Police must adapt quickly to a new era of protests because many forces are not well prepared for dealing with increasingly violent demonstrations, said a report.
Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary Denis O’Connor said protests could now be organised in hours and in greater numbers than in the past thanks to mobile phones and social media services such as Twitter.
He warned it was becoming harder for forces to strike the necessary balance between keeping order and ensuring the public’s right to protest.
“The pattern of protest is evolving in terms of numbers, spread, disruption and, in some instances, violence,” he said.
Last year’s student protests in London, which culminated in the worst rioting seen in the capital for years, saw police and demonstrators playing cat and mouse across the city as protesters attempted to avoid the “kettling” containment tactic, Reuters reports.
“After a few, relatively quiet years, this is a new period of public order policing — one which is faster moving and more unpredictable,” O’Connor said.
“Foreseeing the character of events will prove more difficult and, in some cases, their nature and mood will only become apparent on the day. What seems evident is a willingness to disrupt the public and test police.”
Commentators are predicting there will be an increase in the number of protests as the impact of the government’s austerity measures begins to bite.
O’Connor said police could not plan “for a quiet world” and had to be prepared to deal with real-time events that were different from what was expected.
The report found that 40 percent of police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had not tested their plans to mobilise to help a neighbouring force with a public order issue.
Some did not even have enough officers to deal with such a request, it said.
Following the violent 2009 G20 protests in London, HMIC called for sweeping changes to public order training and O’Connor said most of those recommendations had since been taken up by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).
However, he said it could take up to two years for changes to be felt on the ground.
“The key to the police successfully adapting to the need for peaceful protest is to prevent the disorder from occurring in the first instance, where possible,” he added.
“Learning lessons faster and communicating better with officers on the ground, as well as with the public, will help the police minimise risk and maintain order on the streets.”
ACPO said police chiefs were constantly adapting to the challenge of dealing with protests.
“There is no doubt that the face and shape of protests continues to change and we continuously learn from sharing our knowledge and experience of facilitating protests across the country,” said Chief Constable Sue Sim, the ACPO spokesman on public order.