Updated: 30th April 2013, with Sussex Police’s answers in italics. The police cannot become properly involved in the political debates about protest. All they can present are the facts as they saw them. Thus, my questions have been factual. Aside from observing that Sussex Police have not answered all the questions below, their answers are published without further commentary. The text below is my original post text as are the questions.
Here’s a list of straight questions, which Sussex Police need to answer following Operation Wheeler on Sunday 21st April 2013. Operation Wheeler was the name given to the massive policing operation in Brighton, which related to the “March for England”, a protest by a collection of far-right organisations. Yesterday, I published my personal account of the 2013 March for England.
Each question is numbered. I invite Sussex Police to reply to each specific question, using the contact form on this blog (they can identify themselves in a twitter Direct Message to verify answers received at this end come from them ~ I suggest they include a code in both the contact form and the Direct Message). My readers are welcome to put these questions to Sussex Police themselves. I’ll publish all the official answers in this post under each question.
Reports suggest that ten police forces were involved in Operation Wheeler. However, Sussex Police was in charge on the day. Therefore, all these questions are addressed to Sussex Police.
As a preface to the answers, please can we request that contrary to your usual ‘Comments Policy’, you publish our whole comment in full at first (including this introduction). That only seems fair since we have answered your questions in exactly the format requested.
It should also be noted by your readers that you were offered a face-to-face meeting with the operation commander, Supt Steve Whitton, prior to the answers being provided in writing. We suggested that you could record the full conversation in audio or writing, to publish here.
This was our preference, as it would allow you immediate reaction to, or clarification of, the answers provided. It would have reduced the time it has taken to provide the answers in writing. It would also, in our view, have provided a more meaningful and natural dialogue, particularly as some of your questions are a little loaded or without context, so have resulted in short answers without the ability for immediate two-way clarification.
The invite to meet with Supt Steve Whitton stands and, while we will do our best to engage with any resulting debate here or on Twitter, we must balance this with the time taken already to address your questions.
These answers have been compiled from information on operational systems and conversations with a number of people involved in the operation.
1. Who was in charge of Operation Wheeler?
Superintendent Steve Whitton.
2. What public order experience did the officer in charge have prior to 21st April 2013?
Supt Whitton is one of the most experienced public order commanders in Sussex Police and has commanded many public order events. He is nationally-accredited public order gold commander.
3. Why did Sussex Police allow the “March for England” to occur in Brighton on 21st April 2013?
There was no reason to request the local authority to make a banning order through the Home Secretary.
One of the guiding principles of our common law is that a citizen is free to do anything not forbidden by the law. Citizens of the UK are entitled to expect that peaceful assemblies, processions and demonstrations will not just be permitted, but will be positively facilitated by the police. This is emphasised by the European Court of Human Rights in a stated case which talks of the obligation of the state to go beyond non interference and extends into facilitation.
Police only have the power to approach the chief executive of the local authority, who in turn must approach the Home Secretary, in order to seek a ban. Only a procession can be banned and there is no power to prevent an assembly. The police can only approach the council where they believe serious disorder will occur and they cannot prevent this with the resources and legislation available to them. It is seen as a severe measure in relation to breaching people’s Human Rights.
4. Did Sussex Police consider the impact of the “March for England” on local residents, including the Scouts who subsequently decided to cancel their annual St George’s Day parade? If not, why not? If so, why was priority given to the “March for England”?
A multi-agency partnership meeting considered the impact at great length over several months of planning and Sussex Police engaged at length with local residents, businesses, traders and other interested parties. The scouts informed us that they had decided to change the date of their parade. There had been no conversation with them prior to that decision. With all policing operations, the impact on the wider community is balanced against the rights of others.
5. Why have Sussex Police allowed a man from Portsmouth to organise a march in Brighton for three years running?
There is no geographical restriction on organisers. It is not a factor we can legally consider.
6. Are Sussex Police aware of any local people joining the “March for England?” If so, how many? How many of those are what is commonly called “street drinkers”?
We do not know what percentage of the participants in the march were local.
7. What was the cost of Operation Wheeler?
The cost of the operation is still being established and will be made public in due course. It does take some time to collate all this information as we are dependent on receiving costs from mutual aid forces and we need to establish how long everyone involved was on duty and what other costs may have been incurred. We strive to keep costs as low as possible, but have already publicly indicated that the total cost will amount to several hundred thousand pounds.
8. Did Sussex Police have problems with the batteries in their cameras?
The Logistics Officer is not aware of any replacement batteries being requested during the operation.
9. Why did Sussex Police give permission to an organisation which has form for provoking large scale counter-protests to take over Brighton Seafront?
