Changing attitudes of the police to climate protest

“What concerns me most right now is the influence of the Home Office on police operations and the Orwellian use of conspiracy law.” Former detective sergeant for the Metropolitan Police Paul Stephens outlines the changing attitudes of senior police officers to climate protest.

Climate crime scene
Paul Stephens

I am a retired Detective Sergeant who served 30 years with the Metropolitan Police. I dealt with a lot of threats to life in that time so it feels completely natural to recognise the climate and nature emergency as the most serious, imminent and overwhelming risk to humanity and all life. With what we know now, I find it hard to understand why anyone would not get involved. It is everyone’s duty. 

Governments are behaving like a frog in a stewing pot gently being boiled alive and the police – the Metropolitan Police in particular – are overstepping the law in their eagerness to protect ‘business partners’ who are actively increasing the risk to life by pumping more CO2 into the atmosphere or supporting those that do. It is not the rank and file so much, many of whom I know to be well read on climate science, it is the senior command who hide behind their duty to uphold law in favour of their duty to protect human rights, and quite frankly, should raise their vision, recognise what we face, show some integrity and speak truth to power. 

Currently, the Metropolitan Police are using similar resource levels and tactics that are used to counter violent criminal organisations on peaceful activists engaged in shining a light on governmental and commercial forces opposing climate justice.

How did we get here? On 9 March 2019 XR marched from Parliament Square to Downing Street where children poured fake blood across Whitehall. The police tested the fake blood to ensure that it was water based and facilitated the road closure. No arrests were made. This was a proper recognition of their duty to facilitate protest. Then came the April Rebellion 2019, the five occupied bridges and the pink boat at Oxford Circus. Roger Hallam told the police exactly what was going to happen. 

This was when I went to buy a pair of trousers, heard a samba band, wandered through a happy crowd surrounding a pink boat and realised for the first time that maybe, just maybe, we weren’t doomed and humanity could wake up and evolve to live in a way that was sustainable on a finite planet. Always hopeful.

The police response changed from facilitation to enforcement. The fact that thousands of law-abiding people cared enough about the future of humanity to get arrested was recognised by police, not as a phenomenon of democracy, but as something unacceptable that had to be removed. Such enforcement is expensive but it was the choice of the police to respond and spend tax-payers' money in this way. 

From this point on, the clear positive and negative duty of the police to facilitate peaceful protest as defined in the human rights act and included in the College of Policing’s approved practice was side-lined. I liaised with police for the October Rebellion 2019 and was told that it was ‘unacceptable, and every legal means would be used to prevent it’. When we asked how we could modify our plans, the police repeated that phrase like automatons and meaningful engagement ceased. This stance has been maintained through coronavirus regulation and led to the recent awful scenes at both the Sarah Everard Clapham vigil and the Bristol ‘Kill the Bill’ violence. A recent All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Inquiry has clearly identified the police misunderstanding of Human Rights obligations that contributed to these failures.

I could describe how police misused S14 orders to effectively ban students protesting the climate strike in 2019 and again for the October Rebellion 2019, which was successfully challenged by judicial review. I could talk about the Met’s refusal to recognise their duty to facilitate peaceful protest since April Rebellion 2019 and I could list the actions that they closed down using a requirement to ‘register’ a Covid risk assessment with the local authority despite it not being a requirement in the legislation. 

What concerns me most right now is the influence of the Home Office on police operations and the Orwellian use of conspiracy law. The trials of activists that blocked Broxbourne print works last September have been adjourned following the disclosure of the ‘gold’ log showing that the Prime Minister and Home Secretary had communication with the Assistant Chief Constable in charge before he had a chance to get a situation report from his own staff on the ground. The details of all such communications have been lost in a ‘remote factory phone reset’ glitch, however, we await the High Court decision as to whether such early interference with operational police decisions was lawful. This should be borne in mind with regards to the ‘Free the Press’ action.

Two weeks ago, on the weekend of ‘Free the Press’ actions, a van was stopped close to the Murdoch print works in Broxbourne. The van was carrying horse manure. The occupants were arrested for conspiracy to cause public nuisance. This has been used scores of times by police on the assumption that a suspected peaceful protest will amount to a public nuisance. It has enabled police to seize vehicles, food, catering equipment, banners, toilets, wheelchair ramps and of course horse manure. It is used to seize phones and laptops ostensibly to find evidence that amounts to the planning of a crime – for a conspiracy, however, to date, no-one has been charged. The conspiracy legislation that is usually used for those planning serious offences – and must be heard at Crown Court – is a disruptive, intimidating tactic, which is also a useful method of gaining collateral intelligence regarding other peaceful actions. 

The police were not satisfied with horse manure – clearly terrified of another printer blockage and upsetting Murdoch and his political friends, they pushed the limits of the law further. One of those arrested was the designer of the amazing tensile bamboo structures used to block roads. They linked this man to a warehouse in Clapton where art was being prepared for XR actions. They raided it and found some pink wheelbarrows. The potential connection between wheelbarrows and horse poo did not escape London’s finest so they arrested four people on the premises who were busily painting banners for the next day. They arrested them for, you guessed it, conspiracy to cause public nuisance. Next, they raided the premises of Antepavilion, a charity that had awarded an architectural prize to the creator of the bamboo structures and had commissioned a huge 18-metre example on their roof for all to see. It took six months to build and would take days/weeks to take down, but the Met Police thought that it was acceptable to smash the door in with 42 officers and arrest the charity workers (not XR members) for, yes, conspiracy to cause public nuisance. Now, as a former cop, if my boss had told me to deal with the risk of the 18-metre structure on the roof of a charity that may be used to block something important, I would have knocked, spoken to the owner and warned them that if the structure was ever used to cause a public nuisance then they would be liable to investigation and arrest. I would not have smashed the door in, nicked everyone and seized their phones. In my opinion, this is indicative of overwhelming government interference causing senior police officers to lose all sense of common sense and proportionality. 

Ecocide is now defined and awaits acceptance on the statute of Rome. Surely it would be wiser for the Metropolitan Police to focus resources and planning on preparing for societal breakdown, investigate ecocide for the consequences of the climate and nature emergency and prosecute those who commit serious damage to our planet rather than those who care enough to raise the alarm to save life.