Is police kettling a valid method of crowd control?

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“The thing about kettles is that they do have a tendency to come to the boil” – Duncan Campbell.

The student protests that began in November 2010 sparked outrage among the public, particularly in regards to the tactics used by the police in order to regain control of the crowds of students descending upon Whitehall and the streets of London. Kettling, also known as corralling or containing, was used extensively during the initial protest as well as in subsequent marches against students who were protesting against the increase of tuition fees and the withdrawal of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). Kettling is a tactic which involves containing protestors in a specific area, sometimes for hours at a time, and channelling them through one exit decided by the police, in some cases a permanent enclosure refusing exit to those involved. The method prompted anger among both protestors and the general public, who claimed that ‘kettling is an infringement of the fundamental right to peaceful protest’.[1] Among reports that the Metropolitan police kept protestors contained without food, water, or adequate medical assistance where necessary for up to nine hours, it needs to be examined what the Metropolitan police’s response was to these claims and if the use of kettling is justified.

The debate surrounding the police use of kettling, officially called “containment”, became especially prominent in the media following the G20 protests in 2009. Its controversial use against 5000 protestors was linked to the death of Ian Tomlinson, 47, who was filmed being struck with a baton before being pushed to the ground by a police officer after he was accidentally caught up in the protests on 01 April. Although the officer was never charged with Tomlinson’s death, it raised the question of how much force police should use during protests such as this in the future. Duncan Campbell argued that there were many problems with the use of kettling in the 2009 protests noting ‘the thing about kettles is that they do have a tendency to come to the boil’ posing the idea that if techniques such as this continued, how long would it be before confrontations between police and protestors became bloodier.[2]

In the year between the G20 and the student protests in 2010, policing came under great scrutiny in both the media and by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). Sue Sim, who speaks on public order issues for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), claimed that the media coverage of police behaviour had been one sided and that she did not believe in “trial by press” for those officers involved.[3] It is true that the media focused primarily upon the violence conducted by police officers during the containment of those involved and bore little reference to violence against police officers; however, the judgement made by the media that the police used more force than was necessary is supported by the report released in July 2009. The report called for an overhaul of the National Guidance on the policing of protest following the evidence that many police officers did not understand the legal criteria for using kettling.[4] Despite this extensive criticism of kettling prior to the protests in November in 2010, no decision was made as to whether parliament should re-address the decision made during Austin v. Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis in which the tactic was declared to not be in violation of Article Five of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).[5]

It is evident that a more effective overhaul of police should have been made in preparation for future protests following G20. However, there is little (if any) evidence that police tactics have changed in the past year. Rachel Tijani, a participator at the protests in 2010 claimed ‘[kettling] is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they coop people up like caged animals, they’ll act like caged animals’.[6] Clearly, kettling has no place in modern day policing, instead echoing the methods used by police in the early 1990s. Following the declaration by the House of Lords that kettling was not in violation of the ECHR, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee declared that it should only be used ‘sparingly and in clearly defined circumstances’; this appears to have been ignored in the most recent bout of protests.

It could be claimed that when a police officer is faced with violence, they should be able to defend themselves in a particular manner. There are many reports that students attacked officers using missiles, bottles and even snooker balls; however is there justification to fight violence with violence? Metropolitan Police Supt. Julia Pendry claimed that many protestors came with ‘intent on causing violent disorder’ in the November marches. However, if the Metropolitan Police had anticipated violence, as was the case in the weeks after 10 November, is kettling really a justifiable response for dealing with violence? Essentially, kettling can incite violence among protestors as well as endangering those who initially do not pose a risk including the containment of teenage school children near Whitehall on 24 November who only subsequently attacked a police van.[7]

It has been proven that crowds can be successfully controlled without the use of containment. Patrick Kinglsey wrote for the Guardian on the creation of Sukey; ‘a multi-platform news, communications and logistical support system designed to ensure safety for protesters during demonstrations’.[8] It collates information from protestors advising where kettles are forming and where other protestors are. It is this system which is believed to have prevented any kettles forming on 29 January outside the Egyptian Embassy in London; surprising considering the events of the student protests just months before. Admittedly, the two protests are likely to have been different; however, the promise of Sukey for preventing problems in the future indicates that in the modern day, kettling is not the solution. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if the police will once again examine their tactics in dealing with protests.

Article by Liz Saul.
Edited by Marc Geddes.

More Information

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-12293394
[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/03/g20-protests-police-kettling?intcmp=239
[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/may/13/police-g20-protest?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487
[4] http://www.hmic.gov.uk/SiteCollectionDocuments/What%27s%20New/PPR_PRL_20090706.pdf
[5] http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.com/pa/ld200809/ldjudgmt/jd090128/austin-1.htm
[6] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/police-kettling-tactic-angers-protesters-2142698.html
[7] http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/24/student-protests-school-children-streets
[8] http://www.sukey.org/