Policing of anti-fracking protests is undermining human rights and campaigns against shale gas, according to a new report.
The study by the police monitoring organisation, Netpol, concluded:
“The way policing operations are planned for anti-fracking protests, the scale of intrusive surveillance against campaigners and ‘zero tolerance’ attitudes towards civil disobedience has a cumulative ‘chilling effect’ on freedoms of assembly and expression.”
The report, Protecting the Protectors, said this posed:
“A significant risk of gradually undermining the right to protest by the nationwide network of local groups opposed to fracking.”
Netpol said the findings were the outcome of monitoring police operations at protests and talking to anti-fracking groups across the UK since 2014.
It called for police operations to be “genuinely less intimidating” in size, “less aggressive” in their tactics and more transparent in their dealings with industry and the media.
It urged Police and Crime Commissioners to draw up local plans with clear minimum standards and expectations about policing protests.
DrillOrDrop asked the National Police Chiefs’ Council to comment on the report. We will update this post with any response.
“Zero-tolerance” but low conviction rates
Netpol reported what it described as “an uncompromising attitude from officers” at protests. The organisation said police “reacted aggressively as soon as protesters stepped into the road”.
It said it had information that protesters were uncertain about what actions might trigger an arrest.
Since 2013, police have arrested and charged more than 250 people following protests at drilling sites. But when the cases went to trial at magistrates’ courts, conviction rates were well below the 85+% average for this level of prosecution.
In many cases reported by DrillOrDrop, district judges accepted the argument of protesters that they have a right to freedom of expression and assembly under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and that their actions were proportionate.
Research by DrillOrDrop found that 126 people had been arrested at protests outside Cuadrilla’s site at Balcombe in West Sussex in 2013 but only 29 convictions from both guilty and not guilty pleas resulted.
The Keep Moving report by researchers at York and John Moore Universities found that 120 people had been arrested at protests at Barton Moss in Salford in 2013-2014. Up to 12 February 2016, there had been 33 convictions (both guilty and not guilty pleas). 40 cases were discontinued by the Crown Prosecution Service, five had no action taken after arrest, 20 people were found not guilty and 22 cases were ongoing. In April 2016, another three cases resulted in acquittals.
At two trials this summer arising from protests at the Horse Hill exploration site near Gatwick Airport, 10 people were acquitted and eight found guilty. At the conclusion of the first trial, the judge said:
“For me it is of some concern that the relationship between protesters and police has deteriorated to the point that there was a lack of engagement and that some protesters have voiced that they are not interested in speaking to the police.”
The most recent court case, at Chester last month, saw a judge dismiss the charges against five anti-fracking campaigners arrested at the eviction of a camp at the IGas site at Upton. Another campaigner was found not guilty of assault and threatening behaviour after the judge said he was “wholly unimpressed by the prosecution evidence”. Two others were found guilty of resisting bailiffs. Another case is due to be heard this month.
Domestic extremism and surveillance
Netpol said surveillance of protesters by members of Counter Terrorism Units suggested that the police increasingly linked opposition to fracking to domestic extremism.
The report described how anti-fracking campaigners from north west England had been labelled as at risk from influences from non-violent extremism and referred to the Channel counter-radicalisation programme.
“Gathering information by routinely filming or photographing individuals, targeting surveillance at prominent campaigners and searching and documenting their online discussions on social media is more hostile and divisive to the “normal democratic process” than any alleged ‘extremist threat’ and is wholly disproportionate.
“When coupled with an unfounded association with serious criminality and ‘extremism’ and an unwillingness by police to accommodate protests without routinely making arrests, this can start to quickly chip away at campaign groups’ support and participation and have a disruptive impact on their effectiveness and activities.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council has said commanders on the ground should make the vast majority of operational decisions.
But Netpol said
“Police forces should explain in detail how they will positively protect the right to freedom of assembly and how they will plan to avoid prioritising the interests of the oil and gas industry over the rights of campaigners.”
Full Report: Protecting the Protectors