One feature of the Southall riots (above) was the extensive use of batons by police officers in charges against demonstrators. Blair Peach was of course killed by a blow to the head, struck by a police officer, involving either a truncheon or a heavier weapon (one of the pathologists suggested a police radio). But he was not alone in reporting a blow to the head: Tariq Ali, the Socialist Unity candidate for Southall, was struck on the head by an officer in Park View Road, as was Amanda Leon, who was on Beechcroft Avenue with Peach. Clarence Baker, the manager of Misty and the Roots, was also hit on the head and was hurt so badly that he went into a coma lasting five months. There are no definitive figures for the number of demonstrators struck on the head by police truncheons that evening. The police themselves suggest the figure was as low as three (Peach, Leon, and a further demonstrator on Beechcroft Avenue). Most sources among the demonstrators suggest that the true figure went into at least the low dozens. Was this pattern of blows to the head using truncheons contrary to police policy?
As of 1979, it appears that police instructions were that truncheons were supplied to the police to protect themselves only if attacked, and that officers should aim at the arms and legs as those parts of the body are least likely to suffer serious injury. Officers were also required to report drawing their truncheons.
This policy was disclosed to the public in 1975, in evidence given by Deputy Assistant Commissioner J. H. Gerrard to the Scarman Enquiry into disorders at Red Lion Square, a demonstration where a protester Kevin Gateley had been killed, and photographs showed the widespread drawing of police truncheons.
These were Gerrard’s words to that Enquiry: “Truncheons are supplied to the police to protect themselves if violently attacked. In using them officers should aim at the arms and legs of those parts of the body are that least likely to suffer serious injury and avoid the head as much as possible. The use of the truncheon is to be resorted to in extreme cases, when all other efforts to arrest have failed and a prison is likely to escape through the officer being ill-used or overpowered. When used, the fact must be mentioned when the prisoner is charged, and also give in evidence at court. In every instance where a truncheon is used it is submitted to the Station Officer for inspection as soon as possible”.
Given the controversy over the use of batons at Southall and at several major scenes of police disorder since then, you might expect that the policy on their use has tended to become more specific and circumscribed. It is therefore a real surprise to read ACPO guidance published in 2010 on the use of batons, which seems if anything to have become extremely vague, and permissive, with the passage of time:
“To be used by appropriately trained staff in order to:
– protect officers
– demonstrate that force is about to be / may be used
– facilitate dispersal and/or arrest”
“If barons are to be deployed as a group tactic, the decision to deploy the tactic and draw batons rests with the key decision maker at the scene, who will take into account the Silver Commander’s considerations regarding the use of force”
“As with any use of force or tactical deployment, any decision to draw batons and deploy them as a group tactic must be recorded and justified by the decision maker”
“This guidance does not affect the right of an individual officer to draw and use their baton in order to protect themselves, colleagues or members of the public”
“Officers may be issued with a long baton for carriage/use during public order-related operations”
“Officer and public safety”
“Warning messages should be given and recorded”
“Demonstrating that force may be used can serve as a deterrent”
“The level of force should be reasonable and proportionate (ie the minimum required to meet a lawful objective””
“It is a lawful order to require officers to draw batons and/or advance”
“The decision to strike is for the individual officer and must be justified by them in each instance”
“If more than one baton is carried, guidance should be provided as to how each should be used”
“Side handled batons are not suitable for use in situations of serious public disorder”
“Aftercare of injured person”
“Is this level of force necessary or is there a less intrusive options available?”
What has been lost in the guidance is any sense that batons are a last resort, or that there are any specific limits on how an officer may use them. Head blows, which were once definitely contrary to a policy which required officers to aim at the body or limbs instead, are no longer disallowed. The emphasis of instructed reporting, which was one on the mere drawing of the baton, has shifted to the officers’ decision to instruct constables to draw them. And the range of situations where violent and potentially lethal force is allowed has widened from – only where the officer would otherwise be overpowered – to almost any situation where an officer seeks protection, wants to arrest people or disperse them, or simply, for tactical reasons, wants to flaunt over demonstrators their greater use of force.
While the press interest in police weapons usually focuses, on the new and higher-cost instruments which the Met purchases with the support of Olympic authorities or the Mayor (water cannon, sound cannon, etc); I suspect that this much more subtle shift towards an allowance of much greater use of force by ordinary officers in the most common of demonstrations, is actually the greater threat to most people’s protest rights.