This article explores the continuing controversy over the use of Police Liaison Officers, or Protest Liaison Officers as they are alternatively known, in relation to their role in the arrest of 182 cyclists participating in the Critical Mass bike ride of July 2012.
We all know Police Liaison Officers (PLOs): their baby blue bibs, their smiling faces, their fondness for photo opportunities and good PR. We know their Twitter accounts, and their public guise as the new friendly face of public order policing. But how much do we know about what they actually do? Although they deny their role as intelligence gatherers in the strongest possible terms, we’ve yet to see any policy or guidelines on their function. So when Chief Inspector Sonia Davis, the head of the Metropolitan Police PLO unit, was called as a prosecution witness in the Critical Mass trial, we knew that hearing her speaking on oath would be the best chance yet of actually getting some answers.
The picture that emerged significantly undermined PLO assertions that their role is simply to ‘facilitate protest’: Police Liaison Officers had attended previous critical mass processions in plain clothes to identify ‘organisers’; they prepared for the Critical Mass by reading relevant websites and discussion forums; they gathered ‘information’ (somehow distinguishable from ‘intelligence’) which included information about specific individuals; they reviewed video footage in order to identify individuals they had interacted with; and they acted in support of public order commanders in enforcing conditions on protest.
On Friday 27th July 2012, on the opening night of the Olympic games, over 500 cyclists set off from South Bank as part of the Critical Mass cycle ride. Despite the fact that Critical Mass has taken place on a monthly basis, without restriction, for many years, the police imposed conditions on the timing and the route of the procession under section 12 of the Public Order Act. In the largest mass arrest ever undertaken by the Metropolitan police, 182 cyclists were arrested for breaching these conditions. Charges were dropped against all but nine, three of whom have already been acquitted. Prosecutions against the remaining six are continuing.
When cyclists assembled that evening they were greeted by the infamous baby blue bibs of the Protest Liaison Team, led by Bronze 521 Chief Inspector Sonia Davis. Davis, the most senior officer on the ground, was in command of six Protest Liaison officers who were briefed to communicate the specific conditions of the section 12 notice. This was important to the police, as only people who are aware of such conditions commit an offence by breaching them. The PLOs spoke to individuals and groups of cyclists, handing out s12 notices with maps. Then in September, as part of the ongoing prosecution, Davis viewed images of the arrestees to identify those she had spoken to on South Bank. Ironically, those who had ‘engaged’ with Police Liaison Officers were at a greater risk of prosecution.
Davis’ evidence for the prosecution shone a spotlight on the role of PLOs, despite the fact that she had unfortunately “lost her notebook”. She duly gave the official line: that the role of PLOs is to disseminate information from the police force to members of the public and to try to engage with groups and facilitate lawful protest. She said that intelligence gathering was not ‘a primary role’, because if people thought PLOs were gathering intelligence they wouldn’t engage, which would prevent the PLOs from carrying out their function.
Under pressure from cross-examination that line began to break down, and Davis was unable to deny that that gathering information and intelligence from members of the public forms part of the Police Liaison role:
“Obviously, we want to gather information, but that’s different to intelligence.”
“Intelligence”, according to Davis, was narrowly defined as “information that has come from police sources and is acted upon”. “Information” was anything else. This might include the demographic or the mood of the crowd, or personal data about individuals present. She said that unlike Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) officers, PLOs are not shown photographs of known individuals at their briefings, but that FIT officers would helpfully identify any trouble makers for them, and alert them when a ‘person of interest’ was present or approaching.
Davis said that PLOs, picked for their “communication skills”, try to establish a rapport with individuals in the crowd: part of the PLO function, she went on to say, was to “find out who can help us establish self-policing within a crowd.” So when the PLOs approach people on a protest, it is often to identify those who would be willing to work more closely with the police.
Remarkably, Davis also confirmed that PLOs were deployed covertly. Davis explained that at least six Police Liaison Officers attended the previous Critical Mass in June in plain clothes, with four officers on pushbikes, and others on foot or in a vehicle. This had been, according to Davis, on the instruction of the Silver Commander, Mick Johnson, who had himself given evidence that police had attended in order to identify ‘organisers’. Clearly, in this instance at least, PLOs were used not to engage in open dialogue, or to facilitate, but to secretly spy on regular Critical Mass cyclists.
When the UN Special Rapporteur came to the UK in December he welcomed the principle of police protest liaison officers, but this was qualified by the caution that their role must be separated from the function of intelligence gathering on protesters. He found the use of pre-emptive measures such as verbal warnings and house visits in advance of protests ‘troubling’. On the basis of Sonia Davis’ evidence, it seems that this separation is entirely fictional.
Davis stated that, being unable to locate Critical Mass organisers, she trawled social media pages and the Critical Mass website to see what she could find out. If that’s not intelligence gathering, what is?