Suella Braverman’s comments just added to the difficulty of policing protests - Dr Alan Billings

Policing protests in London on issues that concern people deeply, especially when they are contentious, is never going to be easy. Numbers are likely to be large and passions will run deep.

Last Saturday’s pro-Palestinian march was just such an occasion. As if that were not enough, public comments during the week by the former Home Secretary – whatever you thought about them – just added to the headache for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He could surely have done without them. There is a time and place for these discussions. A few days before the march and in the media was neither the time nor the place.

One of the things the previous Home Secretary said, apparently, was that different marches and demonstrations were policed differently by the police. The police had favourites. I think protests are policed differently, though not for the reasons Ms Braverman suggested, but because if the object of policing is to enable protests to happen and law and order to be upheld, different protests need different responses.

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And by ‘different protests’ I don’t refer to who is protesting or what they are protesting about, but how they are going about things and the likely impact they will have on the communities where they are held.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman outside her home. PIC: Andrew Matthews/PA WireFormer home secretary Suella Braverman outside her home. PIC: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Former home secretary Suella Braverman outside her home. PIC: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

In the nine years that I have been Police and Crime Commissioner in South Yorkshire we have seen many protests – from static demonstrations to marches. After the Jay Report on child sexual abuse in Rotherham, we saw marches by the far right (EDL) month after month in Rotherham. These were noisy, aggressive and unpleasant, often with an air of menace about them. We had the equally drawn-out trees protests in Sheffield.

Since then, there have been any number of rallies and marches, usually in front of a town hall, and usually relatively peaceful. The pro-Palestinian marches and protests are just the latest. Each march, demonstration, rally or protest is policed differently, according to the police’s assessment of how peaceful and disciplined or otherwise it might be.

It was as a result of the Rotherham protests that I decided to set up an independent Policing Protests Panel to give me reassurance that the police in South Yorkshire were doing their job as they should. Panel members are briefed by the police beforehand, observe on the day and contribute towards debriefing afterwards.

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Last week I joined the chair and panel members for a briefing by those officers – gold and silver commanders – who would be in charge over last weekend’s events in Sheffield. It was a salutary lesson in just how complex these things can be.

A pro-Palestinian march was planned, starting at 11am on Saturday morning in the Burngreave area of Sheffield.

Members of the public will know little of the meticulous plans that have to be made. So many judgement calls. And however careful the planning, the situation on the day is always going to be dynamic, requiring further decisions as events take some unexpected turn. Public order requires a specific set of skills for which the police receive training. When we say, perhaps too glibly, that we rely on the police to keep us safe, this is part of what we mean. This was far from straightforward for the police to handle.

A shortened version of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire’s latest blog post.