Peter Walker is a former Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Police. He now owns SuperSkills, a Construction Training Business in Thirsk.
As I walked into the conference centre in Manchester this week, I said “Thank you” to all the police and security staff whom I met.
I have always made a point of this, particularly on the last day; I know from experience that standing on a fixed point for hours is the least enjoyable aspect of policing. This is not enhanced by doing it in the rain, especially during the type of downpour we had on a number of occasions over the last few days.
This time, however, my thanks were given in the knowledge that, by any assessment, the tactical approach taken by Greater Manchester Police towards the conference was sadly lacking.
I know from having taken part in the planning for major events, including the “Government of the Day” conference, which requires the highest level of management and control, just how meticulous and detailed it has to be – and that a team will have been working on the task of keeping us all safe in Manchester for many months.
It is simply not good enough that all of that planning – which achieved the overall objective of preventing a terrorist attack –- hould have been let down by the failure to apply some basic principles of public order policing at the point of access to and exit from the conference venue.
It should be understood that, for very good reason, individual officers are under strict instructions not to leave their posts. The “come on” distraction is always a risk that might leave a gap in the ring of officers around the venue. For that reason, my comments are not aimed at the individual officers, but their leaders.
It is not difficult to identify people attending any venue and especially members of the Conservative Party – whether they are wearing their passes/lanyards or not. Their direction of travel and their dress will be enough to spot them. At the entrance of the conference, the police permitted demonstrators to get amongst approaching conference attendees without hindrance.
We were all subjected to abuse, but spitting, jostling and really intimidatory conduct was far too frequent. Public order legislation includes a number of offences relating to those who cause alarm, harassment or distress and were committed on many occasions over the past few days.
Don’t think for a moment that I am commenting on policing in the absence of criticism of those whose behaviour was disgraceful, and who I think should be prosecuted for their actions. Far from it. However, a good police operation has taken place when such incidents have been prevented, not simply followed up after the event.
Three particularly serious incidents were able to develop – first, when attendees were queueing in close proximity to demonstrators when the G4S security operation was overwhelmed by the numbers arriving at conference on Monday morning, and twice when demonstrators were able to take control of Museum Street on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday as the conference finished.
Yet the “normality” of this conference – in contrast to the others I have attended in both Manchester and Birmingham over the past few years – was of insufficient planning for obvious areas of potential difficulty and lack of an ability to respond when problems arose.
Police tactics in public order include a number of options, including filter cordons to sort attendees from demonstrators, full cordons to keep an area sterile or the use of barriers to present a place for demonstrators to make their point, whilst permitting free passage along the highway for conference goers. These were not adopted in the right manner. The result: a thoroughly unpleasant experience for the attendees and a policing operation that lacked direction, control and professionalism.
The blame for this failure is not with the street cops who spent hours standing in the rain whilst we were in Manchester. It is certainly not a matter of “lack of resources”, which has become the mantra of choice for too many in the public sector over the past few years. There is no shortage of financial support for party conferences – particularly the party of government.
Responsibility lies firmly with those senior officers who had operational control of the tactics on the ground, and should have changed them when the nature and style of the demonstrators’ behaviour became obvious on Sunday afternoon. Greater Manchester Police will no doubt debrief the operation now we have all gone home. They need to make sure they raise their standards when it comes to managing the event next time.