The seafront was established as the best option for the march, predominantly taking in consideration our key priority of keeping everyone safe – public, participants and police. The route was agreed by a multi-agency partnership meeting and considered the impact on city centre routes and business areas that were affected in previous years.
10. Does Sussex Police accept that its decision directly led to a massive loss of business for Brighton’s commercial economy, at a time of economic hardship and on a day which would otherwise have been lucrative?
We are aware that there was a negative impact on the city and the effect that the march would have was considered by the agencies and partners who discussed at great length the location of the march. While we recognise the problems experienced by local traders, the geographical scale of the impact was less than previous years and the majority of the city was unaffected directly by the march and the counter protestors. A neighbourhood policing inspector is personally visiting businesses along the route to better understand the impact the day’s events had on both residents and businesses.
11. Did Sussex Police consider suggesting an alternative venue for the “March for England”? If not, why not? If so, which venues were considered and why were they rejected? Was Preston Park considered?
A number of options were considered by the multi-agency partnership meeting. An open area such as Preston Park would be very difficult to effectively police with the prime objective of public safety without significantly increasing the number of police officers required to prevent violence and disorder. Had the march taken place elsewhere we consider that the impact would have been far greater.
12. Does Sussex Police accept that it, effectively, invited two groups of violent people into Brighton on 21st April 2013, because the “March for England” always attracts opposition, some of which is violent?
Sussex Police did not invite either of the groups and does not accept that point. We have an obligation, as outlined in answer 3, to facilitate peaceful protest and we are asked to do so for various groups in Brighton and Hove.
13. Why didn’t Sussex Police request that the “March for England” pay for the policing operation to protect it?
The march and counter protest are not organised commercial events, but protests and therefore do not incur policing costs. The role of the police is to facilitate people’s right to peaceful protest, which we do regularly for a variety of groups and causes. Brighton and Hove hosts the second highest number of protests in the UK, after London.
14. Did Sussex Police ask the “March for England” to make any financial contribution to the policing costs?
No and we don’t do. This could set a dangerous precedent or expectation for us to ask for cost recovery for every form of protest, which would be outside the spirit of current legislation and likely to be highly unacceptable to the public.
15. Did Sussex Police’s annual budgeting arrangements include a specific sum for policing the March for England? If not, why not? If so, what was that sum?
There are no budgeting arrangements considered in the annual budget for specific events, protests, etc., although there is overall contingency planning for those expected to take place across Sussex.
16. Why didn’t Sussex Police have any form of public address system on 21st April 2013? Was this option considered? If not, why not? If it was, why was it rejected?
Officers leading teams at various locations on the route of the march and its environs were equipped with portable megaphones and this proved sufficient. The matrix signs around the city warned of disruption and road closure, signs at Brighton railway station provided similar information and a large engagement process was undertaken to inform as many people as possible by many methods, including online, social media and traditional media updates on the day.
17. Did Sussex Police announce in advance that protesters would be arrested if they protested in zones designated for the opposing protesters?
No. It is not an offence to be in an ‘opposing’ protest zone. However, we would discourage this in the interests of personal safety and to prevent disorder and would consider arrests if offences were committed.
18. Do Sussex Police accept that no-one was arrested for protesting in the opposing protesters’ designated zones?
Yes, as it is not an offence.
19. Do Sussex Police accept that known supporters of the “March for England” entered the zone designated for the counter-protest and protested there?
We were made aware at the time that there may have been a handful of March for England supporters in the designated protest area for the counter protest. We were not aware until it was raised with us and it was then monitored, with action taken where appropriate to keep everyone as safe as possible.
20. Do Sussex Police accept that the “March for England” supporters who entered the official counter-protest zone were not arrested, despite that causing offence to those who considered themselves officially separated from the “March for England” supporters?
Being ‘offended by association’ is not a criminal offence. No arrests were made from either March supporters or the counter protest purely as a result of groups mingling, in line with answer 17.
21. Do Sussex Police accept that erecting a barrier which they themselves could not easily cross to remove “March for England” protesters from the counter-protest zone was a mistake, which could easily have prevented them from keeping the peace had more serious trouble occurred?
No, the barriers proved very successful and no serious disorder occurred in the areas where the barriers were deployed. Officers were deployed on both sides of the barriers in these areas and were very successful in limiting movement between opposing groups.
22. Do Sussex Police accept that deliberately and conspicuously photographing peaceful demonstrators is likely to alienate them from the police? Do Sussex Police regard anyone with a megaphone or a banner as a likely criminal?
Officers in many roles, including Evidence Gathering Teams, who were clearly distinguishable, were deployed to support the operation. No group was singled out or treated differently in relation to the use of cameras.
23. Why did Sussex Police search journalists on their way to cover the “March for England” under powers intended to combat terrorism?
