London’s new water cannon will be a disaster for trust in policing

Don’t spray me, bro. David Giles/PA

It has recently been announced that the Mayor of London’s Office on Policing and Crime (MOPAC) has authorised the Metropolitan Police to purchase three water cannon. This decision was made in advance of the home secretary’s approval to deploy such weaponry, but has been presented as a resource-saving measure, as the proposed purchase of second-hand appliances from the German police could allegedly save money instead of buying them brand new.

But there is a lot more at stake here. The introduction of water cannon onto the streets of mainland Britain could fundamentally change public order policing for the worse; if they are used, they could further erode the British public’s trust in the police.

In early 2014 a consultation process was initiated by MOPAC into the proposed introduction of water cannon that generated a great deal of public interest, some of which I detailed on my blog. I also wrote a detailed report in response to this consultation that outline my opposition to water cannon’s deployment and use.

My overriding concern was that if a decision was made to purchase water cannon for future deployment (which now seems increasingly likely), it would probably be made for short-term political gain, rather than on the basis of any evidence – and therefore deeply regrettable in the long term. The vast majority of evidence from social scientific studies of crowd disorder suggests that water cannon would be tactically ineffective, counter-productive, and could even have potentially fatal side effects.

Rational and irrational

Psychological studies of crowd behaviour have shown compellingly how “classic” views of crowds (such as the notion that they are gullible and easily incited into “irrational” behaviour by those with sinister intent) are myths, unsupported by any credible evidence. Instead, mass crowd “disorder” usually develops and escalates because of the use of indiscriminate public order policing tactics, rather than because of any anti-social acts by individuals within the crowd.

This is because most public order tactics treat the crowd as a homogenous mass, and don’t differentiate between crowd members. After all, it’s very difficult to baton charge or “kettle” only the “troublemakers”. Tactics like these often have the effect of psychologically uniting previously disparate groups within a crowd, galvanising them to act as one against the police.

The use of water cannon could exacerbate these problems. The suggestion that it could be used in a targeted way only against the most “extreme” protesters is a fallacy; it is inevitable that bystanders would get caught up in the spray.

There are also various situations where water cannon would be largely useless, such as widespread looting like that seen in the 2011 riots. This is because crowds engaged in looting (as opposed to those who are intent on attacking the police and their property) tend to scatter upon the arrival of police anyway. Water cannon are therefore more likely to spread looting than to stop it.

Cold kettling

Gravest of all, water cannon could also have serious and potentially fatal medical consequences, which scarcely seem to have been considered by those demanding deployment. If protesters are soaked by water cannon and then contained behind police cordons for long periods of time in cold weather (as would happen if water cannon are used in conjunction with kettling), there is a real risk that the police could be faced with multiple cases of hypothermia, which can rapidly become fatal if not detected and treated in time.

The 2009 G20 protests in London, and the death of bystander Ian Tomlinson brought kettling to national attention and caused a serious crisis of public confidence in British policing.

This would be nothing compared to the fallout that would occur if dozens of people were being hospitalised (or worse) after demonstrations where water cannon were used. Buying them now just to save money is the worst kind of false economy; it may yet have tragic consequences.

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