Policing protests and demonstrations is not an easy task. A fact we know all too well in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.
On the one hand the police have a duty to allow free speech by the protestors, on the other they have a duty to enable people to go about their law-abiding business without being blocked by protestors. Finally, they have a duty to keep everybody safe.
That might sound relatively easy, but in the real world with fast-changing situations and the need for split-second decisions it is anything but.
Take, for instance, two recent examples: The King’s Coronation in London and the Meridian Park protests in Leicester.
In London the police have been criticised by arresting half a dozen republican protestors who claimed to be peaceful protestors. But the police had intelligence, that they believed came from a reliable source, that one group of protestors was going to disrupt the coronation by throwing paint, letting off rape alarms and attacking the parade. And they did stop protestors carrying paint. Just as others were able to peacefully make their point.
With so many horses about, rape alarms would have been a serious danger. A stampeding horse is a terrifying and dangerous thing. I know. Some years ago I got in the way of a stampeding horse. It took a 5 hour operation and 95 stitches to put me back together again – plus a long recuperation in hospital. The thought of several big army horses stampeding into a crowd including young children doesn’t bear thinking about.
So if the police erred on the side of caution, then I’m going to back them all the way.
Turning to our own local protest at Meridian Park, the police again had credible intelligence that determined troublemakers would be attending along with families and genuinely peaceful protestors. So the Leicestershire Police had to develop two very different strategies for two different types of protest at the same time in the same place.
Sure enough a peaceful bunch of protestors turned up keen to make their point with placards and good natured demonstrations. There were also those who were determined to disrupt the lives of others by blocking roads, locking themselves on to cars and breaking the law as regarding protests.
There is no need for this. In my youth I attended plenty of marches, demonstrations and protests. At no time did we seek to block access to hospitals or barricade roads. But we managed to make our point and to get some coverage on local media – today it would be likes on social media, of course.
So do the police have a tough job at protests? Yes, of course.
And do they deserve our support? Absolutely!
By Rupert Matthews, Police and Crime Commissioner for Leicestershire.