Protests: What powers can the police use?

There have been plenty of protests in 2019, people have picked up their placards, headed to the streets and made their voices heard. We have seen demonstrators calling for the declaration of a climate emergency, the delivery of Brexit and expressing their displeasure at the arrival of President Trump.

The freedom to peacefully protest is a cornerstone of a liberal democratic society but it’s not always plain sailing. Sometimes even peaceful protests can cause serious disruption to local communities and businesses. Police officers must conduct a difficult balancing act. They must ensure they minimise disruption and harm for those not involved in the protest, but they also must protect the rights of those peacefully demonstrating.

This Insight will examine some recent demonstrations and ask whether the current framework for policing protests is working in 2019.

How does the police approach protests?

Guidance on policing protests is clear. Forces should plan their operations thoroughly. They must operate in favour of facilitating peaceful protest and maintain an open and constructive dialogue with demonstrators. Officers can only impose conditions on demonstrations or use force against protesters when it is absolutely necessary to do so.

When it is deemed necessary, the police has considerable powers to restrict protests. In addition to general powers to arrest those suspected to have broken criminal law, forces can issue conditions on a protest which direct:

  • Where it should take place
  • For how long it should last
  • How many people can be involved.

In extreme circumstances a police force can request that the Home Secretary completely bans a protest from taking place. These powers are explained in detail in our paper Policing of protests.

What do protest conditions look like in practice?

The Extinction Rebellion protests that took place across London in April 2019 provides a text book example of police officers exercising their powers to restrict protests. The protests were peaceful but caused major disruption to London’s transport network.

During the protest, police issued conditions to restrict Extinction Rebellion’s activity to Marble Arch. This allowed officers to arrest protesters elsewhere in London who refused to move to the new designated area. The Metropolitan Police eventually arrested more than 1,000 protesters during the demonstrations for a variety of offences, including for refusing to follow the conditions.

Why don’t the police always issue a condition on a protest?

The police do not always issue conditions like the Met did at the Extinction Rebellion protest. For example, recent Brexit marches involving both Leave and Remain supporters went ahead without any being issued. This is because the police can only issue a condition on a protest when it is necessary to stop serious disruption or damage.

When the police don’t issue a condition, officers may still monitor a protest. They can always exercise their power to arrest those who they suspect have broken (or are breaking) the law.

Should the police be taking a firmer stance towards protests?

Many commentators looked on at Extinction Rebellion protests with frustration. Some stated that the process of issuing conditions and arresting those who did not comply was slow. During the protests, Home Secretary Sajid Javid encouraged the Met to “take a firm stance and use the full force of the law.” Some asked why the police did not use more force to bring the protest to end more quickly.

During the protest the Met issued a public statement explaining why it couldn’t use force against the protesters:

“We have been asked why we are not… physically and forcibly stopping the protesters from moving around. The simple answer is we have no legal basis to do so. These are peaceful protesters; while disruptive their actions are not violent towards police, themselves or other members of the public.”

The use of force against peaceful protesters has been extremely controversial in the past. The 2009 G20 Summit in London was a landmark moment for the policing of protests. Police officers were responding to multiple protests happening as the Capital hosted the Summit. Some of these protests were violent and disruptive, others were peaceful. The use of force against peaceful protesters at G20 lead to a lengthy court case. The courts eventually found that the police had used forced proportionately but warned police officers that “the test of necessity [for the use of force] is met only in truly extreme and exceptional circumstances.”

Does the law need changing?

The legislation which provides the framework for the policing of protests has been in place for more than 30 years. Senior officers in the Met have argued that the time may have come for it to be reviewed. A review could examine if the current police powers are still strong enough.

Although current legislation has been in place for some time, it has not sat unchanged. Politicians have made amendments to the legislation and public debate has influenced changes to police tactics. If there is to be a fresh look at the rules for policing protests, then a close examination of how successful past reforms have been might be a good place to start.

Further reading

Policing of protests, House of Commons Library.

Jenny Brown is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in home affairs and justice.

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