Last month’s Extinction Rebellion climate change protests in Central London took the capital’s police service by surprise, Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick has admitted.
“It would be fair to say that Extinction Rebellion both came in larger numbers than we expected and with different tactics than we had expected,” she told the London Assembly’s Police and Crime committee today.
The 11-day protest disrupted Marble Arch, Parliament Square and Waterloo Bridge, as did smaller protests on the Docklands Light Railway and at Heathrow as well as blocking Oxford Circus with a large pink boat emblazoned with the slogan Tell The Truth.
“It was very new in the way they went about their protests,” the commissioner said. “Within minutes we had large numbers of people locked on and glued on to obstructions. We needed vast numbers of officers to deal with this, removing and arresting people who had committed an offence one by one.”
Unlocking and “unbonding” protestors and making arrests had sometimes taken many hours, with four of five officers needed per arrest, she added. With officers working up to 16 hours a day, some 1,200 arrests were made – more than during the 2011 London Riots disturbances. More than 70 protestors had been charged so far, and 30 officers would be working full-time for some months progressing cases.
More resources deployed more rapidly and a “more assertive” approach would be needed if there were similar protests in the future, the commissioner conceded. “In a democracy, some reasonable disruption is to be expected when people are expressing themselves. But it was obviously not reasonable for these areas to be obstructed in the manner they were.”
She also conceded that police seen dancing and skateboarding with protestors had gone too far. “We do encourage officers to engage, but they shouldn’t have done that,” she said, adding that the officers concerned had been “advised” as to their conduct.
Commissioner Dick batted away a suggestion from Conservative London Assembly Member Andrew Boff that Mayor Khan might have suggested his support for the protests should influence policing strategy. “Certainly not. If he had, he would have got short shrift. I don’t think the Mayor would dream of it,” the commissioner replied.
But politicians could usefully look again at the law, she said: “We are working with quite ancient law.” Public Order Act powers were limited and cumbersome and did not define the offences committed by the Extinction Rebellion protestors as being serious. “I don’t think this sort of disruption should be treated as not serious. We do need to look at whether a stronger deterrent is needed. Nobody can think it’s a good thing that someone can just stop business going on for a long time and be subject to a non-serious offence.”
The bill for policing the protests was £7.5 million, and could go higher, the committee heard. The mayor would be applying to the Home Office for extra funding, said Sophie Linden, Mayor Khan’s deputy for policing and crime, who also repeating warnings that the government’s national and international capital city grant set up to recompense London for additional policing costs was currently £161 million less than required.
See the GLA webcast of the full committee meeting here.
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