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Protest Policing – From the InsideAlice O'Keeffe

Alice O'Keeffe
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Yesterday, large parts of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill were voted down by the House of Lords, with peers raising many objections to its vision of a tougher approach to protest in Britain. Now the Commons will have another chance to debate the Bill.

The process surrounding this Bill has been anti-democratic from the outset – I know, because I was involved in its early stages.

I had just finished writing Skylark, a novel about the ‘spy cops’ – undercover police officers who had had long relationships with activists – when I got the call from Jamie. 

“I’m heading an inspection into protest policing, and I’d like you on the team. Are you interested?” Jamie was a colleague from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, where I had worked as an associate editor for several years. The Inspectorate’s job – much like Ofsted with schools, or the Care Quality Commission with healthcare – is to hold the police to account, in the public interest. “This is a major piece of work, commissioned by the Home Secretary in response to the Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests of the last couple of years. I’d like you involved from the beginning. Sit in on the meetings, be part of the discussions. So that by the time you do the edit, you know the subject inside out. It will take up a lot of your time for the next few months. Are you interested?” 

The answer, of course, was that I was fascinated. When researching my novel, protest policing had become pretty much my specialist subject, and here was a chance to find out how it worked from the inside. 

One thing I had always liked about working at the Inspectorate was that the majority of my colleagues were former police officers. I liked their practical, no-nonsense approach; I liked the fact they were not like any of my friends. I was fascinated by the way they talked, and wrote, using so many acronyms it was almost a foreign language. 

Of all the former cops I worked with, I got on best with Jamie. He was intelligent and analytical, and a much better writer than most of the other inspectors. He often asked me to edit the reports he worked on. He liked talking about writing, and remarked admiringly on the fact that I was a published novelist. I think he liked getting out of his bubble, too.

I began work on the protest policing inspection in November 2020. The stakes were high. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had commissioned the inspection shortly after activists from Extinction Rebellion barricaded the News International printworks in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. The action had been highly controversial, as it prevented the distribution of newspapers the next day, and politicians from across the political spectrum had denounced it as anti-democratic. 

Shortly after the Broxbourne action, Patel started work on a new the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This legislation was intended to herald a dramatic shift in the way protests in Britain are dealt with. For decades, British police relied on information from undercover officers – who regularly used their relationships with female activists to help them get information – to control protests; with those tactics now discredited they needed a new strategy.  The Bill would have given the police additional powers, and sent a strong signal to the police and public alike about a less tolerant approach. 

The findings of the inspection I was working on were to help the Home Secretary decide what should be included in the Bill; it would also provide evidence to support the legislation as it made its way through parliament. The Inspectorate is supposedly independent and impartial, but Jamie made clear early on that it would be backing increased police powers. He explained this with a military metaphor. “If you are at war, and the government sends a message asking if you need more helicopters, you don’t take your time to ponder the pros and cons. You say yes please.”

If this seemed like odd language for a civil servant to use, what could I do? As an editor, it was not my job to advise on policy, but I did try to argue for impartiality. As the months passed, however, I became increasingly uncomfortable, and not just because I was home-schooling two children; the ethical questions piled up. Questions such as: why are serving Metropolitan police officers sitting in our briefings, when this is supposed to be an independent assessment of policing powers? Why is there no specialist on race on a report that concerns the policing of Black Lives Matter, and only two women on a team of 12? Why have we focused almost exclusively on XR and BLM, and never even mentioned the far right?

The report was published on 8 March 2021, generating headlines about how policing had “tipped too readily in favour of protesters” and advocating a tougher approach. More helicopters? Yes, please! I shut my eyes and turned off the news.

But I couldn’t turn away the following Saturday night, when the vigil for Sarah Everard took place in South London. As I saw the footage of women being dragged from a peaceful vigil – in memory of a woman murdered by a serving police officer – I knew that I had helped to write the words that laid the groundwork for what happened that night. By saying the police had been too soft on protesters, our report had given a green light to the Met.

The following day, the same team was appointed to investigate the Met’s actions at the Sarah Everard vigil (two weeks later, they delivered a complete exoneration). They asked me to edit that report, too, but changed their minds when I raised concerns about the impact of our previous report, saying they needed an editor who was more “open-minded.” 

I spent much of the following week setting out my concerns in a long letter to the head of the Inspectorate. Blowing the whistle was extremely stressful. I had no idea what consequences I would face, either personally or professionally. The inspectorate told me that my concerns were being investigated. They later wrote to me to say that they had found nothing that would call in to question the validity of the inspection. 

There was a real sense of liberation in writing that letter. I was, for the first time in months, being fully myself. One thing I had learned from writing a book about undercover cops was how terrible the psychological consequences of a lack of integrity can be. Perhaps it was a coincidence that immediately after writing it I found my own integrity so sorely tested. But somehow, it doesn’t feel like one. 



Call to action:

Write to your local MP on the issues that matter by joining the Liberty Campaign https://action.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/page/92606/action/1


Alice O’Keeffe is a writer, editor and journalist, and author of two novels, On The Up and most recently Skylark, published by Coronet.