Policing anti-fracking demos is having a ‘chilling effect’ on our freedom to protest

Pic: Vertigogen (Flickr)

Pic: Vertigogen (Flickr)

Here is one story that typifies police attitudes towards anti-fracking protesters – one that the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol), a coalition of activists and lawyers that campaigns against violent and oppressive policing, has heard variants of repeatedly over the last two years.

A Chester resident was unexpectedly visited at home by two detective constables from Cheshire police who conducted what he described as an aggressive and intimidating interview, demanding to know about local opposition to fracking and his involvement in it. At the time there was no anti-fracking group in Chester but the campaigner had written to his local paper and attended a public meeting about plans for an exploratory drill site in the nearby village of Upton, on the outskirts of the city. He believed he had been picked out and targeted, however, because he had made several day trips to a long-running protest camp at Barton Moss in Salford and that details of suspected anti-fracking campaigners were shared between different police forces.

Intrusive surveillance on campaign groups is just one of a number of recurring issues covered in Netpol’s newly published report on its work on the policing of anti-fracking protests from 2014, beginning in the aftermath of the substantial and extremely controversial operation by Greater Manchester Police at Barton Moss. This had resulted in large numbers of arrests, allegations of police aggression and sexualised violence against women protesters, and the use of blanket police bail conditions that an academic study said ‘in effect served to create a protest exclusion zone around the fracking site’. Campaigners complained that police constantly refused to recognise in any meaningful way their positive duty to facilitate and protect the right to freedom of assembly.

Chilling effect
Since then, testimony from individual campaigners, freedom of information disclosures and visits to protest sites in Lancashire, Cheshire, East Riding of Yorkshire and Surrey have enabled Netpol to identify a range of concerns about senior police officers’ strategic and operational decision-making. Our report argues these decisions have had a cumulative ‘chilling effect’ on the freedom to participate in local protests, one that results from unpredictable, surveillance-driven policing operations, the threat of covert infiltration, unfounded association with serious criminality and ‘extremism’ and an unwillingness by police to accommodate minor disruption.

We know the police are actively planning for protests against fracking – in 2014 a ‘gold commanders’ course used a fictional anti-fracking camp as its training scenario codenamed ‘Operation Hamilton’. In 2015, guidance issued by the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), the successor to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), acknowledged that most police forces can expect oil and gas exploration in their areas and therefore local opposition to drilling sites. From this guidance we know too that preparations use sophisticated and advanced intelligence-gathering to provide ‘the most comprehensive assessment of threat and risk’, by potentially collecting personal information of a large number of people and building profiles on potential ‘targets’.

In practice, campaigners have told us how this surveillance is often undertaken by regional Counter Terrorism Units and we have spoken to several activists who have been referred to the government’s Prevent ‘counter-radicalisation’ programme, without ever finding out why. We have gathered concrete evidence that Counter Terrorism officers have made unfounded allegations about opponents of fracking during Prevent training for public sector staff, bracketing legitimate campaign groups with terrorism and violence.

We now know too that the National Counter Terrorism Police Operations Centre (NCTPOC), a nationwide taskforce concerned with so-called ‘domestic extremism’ and with managing covert undercover operations, plays an influential role in preparations for policing local opposition to fracking. This is the latest name for the unit responsible for undercover officers like Mark Kennedy, currently the subject of a protracted public inquiry into their many abuses. This makes it all the more alarming that the senior officers from the NPCC have refused to rule out using undercover officers against the anti-fracking movement, insisting “any tactic, including covert tactics, is for the policing commander for the operation”.

Other concerns about the deployment of Police Liaison Officers, who have a well-documented role in intelligence gathering at protests, or the use of body-worn video cameras on officers’ uniforms, have also been ignored. Both can undermine the privacy of campaigners in the specific circumstances of protest camps that can continue for days or even weeks and involve daily interactions that most people would reasonably describe as ‘private’. The NPCC has refused to even consider a privacy impact assessment on the use of this new video technology.

Our report also highlights the opaque nature of the relationship between the police and the oil and gas industry and the close collaboration and cooperation between the two, in marked contrast to the treatment of opponents of fracking. It also points to the unpredictability of policing operations, meaning campaigners can expect a different reaction to protests from the police depending on where they live. In some areas, we have documented an uncompromising ‘zero-tolerance’ attitude to even limited disruption that has increased the prospects of individuals facing arrest – and that has been criticised by the courts as defendants are later acquitted.

Overall, the report argues that all of these factors can start to fundamentally undermine freedoms of assembly and expression by driving away campaign groups’ support and participation and disrupting the effectiveness of their activities.

That’s what we believe is wrong – but with the prospect of new drilling sites over the next year, how do we stop this situation from continuing? Attempts to negotiate with the police often prove fruitless: these negotiations rarely influence strategic decisions and invariably focus exclusively on protesters’ conduct. There is seldom any commitments from the police on the steps they will take to genuinely protect the right to protest.

As the NPCC has repeatedly told us that most decisions must take place at a local force level, Netpol is therefore encouraging anti-fracking groups to lobby their elected Police and Crime Commissioners, whose role is supposed to include ensuring the police are answerable to the communities they serve. We are calling on Police and Crime Commissioners to help draw up clear, local minimum standards and expectations about the policing of anti-fracking protests, covering all the key contentious areas we have highlighted in our report.

We believe police forces should explain in detail how they will positively protect the right to participate in protest and how they plan to avoid prioritising the interests of the oil and gas industry over the rights of campaigners.

While we wait to see how Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables will respond, Netpol is aiming to raise greater awareness among first time anti-fracking campaigners about their fundamental legal rights and how to organise to protect them. Our next know-your-rights and legal observer sessions take place in West Sussex in late November and in York in early December. To find out more, contact us at info@netpol.org or visit our Facebook page at facebook.com/netpol
Protecting the Protectors: Monitoring the Policing of Anti-Fracking Protests Since 2014 is available to
download here

Profile photo of Kevin Blowe About Kevin Blowe
Kevin is coordinator for the Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) and has been an activist with the campaigning group Newham Monitoring Project in east London for 24 years. For a decade he was the secretary of the United Families and Friends Campaign, an alliance that brings together custody death families, and helped to organise both the Jean Charles de Menezes Family Campaign and the Ian Tomlinson Family Campaign

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