A mini-bus containing nine journalists was stopped in an intelligence-led operation at Hickstead. They were treated as any other members of the public while searches were legally made.
One officer erroneously issued a ticket suggesting that the search was conducted under the Terrorism Act and they were quickly advised of their mistake, which we admitted to on Twitter the same day. The search was under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which does not make a distinction based on people’s employment.
Officers and media relations staff liaised with many journalists covering the march, providing information throughout the day, facilitating interviews with the police commander and continuing with updates into the evening and next day. Officers on the ground were briefed about dealing with media representatives and provision was in place for any accredited journalist to be allowed access to any areas, including the otherwise closed route of the march.
24. Do Sussex Police accept that Operation Wheeler was stopped too early because groups of people connected with the “March for England” and part of the counter-protest continued running fights around the city after 6pm?
No. While the operation nominally concluded at 6pm, enabling the stand down of the vast majority of officers, thus reducing costs, a number of units remained deployed and were able to deal with the few sporadic incidents that occurred after that time.
25. Do Sussex Police accept that its decision to pay for coaches for the “March for England” supporters either amounts to or directly leads to a widespread perception of helping the “March for England”?
While we are aware of this perception, the decision to use one coach inbound and two outbound was taken to reduce the risk of disorder or violence and the potential for bystanders to become inadvertently involved. We are satisfied that the decision was justified by its success in moving the participants in and out of the city without incident. This tactic has been used successfully to minimise disorder for similar marches in other areas of the country.
26. What other protest groups has Sussex Police given coaches to in the last five years?
None that we are aware of, but we are also not aware of any protest taking place where the level of opposition would be likely to pose a threat to those involved that required this tactic.
27. Why didn’t Sussex Police pay for coaches to help counter-protesters to travel to Brighton & Hove City centre?
The buses were not provided to help people into the city, they were provided to mitigate an identified risk to safety of all those involved. The buses ensured that people were able to exercise their rights without the threat of violence and ensured we were able to bring the march to a swifter conclusion.
28. Does Sussex Police accept that assisting anyone to demonstrate a partisan cause, by paying for their transport, is likely to lead to a breakdown in public trust and confidence in the police because it inevitably breaches police neutrality?
No. The provision of transport was for the mitigation of risk and in the interests of the safety of everyone involved – the public, participants in the March and the counter protest, and the police. If we had been approached by an organiser from the counter protestors, then consideration would have been given to offering the same facility. The same considerations would be made for any group in the future where the risk level was similar.
29. Why didn’t Sussex Police arrest people wearing masks and take them into custody?
Sussex Police had the power (Section 60AA) to request the removal of masks, hoods, etc. and if the person refused they could be arrested.
30. Do Sussex Police accept that in at least one instance they wrestled a mask wearer to the ground violently, rather than arresting him/her and taking him/her into custody?
While we are unable to identify the specific incident from your description, this probably would have been an arrest. While it may appear rather robust, if a person is resisting arrest or struggling in any way, officers are trained to secure them swiftly and safely with the minimum risk to both the arrested person and the arresting officer(s).
31. Why didn’t Sussex Police arrest “March for England” supporters wearing masks or other face coverings?
If a person wearing a mask or other face covering complies with a police officer’s request to remove it, there is no cause for arrest.
32. Why didn’t Sussex Police arrest “March for England” supporters making offensive gestures (eg raising their middle fingers, making Nazi salutes)?
A number of people were arrested for using threatening, abusive, insulting words or behaviour with intent to cause fear of/provoke unlawful violence. Two have subsequently been charged and will appear in court next month. The affiliation of an arrested person is not recorded as part of the custody process.
33. What steps have Sussex Police taken to identify those “March for England” Supporters who made violent threats on twitter in advance of the march?
Investigations are continuing into a number of threats and potential hate crimes and where it is possible to identify the perpetrators, action will be taken. These incidents were not confined to one particular faction.
34. How many police officers were injured on Sunday 21st April 2013?
There were no serious injuries, although one officer was withdrawn from duty after suffering a pulled ligament in his leg.
35. How many other people were injured on Sunday 21st April 2013 in connection with events relating to the March for England?
We do not hold this information conclusively, as we are not responsible for the treatment of patients. We would only be informed if injuries were associated with a crime.
36. Why did Sussex Police declare Operation Wheeler a success?
Sussex Police declared that it was satisfied with the operation. Our absolute priority was public safety, but we also had responsibilities to respond to crime and disorder, and to facilitate peaceful protest. These priorities potentially conflict at some times in protest situations and require careful balancing.
Overall, we believe we delivered an operation that kept the city relatively peaceful and free from serious disorder, despite the very high risks assessed and experience of similar events elsewhere in the country and previously in the city.