Mark Redbourn, a police sergeant usually based in Brighton, specialises in working at big events. He led a team of 10 Police Liaison Officers for almost the entire length of the Balcombe protests. He had a direct link to the tactical commander at police headquarters and liaised between demonstrators and the commanders on the ground. When Cuadrilla’s planning permission expired and the camp disbanded, he was one of the last people to leave the site.
What was it like being a PLO?
I found it very rewarding. I enjoy communicating and I see the benefit of communicating. We are not always going to achieve what we need to achieve through communication, I accept that, but actually the start point for me is always to talk to someone with the respect that we should talk to anyone. All these wonderfully dynamic people should be spoken to exactly the same as you speak to anyone else, even if they are giving you a lot of grief.
When we were four or five weeks into the protest, we had conversations with people that were actually fantastic. They respected that if they wanted to tell the police something they knew they can get that message to the command team and they trust that they would get an answer back.
Initially when we first went up there, there were some people who were very anti: lots of rude signs and we were told to go away. On the last day, we shook hands, we exchanged a card, they got details if they wanted to talk to us about any other issues and it was perfectly civilised. This breaks down in my mind the perception that people were there to cause trouble. Actually they are just like you and me and the base line is that we can have a good chat and talk with a lot of respect.
What do other police officers think of you?
The perception is that you are talking to the people that they are trying to police. All police officers are told to communicate but actually the public order officers can stand there and effectively say ‘No you are not coming through here’.
My role is slightly off from that and I’m actually just going to people and saying ‘let’s talk about this’. And that perception for police officers is quite difficult because it’s like ‘Well are they undermining us’ and that’s hard to deal with.
I have to say Sussex are quite go-ahead with liaison officers. People get the role. But obviously if you have officers coming in from other forces, they sometimes look at you and go ‘Oh liaison officers, sort of sticking their bit in’.
How did Balcombe vary from other protests?
The rural location was quite a challenge. The logistics side of it was very difficult. But the big difference was just the sheer length of it. Eight weeks for a single protest is very unusual. There’s obviously been some very small protests that have tipped over into 10 weeks or longer but on that scale of attendance it was one of the longest that I’ve known.
What were the biggest challenges?
I think the main challenge was that balancing act of making sure that we knew that we were police officers first and foremost and nobody should be under any impression that we weren’t going to deal with them if they committed an offence. But at the same time, we were saying ‘please use us as trusted source’. That is hard because there was this big feeling that the police were working for the company.
You have to get people to trust you as a person, as opposed to a police officer. But doing that with the uniform, sitting there behind you always as that reminder, is quite difficult. That’s a big challenge.
What techniques did you use to talk to demonstrators?
I used to encourage our teams to walk up the road independently. You just look slightly more approachable. So that would be a technique. But it’s more about making sure we were not getting involved if there was physically altercations taking place. Clearly if you were putting hand cuffs on someone that is going to ruin the communication.
Aside from that it just making sure that you are truthful and honest with people. You are not going to sit there and tell them the police tactics for the day but you are able to make sure that you put out information that is accurate and that people understand that you are a trustworthy source.
The trust aspect is the key. What we must never, ever, do is fail to deliver on what we say we’re going to do. That’s about not making promises that we can’t keep. If I went into that protest group and said ‘I can’t give you want you want’ that is far better than me saying ‘I’ll sort that out for you’, and then going back and saying I can’t.
What effect did the presence of children have at the Balcombe protest?
Generally the children calmed things down. They gave the entire site a very community feel, which I think was very productive. When police officers from another force are bussed into Sussex and they saw families, children, an area with toys, it was bound to have an effect.
But my big fear was about safety. And I think at virtually every briefing we had and every commander I spoke to, their dread was that road – it was a busy road and it had some fast cars going down it.
What was the impact of the Reclaim the Power camp?
By then we had quite a good rapport with the main camp. Suddenly we had an extra dynamic of people who we didn’t know anything about. And that always resets my role. Suddenly you have new people to cope with, while managing the people that you do know. So it is quite a tricky one but the tactics are exactly the same.
What was the effect of the media?
The interesting thing is that film is everywhere. Your mindset is telling you that everything is filmed. So when the media turn up it makes no odds because it will get on YouTube 10 minutes before they arrive.
There were certain things that were happening and it almost felt like it was on YouTube almost as it was happening. There were people in Canada or in Australia commenting on things that we’re doing and we’ve only just done it. It is bizarre that kind of speed.
What were the high points?
The community events were perfectly nice events to assist with and to make sure they happened as safely as we could. They were good successes. There was a hell of a lot of frustration and anger at Balcombe. And therefore if you get an event that is successful for the protest community then that helps to allow them to express themselves.
