Five reasons why the introduction of water cannon should be opposed

Water cannon being used against anti-government protesters in Turkey.
Water cannon being used against anti-government protesters in Turkey.
Adam Bienkov By

Boris Johnson has been criticised for his 'reckless' decision to go ahead with the purchase of three water cannon for London, despite having received no authorisation to use them. Here's five reasons why their introduction should be opposed.

1. They would not have helped during the 2011 riots

The purchase of these weapons has been widely justified on the basis that they would supposedly help quell the kind of disorder seen during the summer riots in 2011. However, the police have previously admitted that water cannon would have been of little use during those three nights in August. A report by the Association of Chief Police Officers stated that they would have had "limited effect" on that kind of disorder while the Met's own review concluded that it "is unlikely to have been an appropriate and practical option owing to the speed and agility of the disorder." Other police forces agree. West Midlands PCC Bob Jones said earlier this year that water cannon: "would be as much use as a chocolate teapot," adding that "if anything a water cannon could have been more of a liability, as an asset that scarce police resources would have been needed to protect." All in all five out of the six biggest police forces say they are against deploying water cannon for these reasons.

2. We don't know how often they would be used


City Hall now claim that the water cannon would be reserved only for exceptional circumstances, with the mayor referring to them as a "nuclear option" that would be "rarely seen and rarely used."

However, the truth is that mayor will have zero operational control over their use. That control will rest solely in the Met's hands. And while Johnson may claim they will almost never be used, the Met have previously listed at least six occasions when they would have liked to have used them in the past.

These include the Countryside Alliance protests in 2004, the carnival against capitalism in 1999 and even the Millwall vs Birmingham football riots in 2002. The Met also say they would have used them during the student riots at Millbank in 2010. This is despite the fact that Johnson has already said they would have been "counter-productive" during those events. Johnson's reassurances are therefore meaningless. The ultimate control over their use will remain with the Met, who it is clear are far more trigger happy than Johnson.

3. London is not well suited to them

Water cannon have only ever been used by British police officers in Northern Ireland. The former chief constable there has already said that they would have been little use in quelling trouble during the London riots. Sir Hugh Orde told the London Assembly: "They are a complicated bit of equipment. They are big. They weigh tons. They do not move quickly and in fact, when they do move, they take a lot of stopping, rather like a fire engine. They weigh a lot, so it is not something that can whizz around any city. They would not whizz around London."

Asked about the Met's claims they could have been useful during the riots in Croydon, he replied: "If you had a number of demonstrations going on in a city, you would have to work out the most likely place was going to be where that sort of tactic may be the most proportionate and the most effective… It is a limited resource. If you have multiple demands, you have to make a judgement. What you cannot do, or what is difficult to do quickly is to redeploy something as complicated as a water cannon. It is just too big."

4. They are highly dangerous

Water cannon are often wrongly assumed to be benign. They are in fact incredibly dangerous. Germany are currently phasing out the water cannon they have sold to Johnson, after one was involved in the death of one protester and the blinding of another. Environmental protester Dietrich Wagner was blinded by water cannon during protests in Stuttgart Germany. His horrific injuries give the lie to those who portray water cannon as little worse than a garden hose. Officers who have used the machines Boris has bought, say that hitting a target with them is a "matter of luck" not judgement. They are incredibly powerful and indiscriminate weapons, which put all protesters at risk, not just trouble-makers.

5. They would deter peaceful protests

Water cannon may or may not be rarely used, but the risk is they could act as a deterrent effect to all peaceful protesters. As Sarah Ogilvie from Liberty told the London Assembly: "The deterrent effect on those genuine peaceful protesters would actually be quite severe… The thought of things like kettling or getting caught up in violence does put people off.

"If you have a disability or even if you just do not want to get involved in it, it is a real deterrent. It probably would not act as a deterrent to the proper bad, dangerous people but it would act as a deterrent to the people who genuinely want to exercise their right to protest."

Johnson has previously claimed that he does not want an "arms race" with protesters but the fact is that water cannon would create just that. Peaceful protesters, especially the disabled, elderly and those with children will be deterred from attending protests, while the hard-core will feel motivated to stick around. In those situations, water cannon will inevitably become a magnet for trouble, with many ramping up their own efforts to take on the police.

With the Met also considering new weapons including "sound cannon" and "discriminating irritant projectiles," the arms race with protesters can only go in one direction and it is a highly worrying one for anybody who cares about our democratic right to protest.

British policing has long been managed on the principle of "policing by consent". Johnson's decision to push ahead with the purchase of water cannon, rips up that principle and pushes the country in a very worrying direction indeed.

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