THE BIG INTERVIEW: Sussex Police Superintendent Lawrence Hobbs on fracking and Balcombe (From The Argus)
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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Sussex Police Superintendent Lawrence Hobbs on fracking and Balcombe
11:00am Sunday 18th August 2013 in News
THE ARGUS (TA): WHAT are the difficulties in policing a large-scale protest such as Balcombe fracking site where protesters refuse to stand down?
LAWRENCE HOBBS (LH): ALL protests present their own unique set of circumstances and the challenge for police comes in meeting the needs, rights and wishes of those all involved.
The best way to do this is for honest and open dialogue and negotiation and we spend a lot of time doing just that.
A protest that extends over a prolonged period such as this one brings its own challenges of resourcing and commitment, but we believe our approach, which constantly assesses the changing dynamics of the protest, is working and is effective.
TA: HOW would you describe the relationship between protesters and officers at the Balcombe protests?
LH: WHILE there have been flashpoints and indeed, over the last three weeks there have been more than 40 arrests, the relationship has been largely respectful and good-natured.
In Sussex, we are well-versed in protest policing and one of the key elements in this is to engage as fully as possible with those taking part in them.
The sooner we can start to talk to them, the easier it is for us to understand what they are trying to achieve and to let them know what is acceptable within the bounds of the law.
At Balcombe, while the initial arrival of the protesters did take place over a very short time period, our specialist liaison officers have worked closely with them and there is a good mutual understanding.
We have facilitated their protests, but where necessary we have taken action to ensure that the rights and interests of other parties have also been maintained.
TA: HOW would police defend accusations by protesters that some of your officers have been heavy-handed?
LH: THROUGHOUT the operation we have assessed the need for officers to be present and increased numbers depending on the circumstances. It is a difficult balance for police – to support an absolute legitimate right for people to protest peacefully and also uphold the legal right of the company to operate.
We will do all we can to keep that balance right. Our primary tactic is to talk to people and officers are going to great lengths to explain to people why we are there and what is acceptable in terms of their safety and others working at the location.
When we police these kinds of demonstrations we will always look for a negotiated response. We would much rather talk to people and persuade them to move than use coercion. Some pictures in the media look dramatic.
What they often don’t show is the length officers have gone to persuade protesters to move.
If protesters block the way and it is lawful for the company to operate then they need to move.
If they are repeatedly asked to move, and at times are putting their own safety at risk, some level of coercion has to be used.
There are a range of tactics that officers are trained to use and the use of pressure points is one that is proportionate and uses the minimum of force necessary.
TA: HOW will the policing of the operation change in the upcoming days with the expected arrival of hardened G8 protesters?
LH: We will continue to facilitate peaceful protest, but newcomers to the site should be aware if they commit criminal offences then we will collect the evidence and they will be arrested.
Sussex Police is well versed in protest policing with the largest number of protests taking place outside of London and we have a range of tactics and options open to us that, obviously, I would not wish to disclose here.
However, increased numbers of protesters will mean increased numbers of police officers and we are now being supported in a mutual aid operation by colleagues from other UK police forces.
We have enjoyed very good engagement with the protesters at Balcombe through dialogue and negotiation which has allowed them to make their protest and enabled us to facilitate that safely for everyone involved.
I would echo the appeal from the Balcombe community for protesters not to engage in criminal activity in the pursuit of their aims.
TA: CAN you tell us how much the policing of the fracking site protests have cost taxpayers so far?
LH: THIS figure will be released by the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Office.
The cost of the operation is not only being borne by Sussex Police, but by many partner agencies and other organisations who are having to plough additional resources and money into dealing with it.
TA: IS IT fair that taxpayers should foot the bill for this?
LH: THAT’S a question that needs to be asked of your representatives in government, both local and national.
It is our duty to maintain the difficult balance of meeting the rights and wishes of all those involved and above all, to ensure the safety of everyone taking part.
TA: Will Cuadrilla be asked to foot any of the bill to cover the costs considering removal of protesters is for their financial gain?
If not, why not?
LH: THERE are nationally agreed arrangements in other policing operations, such as football, where costs can be reclaimed from the event organisers.
These do not cover circumstances that exist at Balcombe.
We will discuss this question with Cuadrilla and government at the conclusion of the operation.
TA: HOW enforceable is a ban on the 30 protesters already charged with crimes from entering Balcombe and are they proportionate?
LH: We imposed these bail conditions as we believed they were right and proportionate in the circumstances.
A recent court hearing has lifted some of those conditions and we respect their decision and reasons for doing so.
TA: IS the force proud of its record of handling large-scale protests such as EDL, Smash Edo and Hastings-Bexhill Link Road?
LH: Yes. Our absolute priority is public safety, while responding to crime and disorder, but also facilitating peaceful protest.
It would be foolish to think that this could be done without arrests being made or some disruption being caused to local communities, but I believe that these have not been excessive and have justified what we feel have been proportionate responses.
TA: AT WHAT point is the right to protest superseded by the right not to cause widespread disruption and damage?
LH: THE right to protest is a valuable one and has our full support.
However, as with all areas of life, there are boundaries and when people elect to step over those boundaries and engage in unlawful and criminal behaviour, then that right is negated and they can expect to be arrested.
TA: Following the announcement that all Brighton and Hove officers will be put on 12-hour shifts over next few days to cover extra force at Balcombe, can you assure the public that policing elsewhere in the county won’t suffer because of the strain put on the force by fracking protest?
LH: WE have always been aware that this was going to be a long-running policing commitment and it is not possible for one force alone to meet the physical resourcing commitment required over an extended period of time.
We are now being supported in a mutual aid operation by colleagues from other UK police forces and I should like to recognise the valuable support of our strategic partners, including Mid Sussex District Council and West Sussex County Council.
It has come at a very busy time for the force and at a peak leave period, but I would stress that while this has put a strain on the force, it will not affect day-to-day policing and especially, our response to emergency 999 calls.
Sussex is a reasonably large force and those who work for it are an extremely dedicated and resourceful bunch of people and we are very grateful to them for the way in which they are meeting the demands of the operation, not least by accepting an increase to 12-hour shifts and coming in on what would normally be their rest days.
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