “clearly, when the arrests were made, the police reasonably believed that there were grounds to do so”.
It was a large assertion for a man who, in his previous breath, had said he didn’t know enough about what had happened to say much about it. Sadiq Khan, in his role as the capital’s police and crime commissioner, has taken a different approach. In a letter to Rowley he has sought his assurance that issues related to some of the arrests made on Saturday “will be subject to a review and lessons learned” and has asked him to “urgently provide” further information, including about what happened to Smith and his colleagues.
The Mayor wants Rowley to tell him why the arresting officers “did not appear to know [about] or take into account the liaison Republic had undertaken with the Met in advance of the event” – something Smith has placed great stress on since his release – and to give him answers to other questions about what happened, including what part the new Public Order Act played in the arrests and what consideration was given to City Hall’s concerns that the section of it dealing with protesters arriving equipped to lock themselves to objects to intensify disruption has been “too broadly drawn”.
Khan’s letter ends: “The issues I have raised in this letter are of public interest and so Londoners will expect that the outcomes of any review undertaken will be made public.”
The Met has so far said the arrests were made because when searching a van the Republic members arrived in, parked on St Martin’s Lane, officers found items which “at the time they had reasonable grounds to believe could be used as lock-on devices” but were later “unable to prove intent” of that kind. The Mayor is right to seek a much fuller explanation, and Rowley’s and the Met’s response to his letter will provide a measure of their progress with implementing reforms called for by Baroness Louise Casey in her scathing review of standards of behaviour and culture in the Met.
A defining thread of Casey’s report was the Met’s lack of accountability and transparency. This encompassed its relationship with the Mayor and his Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), together responsible for strategic oversight of London’s police service. “The Met have in the past avoided scrutiny, holding MOPAC at arm’s length and not sharing information and data,” Casey wrote. “MOPAC in turn have not been able to provide the strategic oversight function that the Met needs. Holding the Met to account has become more tactical.”
It was fair enough for Rowley to praise the Met’s overall performance on a day when the stakes were very high, and it might be understandable if some officers judged that it was worth running the risk of being over-zealous rather than take any chances with the security of such a huge global event. Khan’s letter acknowledges the complexity and importance of their task, especially in the context of the new legislation. But it is harder to accept the Commissioner publicly defending the arrests of the Republic campaigners – who are considering taking legal action – when big concerns about them had already been raised.
Arguably, the Mayor should go further than he has, perhaps by asking His Majesty’s Inspectorate to review the Met’s handling of the matter. In the meantime, Rowley should demonstrate his commitment to reform by providing Khan – and Londoners – with all the information he has asked for in a spirit of openness and with minimum delay.
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