Today's report by the Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner's Independent Panel on the Policing of Protests and Demonstrations into events at the Barton Moss anti-fracking protests in Salford has been slated by a range of organisations, individuals and the solicitor who represented many of the arrested protectors – the vast majority of whom have had their cases thrown out by the courts.
"The panel, however well intentioned, is a body working under the police commission, and is required to work closely with the police" said Simon Pook of Robert Lizar Solicitors "For example, it submitted this report on the 18.9.14 to Greater Manchester Police `for final input'. It therefore does not have the independence and credibility which a public inquiry would have."
Pook called for the United Nations to investigate `miners strike' style policing after a mother was violently arrested at the site (see previous Salford Star article – click here) but the most contentious part of the report states "Throughout the evidence-gathering process of this report, no panel members witnessed any behaviour by police that could objectively be described as `brutality'.
"Significantly" it adds "none of those we spoke to witnessed behaviour by police that could be categorised as violent. No protester we spoke to witnessed police violence, no panel member witnessed police violence, nor did anyone else we spoke to including impartial media representatives who were present at Barton Moss. Claims of police violence have not been substantiated."
Both social media sites and the Salford Star catalogued police aggression sometimes on a daily basis during the Barton Moss protests, with eye witness accounts and photographs (see here and see here and see here).
Meanwhile, reaction to the panel's comments on social media was scornful of the `no brutality' conclusion...
"What a load of rubbish. It was everywhere!"... "I was there I have proof of police brutality...and was disgusted with the police actions. I'm a freelance photographer"... "are they talking about the same Barton Moss or is it an imaginary place like this report?"... "What a farce. The police brutality at BM has changed my perception of the law forever"... "Usual whitewash rhetoric..."
The report states that Greater Manchester Police was subject to `independent reviews' by various police bodies and a human rights lawyer, and that "none of these reviews found cause for concern about how GMP was carrying out its operation, but GMP did not provide the panel with copies of these reviews."
The report notes what both the protesters and the police told panel members...
"Protesters told the panel that police officers regularly shoved them during these protests and tried to force them to walk at a quick pace. Given that some of those taking part were elderly, protesters said this was unnecessarily antagonistic on the part of police...
"...Protesters told the panel that people would be arrested for no particular
reason and felt that police had a quota of arrests they needed to make each
And from the police's side...
"GMP told the panel no such quota existed....Police said they faced a barrage of abuse from the protesters, with cameras and smartphones being shoved in their faces as they were being shouted at."
The panel emphasises that "most of the action taken by protesters at Barton Moss was peaceful" and that "More than 200 arrests were made during the operation. So far, 62% of those cases have either been discontinued or the alleged offender found not guilty".
The report highlights incidents of `concern', including "a minor injury to a police officer" when a drum used for a lock-on "was filled with barbed wire and broken glass", an act condemned by the Barton Moss Protection Camp itself. It also includes the incidents known as `Teagate' and `Flaregate'...
Flaregate happened when the pilot of a police helicopter allegedly reported that a flare was fired at it as it came in to land at the Airport next to Barton Moss, even though no evidence was produced by the police which went public on the `incident'.
The report states, incredibly, that "The panel does not believe that GMP has a responsibility to `prove' incidents it publicises", then adds "as a public body police have a duty not to mislead the public and it would be extraordinary if any such incident had been fabricated."
However, even now, no evidence has been produced by the police to back up the allegation. The report meekly states "with hindsight, the panel believes more information about the incident should have been issued. This could have included media interviews with the pilot, or the pilot's statement could have been issued to the media."
Similarly with Teagate, or what the report terms the `Legal observer arrest', where a protector was arrested for drink driving, even though he was not in a car and had merely drank a cup of tea. The case was subsequently thrown out of court and the report states that "Rightly or wrongly, the video does give the impression that the officer, at best, overreacted and, at worst, abused his powers".
Instead of lambasting the police, the report merely notes that GMP's PR could have been better...
"At the time GMP did not provide a response which could have explained the officer's actions or at least set them in context" it states "This lack of willingness to explain is difficult to understand, given the reputational damage this incident
Indeed, the main thrust of the report seems to be based around perceptions and public relations, rather than an investigation into the policing methods themselves.
While the report states what protesters "felt"... that "they were treated badly by the police, with clear evidence of many people being shoved as they exercised their democratic right to protest" it doesn't delve any deeper into the concerns. Or abuses.
Meanwhile, the arrest of 15 year old Saffron Hughes (see here) and her subsequent treatment didn't merit a mention, and the violent arrest of Vanda Gillett (see here and see here) wasn't singled out, only the `reality' of an incident in the police station afterwards. There were many more instances which could have been examined in greater detail.
But the report was never set up to do this, which invites criticism of its whole raison d'etre... It begins "This report is not about finger-pointing or blame, but aims to provide constructive feedback to police and others around the management of contentious and complex protests".
