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A force to be reckoned with

Hundreds of protestors are expected to target the G7 summit – and the force assembled to protect it is well prepared. Officers share with Police Oracle what they will be doing.

More than 30 organisations including activists and charity workers are set to lobby world leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall's Carbis Bay over a range of issues including climate change and Kill the Bill – the legislation covering the right to protest.

Inspector Nathan Johnson, one of Devon and Cornwall’s specialist public order officers says: “Some people will want to block a road and the good people of Cornwall will want to know why we don’t just drag them out of the way.

 “We’re a democratic society; it’s in our fabric. This is what it is to live in the UK. People have a right to say something – including something that’s really insulting.”

“Similarly we need to balance that. The police don’t always get it right,” he adds.

Public order teams are seeing more and more public order incidents that involve non-violent direct action with sophisticated techniques being deployed by protestors.

The force has been working with Metropolitan Police colleagues in the months leading up to the event as well as supporting neighbouring Avon and Somerset during the disturbances in Bristol.

They are well briefed in the methods used by protestors and because of their engagement in events like the Black Lives Matter marches over the past five months, they know most of the local groups involved.

Some of the expected protests will focus on issues including animal rights, the Middle East, Kill the Bill and Extinction Rebellion.

Most of those will be present in officially-designated protest areas. The force and local councils have agreed four dedicated sites across the force area - Truro, Falmouth, Plymouth and Exeter - where people can go to express their views.

From a policing perspective protestors can be divided into three categories  - supporters, energisers and activists. But it’s the third group that Devon and Cornwall are most worried about as they are increasingly using apparatus to lengthen the amount of time they are able to cause disruption.

They no longer just glue themselves to doors or stage sit-down protests. At one event, a sea container was craned onto a road before the lifting hooks were cut off.

“Lock-ons are things we’re seeing more and more of,” says Insp Johnson.

These are when groups of up to 30 people hold hands through concrete-encased sewage pipes that have to be individually cut through using specialist drills. The force demonstrated the process using pipes recovered by the Metropolitan Police from an Extinction Rebellion protest.

And that’s where Sergeant Roger Hocking comes in.

One of the public order officers, he had a previous career with the Ministry of Defence and studied electrical engineering at the Royal Navy’s Plymouth shipyard. It’s him who will be taking apart anything protestors put together.

“My background is problem-solving and figuring out how things work or take them apart. So it was a natural use of my skills,” he says.

Working with him will be police liaison officers distinguished by their blue bibs who will work with the event organisers but if things take a turn for the worse, they also start the process of arresting people.

Also part of the team are forward intelligence officers whose job is to relay back details of what’s going on – and spot trouble makers.

Insp Johnson says they can make a crucial difference: “If you can remove two or three people who are going to cause a problem, you can allow the other 98 to carry on.”

Local knowledge is also crucial for understanding the potential routes protestors could take.

Sgt Hocking says: “I grew up in Cornwall. When people talk about a particular lane or street, I know it. It matters.”

He adds that local knowledge can also help a group avoid being used by fringe groups who want a confrontation.

Sgt Hocking says: “It’s having that nice working relationship so that if outsiders suddenly turn up and the organisers are a bit worried and say ‘they’re going to cause us a problem’ we can empower people to tell them ‘it’s our protest’. It also builds bridges for future events.”

Situation normal

When the team are working in a developing situation, officers will be monitoring the tone and feel of an event and feeding back on any risks to command leads.

Insp Johnson says: “We should be able to deal with anything we’re confronted with.”

What they will be working to avoid is social media footage of confrontations with protestors. They will use a five-step appeal before acting.

“That looks great for them,” says Insp Johnson. “At no point are we stopping people from protesting. We’ll be saying ‘you can protest at the side of the road, but you can’t in front of a convoy’. At some point, you have to stop people from protesting. To block a road for six hours, that is wrong.”

The officers involved are making clear they are determined to get the balance right.

Sgt Hocking tells Police Oracle: “Everybody has that right to be a protestor. I was that student with the Poll Tax bill.”

Profile: firearms officer Inspector Greg Hodgkiss

A gathering of world leaders means counter-terrorism and armed response teams are part of the response. 

Greg Hodgkiss, an Inspector with the tactical firearms team with 16 years’ experience, reveals some of what he’ll be doing.

PO: Carbis Bay is the operation’s epicentre is it different to other jobs?

“There are obviously going to be challenges - as there are anywhere. Even just on a routine firearms; it's exactly the same thing: just making sure that everything's done to protect the public as best we can.”

PO: Are there specific problems with the location?

It's a peninsula, and peninsulas provide their own challenges. And not just in terms of getting people in and out: it’s getting in vehicles. I think, normally, it’s about the 10th largest town in Cornwall just in terms of population anyway, I know for example, in May population will jump up by over 100,000. All of that, put together with the fact that you've got an event of such scale going on - without a doubt that there are challenges, but as I say, the team are working on it. They've looked at it for quite some time.

PO: What do the mutual aid teams add to the operation?

They'll be bringing armed response vehicles or staff from other forces because there are various roles within firearms. We have armed support vehicles as well. There'll be counter-terrorism specialists, firearms officers, rifle officers - all sorts of disciplines within the firearms world.

We don't have enough, obviously, just within Devon and Cornwall police ourselves, and it’s usual form to go outside of force and bring people in.

PO: What are some of the roles that foreign officers will be doing?

Pretty much everything that you can imagine. There'll be guard duties involved. Armed officers on patrol. It's not something that people are unused to.

PO: Have you ever dealt with an operation of this scale before?

I've been involved in mutual aid deployment out of force before, things like the Labour Party conference, for example at Bournemouth. Huge operations and big in terms of, you know, the logistics and the resources involved.

PO: Are you looking forward to being involved?

Yes, it's interesting. And if nothing else, it's one of those things that you're only involved in a few times, maybe in your career, and certainly for Devon and Cornwall. It's a big event - challenging, but good as well. It's a big combined effort.

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