Adapting to Protest

Title of guidance:

Adapting to Protest

Author: Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC)

Report cover: Rights, risks and restraints Year published: 2009
Length: 108 pages
Format: PDF (3.9Mb)
Other formats: printed copy or other formats on request - phone: 0870 240 7535
Producer/ Publisher: Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary
Type of organisation: Inspectorate

Download guidance:


Policing | Inspection and regulation | External Service Guidance | Human Rights Act | European Convention on Human Rights | Public Order Act 1986 | GB wide | Case studies

Audience: Senior Executives | Service management | Front-line service personnel | Policy managers and directors | Legal directors

Topics: Human rights | transparency and accountability | proportionality | balancing competing rights


This report is a review of the policing of demonstrations surrounding the G20 summit in London in April 2009 by the Metropolitan Police (during which Ian Tomlinson died), incorporating wider lessons about the policing of protest. The demonstrations included: a security operation at ExCel; the Stop the War march in central London; the Bank of England protest; and the Climate Camp protest.

There is a particular focus on the use of force and of the policy of containment, and an analysis of the police's public order tactics from public, legal and operational perspectives. It includes an analysis of the legal framework for policing protest (Annex C).

As part of the review, HMIC commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct a survey of public opinion about the G20 protests and the policing of large-scale protests in general. This covered police tactics, protestors' behaviour, tolerance of disruption and the police use of force.

The report makes a series of recommendations about the policing of protests, including the need to demonstrate explicit consideration of the facilitation of peaceful protest throughout the planning process and the execution of operations. It recommends improved communications with protest groups and the media, and that police officers should be identifiable at all times.

Key human rights messages in this guidance

  • Protests are an important safety valve for strongly held views - the right to protest in public is a synthesis of iconic freedoms: free assembly and free speech.
  • We are in an age where consent cannot be assumed, and policing, including public order policing, should be designed to win the consent of the public.
  • The right to freedom of peaceful assembly imposes both negative and positive obligations on the police.
  • The police may impose lawful restrictions on the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly provided such restrictions are prescribed by law, pursue one or more legitimate aims and are necessary in a democratic society.
  • The tactical plan for the G20 police operation stated that 'all legal powers should be considered in accordance with the Human Rights Act, in respect of proportionality, legality, accountability and necessity'.

Full review of this guidance

Legal and policy context

There was serious violence at the G20 demonstrations in London in April 2009 and this review of the policing of the demonstration by HMIC was commissioned by the Metropolitan Police. A large amount of publicly sourced film of the events (including film of Ian Tomlinson) was made available, leading to a very high level of scrutiny of police actions.

The review included a public survey which demonstrated that the majority of the public has limited tolerance for disruption caused by protest.

What difference do human rights make?

The report notes that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly (a qualified right) in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) places both negative and positive obligations on the police, and that the police must not prevent or restrict peaceful protest except to the extent allowed by the ECHR.

This means that the police may impose lawful restrictions on the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly provided such restrictions are:

  • prescribed by law
  • pursue one or more legitimate aims (such as the interests of public safety or protection of the rights and freedoms of others)
  • are necessary in a democratic society, i.e. fulfil a pressing social need and are proportionate.

The report also emphasises that public authorities, including the police, have a duty in certain circumstances to:

  • safeguard the right to peaceful assembly, and
  • show a certain degree of tolerance towards peaceful gatherings where demonstrators do not engage in acts of violence, even if they cause a level of obstruction or disruption.

Practical dilemmas and how to resolve them

The report focuses on:

  • the use of the tactic of containment
  • the dispersal of peaceful protesters and the proportionality of the force used by police officers
  • the identification of police officers; and
  • the effectiveness of communication between police, public and protesters.

It cites a key House of Lords decision (Austin v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, 2009) which found that police use of containment does not infringe the right to liberty of individuals whose freedom of movement is restricted by the containment provided the following criteria are met:

(i) the tactic is resorted to in good faith
(ii) the tactic is proportionate to the situation making the measure necessary; and
(iii) the tactic is enforced for no longer than is reasonably necessary.

Where containment is used, the report recommends that police forces have a release plan to allow vulnerable or distressed persons or those inadvertently caught up in the police containment to leave.

The policing dilemma as regards public protest is said to be how to balance the rights of protesters and other citizens with the duty to protect people and property from the threat of harm or injury.

The report suggests that in a democratic society policed by consent, planning and action at every level must be seen to reconcile all of these factors, particularly when a minority of people may be determined to cause disorder. The policing of protest requires a careful interpretation of the law, including the exercise of discretion.

The police are required to act as arbiter, balancing the rights of protesters against the rights of the wider public, the business community and local residents.

In dealing with this dilemma, the report suggests that the police must take a 'common sense' approach.

Organisational lessons

The report suggests that the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) 2008 manual 'Keeping the Peace' was inadequate as regards the policing of protests, and it recommends the provision of revised guidance on the confinement and release of peaceful protesters. In 2010, ACPO issued an updated 'Manual of Guidance on Keeping the Peace'.

The report recommends that training in both tactics and use of force needs to be adjusted to meet the challenges of 21st century protest.

The evolution of communication technology used to record and access images of violent confrontations between the police and protesters influenced public views about the police operation - individual and collective police action is therefore under enormous public scrutiny.

Related equality messages (if applicable)

The report does not address specific issues of equality or discrimination.

Other important information

Since this report was written, ACPO has issued new guidance (2010) on keeping the peace. This is available via the link in Related references.

Date of review

April 2011


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