With so many cases being thrown out of court and so much video evidence of police aggression towards peaceful protesters, people present at Barton Moss wanted more than this. They didn't get it.
Three of the nine recommendations of the report are about media management, five are concerned with mediation and engagement, and one was about planning*.
Even the report's conclusion, leaves questions hanging... "Trust was lost in the police during the Barton Moss protest, despite the evidence showing that GMP was committed to balancing, as best it could, the competing rights of the protesters, local businesses and local residents."
"Trust was lost in the police" for a reason...that was more than mere PR and `engagement'. The Independent Panel Report doesn't come near to explaining this.
Frack Free Greater Manchester
The report correctly identifies the significance of 'flaregate'; the allegation that protesters deliberately tried to shoot down a Greater Manchester Police helicopter, for which no evidence has been produced. FFGM believes this matter should immediately be referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission and supports the call for a full independent inquiry into the policing of the protest.
FFGM believes though that the report fails to properly answer our five key questions on the policing of the protest...
•Did the police have daily arrest quotas?
•Did the police know Barton Moss Road was a private road?
•Was covert intelligence shared with IGas?
•Did the police wage a propaganda war against the protesters?
•Was the story of the flare fired at the police helicopter invented?
In the report the police deny having arrest quotas, however FFGM notes that exactly five people were arrested on most days and that officers were heard calling for "one more" or "two more" arrests on several occasions.
The report does not comment on the charges used to arrest protesters, but the courts have acquitted all Protectors arrested for Obstruction of the Public Highway and have been incredulous that police officers were not aware the road was private.
The report also notes that the police became the only agency making public statements on the protest only by default. However FFGM still believes that police statements went far beyond what was acceptable. One statement (on the GMP Facebook site on 23 January 2014) stated that the "majority of people who are arriving at the site are not there to protest against fracking but are there to disrupt and intimidate the local community and to antagonise police". The Independent Panel clearly states this was not true.
Martin Porter of Frack Free Greater Manchester said "We thank the panel for their work, but the report shows just how many important questions remain unanswered. Despite feelings against the police running very high, despite the excessive force used on the daily 'slow walks' and despite the police treating everyone who turned up like a criminal, this was a peaceful protest. For Greater Manchester Police to then claim that these peaceful protesters launched a terrorist attack is totally unacceptable. We must find out the truth of this matter. If this story was made up to discredit peaceful protesters and justify repressive policing, then there must be consequences."
Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy
"The policing of protests is often contentious and the Barton Moss protest put GMP between those wishing to obstruct the drilling process and a company and landowner wishing to carry out their lawful business. It is important that police action is independently scrutinised and we welcome the first report from the Protest Panel. All the recommendations are accepted by the Force. The Panel has highlighted the difficult issues of how to ensure all agencies preplan the response to protest, how the police communicate with protesters when some don't want to engage with the police and how the police communicate information on a protest without introducing any bias.
"It is crucial in all its dealings with protest that GMP is seen as impartial, policing is not a popularity contest and the police are often stuck in the middle. The policing of this protest cost GMP £1.7m, money which could not then be spent on local policing.
"There is considerable frustration in the Force with the weaknesses of current legislation and the lack of clarity on such issues as obstruction which puts officers in very difficult position. We hope that as the Panel continues its work it can also examine these matters and provoke a wider public debate."
Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd
"The police have a duty to ensure that people's right to protest peacefully is facilitated and respected and although Greater Manchester Police has a good record in policing protests this is a frequent challenge. The Barton Moss protest was particularly complex and contentious and, amid the legitimate public concerns raised, it was clear that independent scrutiny of this operation was needed in order to build trust and public confidence in our police service.
"I want to thank the panel members for their observations and advice and for giving up their own time to produce this report. Now I'll work with GMP and other public bodies to make sure these recommendations are put into practice."
Martin Miller, Chair of the Independent Panel
"Barton Moss attracted significant public and media attention. It was a complex and difficult operation which created a number of issues, and saw officers subjected to daily abuse as they carried out their job. We also found that some protestors were shoved and felt they were treated badly, although I want to stress that allegations of police brutality have not been substantiated.
"This is not about finger-pointing or blame, it's about giving constructive, valuable feedback to the police, public bodies and also the protesters involved so that lessons can be learned and the management of future protests can be improved.
"Although there were many things that were done right, we found that many of the issues could have been mitigated or resolved by better pre-planning and more constructive communications and engagement with the protesters and wider public."
• Read the nine recommendations and the full report – click here
See also previous Salford Star articles...
• Greater Manchester Independent Protest Panel Fury at Barton Moss – click here
* Salford residents' shock at Barton Moss GMP policing - click here
* GMP deny Salford residents right to protest - click here
* Swinton Police Station Siege Against GMP Brutality at Barton Moss - click here