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Sussex Police caught “off guard” by Balcombe anti-fracking protests – official report

16th June 2014

Sussex Police was taken by surprise by last year’s anti-fracking protests at Balcombe – even though it had been warned several weeks before that they could happen, an official report concluded.

A review by Hertfordshire Constabulary and Essex Police found Sussex Police was not sufficiently prepared for the demonstrations. The operation that followed (known as Operation Mansell) was flawed in several ways.

The report found:

  • Police missed early intelligence about how the protests might develop
  • Some sections of the force weren’t aware of the operation or didn’t recognise the significance of the protests
  • There were confusing lines of command
  • Officers on the ground didn’t get accurate information during daily briefings
  • Commanders and planners became exhausted
  • There was no clear prosecution policy
  • Some police decisions came under outside pressure
  • Police didn’t fully consider the role of the Police and Crime Commissioner

The authors called for better intelligence, more effective communication of information, a single chain of command and a review of the prosecution strategy. In future, police should agree early on with the drilling company responsibilities for security and rules of engagement.

The Balcombe protests focussed on Cuadrilla’s operation to drill (but not frack) an exploratory oil well at a site outside the village. Campaigners blockaded the entrance to the site on July 25th and protests continued until the end of September. During a long weekend in mid-August, the Reclaim The Power camp set up in a field about a mile south of the drilling site. The policing operation cost nearly £4 million and the cost of the legal actions is not yet known.

The report, commissioned by Sussex Police last year, was released in redacted form following a Freedom of Information Act request by InvestigatingBalcombeAndCuadrilla.com The report is undated but part of its content appears to be based on interviews with police officers in December last year.

Detailed findings

1. Lack of planning

The report said the start of the protest “took the Force by surprise”. Superintendent Jane Derrick, the Silver Commander in charge of tactical planning, told the review team she was “surprised at the lack of pre-planning that had been put in place despite the fact that this issue had been on the forces’ radar since May 2013”.

The report said:

“It became very clear that a substantial operation was needed to respond to the emerging events and that the force had been caught ‘off guard’ with this issue.”

It added that the Sussex Police planning team had not been sufficiently consulted in the early stages and operational planners had not become involved until the first day of the protests. Some public order commanders refused to recognise the authority of planners. The operation didn’t appear to have a single person in charge of making sure there was enough staff on duty. Commanders became exhausted and, by the end of the operation, 40% of the planning team were reporting significant stress or exhaustion.

On July 29th, Sussex Police decided to ask for help from other police forces. But initially the force did not offer accommodation for visiting officers. This meant help was limited to police within a day’s travelling distance. This changed in mid-August but the report said planning “does not appear to have been sufficiently detailed”.

2. Intelligence missed

The report said there was intelligence about the likelihood of protests at Balcombe but Sussex Police didn’t use it properly.

It said people from the Brighton area took part in previous direct action protests against Cuadrilla at its fracking sites in Lancashire. “It was likely that such activity could be repeated in Sussex”, the report said.

But it added:

“Early intelligence indicating the potential magnitude of subsequent protest activity was missed”. As a result, Sussex Police did not “properly anticipate the escalation which did occur on the 25th July”.

[Two lines of the report in the intelligence section are redacted.]

3. Command confusion

To start with, the operation was run locally by a Chief Inspector. But command was soon switched to a higher-ranking officer based at the force’s headquarters. The report said this led to confusion. “Was it simply a local policing issue owned at a local level or a force-wide event?”

The force used protest liaison officers, and they played a “pivotal role in the operation”, the report said. But it added: “Throughout the operation it is not clear where they reported in the chain of command.”

4. “Lack of grasp of the gravity of the situation”

The report found evidence of a “lack of force awareness” of the operation and “silos of activities that all displayed a lack of grasp of the gravity of the situation”.

Sussex officers were doing routine safety training while the force was bringing in police from other forces to help with the operation. There was also evidence of an unofficial leave policy which meant that in some parts of the force half the staff were on leave at any one time. Some officers were recorded as working but had been given time off.

“This created the impression within some officers that Op [Operation] Mansell was not recognised as a strategic risk”, the report said, and affected the force’s ability to respond quickly.

5. Briefings – poor information for staff on the ground

The report found that daily police briefings used out-of-date material. “Officers on the ground were not furnished with the most accurate information and intelligence”, it said.

Commanders of the operation became “drained” by repeated briefings. New officers took over this role in mid-August but the report said they “were not suitably knowledgeable to deliver effective briefings, resulting in sub-optimal information flow to officers on the ground”.

6. No clear guidelines on arrests and charges

The operation didn’t appear to have thought about the arrest of protesters, how they should be charged and what impact the criminal process would have on the force, the report concluded.

To start with, just two police constables were responsible for the operation’s crime plan. By the time the report was written, there were 13,000+ court documents and about 1,000 statements from 419 people.

The report said the police had no appropriate powers to deal with protesters who returned to Balcombe after being arrested. The courts overturned blanket bail conditions, which excluded people who had been arrested from entering a 25 sq km area.

The first trial of a protester accused of obstructing the highway collapsed within an hour through when a district judge questioned whether a crime had been committed. This led to a review and the dropping of similar cases.

“The absence of initial clear charging guidelines and standards may have unnecessarily added to the investigative process”.

Last month Sussex Police defended itself against criticism of “criminalising” protesters. There have been just 29 convictions from 126 arrests. Three trials involving the use of the Public Order Act, including that of the MP Caroline Lucas, ended in acquittals, and prosecutors dropped another trial before it went ahead. Two district judges ruled that conditions imposed by Sussex Police on protesters were illegal. The report did not, however, address this or the wider use of the Public Order Act.

7. Working with Cuadrilla and influence on police decisions

The report implies that some police decision-making may have been influenced by outside people or organisations.

Sussex Police warned Cuadrilla there was likely to be more protest activity during the Reclaim the Power camp in August. The company gave this as the main reason it temporarily stopped drilling.

“Cuadrilla’s decision then became a significant political/economic issue”, the report said, with involvement at what it called “a more senior political level”.

At the time, the Conservative MP Mark Reckless accused Sussex Police of not being “up to the mark” and Ken Cronin, of the UK Onshore Operators Group, said single issue pressure groups couldn’t be allowed to “prevent workers from carrying out their lawful operations”.

The report said Sussex Police was correct to warn the company. But it added that the warning coincided with an increase in external scrutiny of the policing operation. As a result, senior police officers and the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner scrutinised the tactical plan more intensively. This pressure, the report said, appeared to have had an “undue influence” on the tactical commander’s decision-making”.

The report added that it was unclear when formal protocols or memorandums of understanding were drawn up, or adhered to, with Cuadrilla. A protocol would have made decision-making “less open to subsequent influence”, the report said. It recommended the force take legal advice on how to manage tensions between the right to protest and the business needs of a drilling company.

8. Police and Crime Commissioner’s role not considered

The role of the PCC was “not fully considered from the outside of the operation”, the report says. It recommends that future operations of this kind should define the responsibilities of the police and PCC.

9. Lessons learned

The report acknowledged that Sussex Police has already implemented changes to its procedures. “The experiences of Sussex Constabulary are of value not only to Sussex in managing its own operational risk in future years but also to UK policing in totality”, it said.

“If current experience is replicated in the roll out of fracking then the Sussex resourcing experience will becoming invaluable in the national policing response.”

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