SUSSEX POLICE has been criticised for the way fracking protests were handled.

A peer group review conducted by Essex Police and Hertfordshire Constabulary has highlighted Sussex Police’s failures during last summer’s protests near Balcombe.

At its height, the protest saw more than 1,000 campaigners flock from across the country to the outskirts of the sleepy Mid Sussex village, leading to 126 arrests.

Protesters lined the grass verges on the side of the B2036 London Road and set up a camp complete with a kitchen, meditating tent, crèche and shower facilities between July and late September last year.

The review, published this week, has condemned the policing operation – called Operation Mansell – for failing to react quickly, being caught off guard and leaving the force with a “toxic debt”.

And it said that in some departments up to half of the staff were on leave at some point during the protest.

The report, compiled by Detective Chief Constable Andy Adams of Hertfordshire Constabulary, found a slow start had hindered the operation.

It said: “There was no clear evidence anybody knew where the ownership lay which led to early intelligence being missed at this time.

“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.”

The report said the role of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Katy Bourne had not been fully considered.

It found there needed to be a clearer agreement between her and the Chief Constable and the crossover in duties created confusion and a challenging environment for senior officers.

Sussex Police Assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry admitted the force had not reacted quickly enough to the developments in July.

He said: “The initial policing response appeared slow as the intelligence and information at that time indicated that any protests could be managed locally by the division.

“It was in the last days of July that we became aware of the size and complexity of the situation and it was at that point that it became a force level operation.

“In Sussex it is normal practice for us to appoint a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers for a force level operation.

“They provided an oversight for this dynamic operation and acted as a conduit between the force and the PCC.

“The commissioner played a valuable role in scrutinising the policing operation on behalf of the public.

“We continue to work on the different aspects of our roles and how they complement each other.”

Among the other problems highlighted in the review was staffing.

The report said: “Resourcing issues were compounded by the fact that in some parts of the force evidence suggests there was an unofficial leave policy running with, in some cases, up to 50% of resources allowed to take leave at any one time.

“This directly affected the force’s ability to meet its own mobilisation levels.

“There were officers shown as working on force duty systems whose line managers had given them time off without any audit trail or recognition of the impact this could have outside their own departments.”

ACC Barry insisted the force made the best of the resources made available.

He said: “This was an extremely busy time for the force with a number of pre-planned policing commitments, such as Pride, football at The Amex, 999 open days and Goodwood racing.

“These commitments were in addition to our need to maintain the local service expected by the public. To achieve this, mutual aid was sought. We made the best use of our resources, including Special Constables and volunteers, to support divisions.

“Rest days were cancelled and re-rostered to meet the demand over the summer period, and pre-arranged leave was managed.”

The report revealed 40% of Sussex Police’s planning team, which decided how to police the protest, reported significant stress or exhaustion by day 64 of the protest.

The report said Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) played a pivotal role in gathering information and intelligence, but information was not communicated effectively back to those in command.

PLOs collect relevant intelligence to help find potential solutions to police problems.

Poet Simon Welsh was the only Balcombe resident to be arrested at the protests last summer and was cleared in court of obstructing the highway.

He said the PLOs were a useful go-between.

Mr Welsh said: “I dealt with one liaison officer, Mark Redbourne, who was absolutely brilliant.

“I was specifically told by other protesters not to talk to the police, that they were spies, but I wanted to build up a good relationship with the police – and he was a legend.”

Mr Welsh, who organised the Belt It Out At Balcombe events, also said that if a presence from an oil company were to return to the Cuadrilla site, another protest would be sparked.

If this was the case, he wanted to see major changes in the way the police dealt with protesters.

He added: “I would want to see the police act as peace keepers, which is meant to be their sworn duty.

“Instead, last summer, we saw them protect the corporation of Cuadrilla and effectively acted as free help.”

ACC Barry insisted lessons had been learned from Operation Mansell.

He said: “The logistical support and planning was a challenge above and beyond our recent experience and the impact on all of our staff was recognised early on.

“We worked with the Police Federation and Unison to mitigate those risks.

“In relation to workloads, supervisors on a daily basis monitored and assessed staff commitments and where necessary reallocated tasks. The recommendations and good practice mentioned in the review have been acknowledged and the future policing approach to these types of incidents has incorporated much of the learning.”

A Crime Plan section was added to the report specifically because of the insufficient attention paid by Sussex Police during the early stages of the protest to the impact of the protest on other parts of the force.

A Sussex Police spokeswoman said: “An investigative strategy was set in the early stages of the operation and was regularly reviewed taking into account advice and any learning.

“There are challenges for us around current legislation and its interpretation and this is being addressed nationally following similar experiences elsewhere.”

Concerns were also raised about the briefing and de-briefing of officers using out-of-date Powerpoint slides.

A Sussex Police spokeswoman said: “Officers were briefed at the beginning of their shift and the intelligence and information was fast moving and therefore was provided verbally by an appointed briefing officer.”

“The Powerpoints used provided an overview of the site and the objectives of the operation. The College of Policing has undertaken a number of formal debriefs on our behalf and has shared the learning nationally.”

ACC Barry added: “Our future policing approach to these types of incidents will incorporate much of the learning."