Walking off on that last day, that for me was the high point, just knowing that there were people there that respected us and we respected them. We didn’t walk away saying thank goodness for that. We walked out with hugs, handshakes and ‘catch you again’. I know there is obviously a lot of policing areas that will no doubt be scrutinised but certainly it felt like a successful role that we performed, generally.
What impact did the Balcombe protests have on Sussex Police’s reputation?
There were a lot of people from the local community, from the protesters themselves, a lot of them quite seasoned protesters, who turned round quite happily and they said to me ‘Actually you got it about right’.
As the weeks went by, people came back to us and said ‘We understand that you are in the middle and it’s difficult role for you’. From my perspective that felt very good. I’ve known people who got taken to court who I talk to now, who call me a friend, and who are quite happy to talk to me about the things that went on up there as if there was no negativity.
There is going to be a scrutiny post the event in the various reports that have come out. But whilst we were there no one was seriously hurt, the local residents did manage to go about their business without too much disruption, the protest was allowed to take place and the company did actually do what we believed they had a lawful right to do. That’s a hell of a balance. We are always going to upset someone at some point. I felt we came away in a reasonably good shape.
What lessons have the police learned from Balcombe?
My big theme about Balcombe is consistency. We had the same commander overall in charge but we sometimes had different commanders turn up to deal with the protest on the day. When he had the same commander there for a full week, our job was easier.
The intention was to keep things consistent. But to keep it consistent is, actually, near impossible. Some days we had officers coming in from other forces, who had never been here before. In that environment, when it is very tightly scrutinised, consistency will become a massive thing. I don’t know if there is a very easy way around it, apart from making sure that the command fully understands the importance. I think we learned that from Balcombe.
Which type of protest was hardest to deal with?
From my point of view, because of the consistency issues, the slow walking was probably the hardest to deal with because that’s where I got the most grief. I was often surrounded at the end of it [by people] saying ‘That was absolutely terrible. You don’t know your job’.
When the lock-ons took place there was a certain resignation from the protest group that actually there would be arrests because the police had to come along to do something.
When someone had a lock-on, because they’ve actually achieved something and liaison is actually quite easy. People are very willing to chat. If they are stopped from doing something, then they get a bit less communicative with us. If they felt they didn’t succeed that day then they would probably get quite angry with us.
What’s your view of fracking?
I was asked this all the time. The standard line that I have is ‘Yes, of course, as a person, I have a view. I will never, ever share that. Because if I shared personal views on any protest subject then immediately my communication is either enhanced or completely negated. We have views, we are human, and we don’t want to be robots. At Balcombe, I didn’t used to say ‘I don’t have a view’ because that’s pointless. I do have a view, but I can’t answer that. Most of the time, people understood that it would be pretty silly for us to start talking about our personal views.
Were you facilitating the company’s activity or the protest?
Our only mandate was keeping the road free for everyone to use, whoever they were. It was very hard for some people to believe that because their perception was that policing appeared to be the state. I totally understand it. But from my point of view it was quite simple: if there was a lawful business and there’s a road, that road should be open for everyone to use.
The primary focus [of the briefings] was about safety for everyone: police, people on the site, protesters. And then there were two tiers. One was to facilitate that protest and one was to allow that company to do what they needed to do by keeping the road clear. And those two were absolutely balanced.
Was the large number arrests designed to deter protesting?
There was never any kind of, ‘we’re going to try and put these people off from coming back’. I can assure you. I sat through probably 50 or so briefings and always the strategy from the main person in charge was we need to make sure we have allowed people to protest, as they are lawfully allowed to do, and that we have also made sure that the company could conduct whatever business it needed to via that road.
Did you feed intelligence back to the public order police?
We didn’t submit intelligence but clearly information could be construed in anyone’s world as intelligence. My brief is not to gather intelligence, or find out who people are, or submit information on people. But I am a police officer, I’m in uniform. If you tell me something you don’t want me to know, well, you are telling a police officer. I’m not expecting you to tell me and I don’t want to know. I used to say to people around the site, ‘If you are going to tell me you are going to do something that is against the law, I am a police officer first. However, if you want to tell me that you’re not very happy with the way that last lorry was moved in, then talk to me. And they did get that.
But it’s a very fine line between what is and isn’t intelligence, in some people’s minds. A good example is one of the people we were regularly talking to said he was going round the back of the forest area to gather some firewood and could I relay that back in so that he didn’t get jumped on by police officers. I said that’s fine, that’s perfectly reasonable. The officer I told this to thought it was intelligence and felt he should send a report in. It wasn’t intelligence. It was just me communicating their intentions.