Scottish Police Authority reject calls for independent scrutiny of COP26 Policing

Row of police contain protesters holding colourful banner reading "how many cops to arrest climate chaos"

Reuters/Hanna Mckay

Five months after the end of the United Nations COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in November 2021, both Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority have now simultaneously provided an official response to ‘Respect or Repression?’, the independent report produced by the Article 11 Trust and Netpol on the policing of the event.

Read the full report and shortened Executive Summary.

 

The response from Police Scotland

In a letter dated 23rd March 2022 from Assistant Chief Constable Emma Bond, Police Scotland has asserted that it is a “rights-based organisation with Integrity, Fairness and Respect as its core values” and that “as part of the strategic intention, the right to protest as enshrined in Human Rights legislation was fundamental to the planning and delivery of the policing of the conference and associated events, while balancing this with the rights of the wider community”.

What the letter strongly indicates, however, is that only tests of whether these core values were applied in Glasgow last November was the number of complaints, arrests and injuries – not the way police powers were used and the impact this had on campaigners’ rights.

 ACC Bond has rejected evidence that a number of concerning incidents of repressive, excessive or violent policing were coupled with potentially misleading public statements from her force that it had ‘facilitated’ protesters wanting to demonstrate.

For example, our report highlights how on the 3rd November 2021, a statement from Bond’s colleague Assistant Chief Constable Gary Ritchie had claimed: “we have facilitated a number of protests in Glasgow today and engaged with protest groups as they moved through the city centre. A group was contained for a short period in the St Vincent Street and Renfield Street area”.

However, front line testimony from over 100 members of the public and detailed contemporaneous notes from 16 legal observers described how demonstrators were kettled against their will for far more than a short period but instead for nearly five hours. They were refused exit to use toilets, to access medication or appropriate clothing, and were forced to urinate in the street.

Instead, ACC Bond insists that only 27 complaints had been made relating to the whole of the conference and that as a result:

“Police Scotland is satisfied when assessed against the Policing of similar events in other jurisdictions, the low number of arrests, and the broader absence of any substantial violence, damage within the city, or injuries – the overall operation tone and stance for COP26 was appropriate and proportionate.”

 Bond makes it clear that Police Scotland is unwilling to consider anything other than formal complaints, despite the obvious fact potential complainants may come from all over the world and that many campaigners have had negative experiences of the frustrating slowness and obstructiveness of the complaints system. This attitude is also a rejection of any kind of scrutiny of public order policing by civil society organisations, despite the vital role such organisations play at United Nations conferences.

 

No human rights benchmark

Despite claiming that the policing operation was “rights-based”, it is unclear what benchmark – if any – was used as measurement of the successes Bond insists Police Scotland achieved in ensuring “a significant amount of protest activity was facilitated throughout the period of the event.”

Bond’s letter appears to imply that apart from the absolute number of complaints, the only other measure of how well Police Scotland believes it both facilitated and protected the right to freedom of assembly was that “only a very small number of arrests were required to be made during the conference” and that “no serious injuries [were] recorded as a result of protest activity, either to members of the public or police officers.”

This is an extremely limited test of whether Police Scotland met its international human rights obligations and does not consider the way extensive police powers were used, or how they may have contributed to actively restricting demonstrators’ fundamental rights.

Our partners from Netpol warned of the risk that human rights would become an afterthought and called on Police Scotland to instead use its Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights to prove that senior officers were serious about their legal obligations.

Unfortunately, Bond’s letter strongly indicates that these warnings were ignored.

 

A large group of uniformed police stand by riot vehicles.

Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The response from the Scottish Police Authority

 Barry Sillers, acting Chief Executive of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) responded to our report in a letter dated 22nd March 2022. Sillers said the report was “an interesting early perspective on the policing of COP26.”, but that the SPA’s position was that:

“overall the policing approach was proportionate, fair, positive and balanced carefully the rights of individuals to protest with the need to maintain the safety and wellbeing of citizens and communities. Indeed, this position has been widely recognised, attracting national and international interest and positive comment”.

 The basis for this position once again uses the number of formal complaints as a key benchmark, along with public polling that suggested “clear evidence of support for Police Scotland’s approach to policing their city”.

However, only 3% of those polled by the SPA had any experience of attending protests during COP26. By contrast, our findings were based on a wealth of evidence from demonstrators themselves. 

 

Limited oversight?

 Sillers asserts that the SPA’s “oversight and assurance-seeking of Police Scotland’s planning and delivery of policing COP26 has been extensive” and points to the “dedicated Oversight Group… established in 2019 to provide “additional detailed scrutiny of Police Scotland’s preparedness for policing this significant international event.”

He also highlights the ‘Independent Advisory Group’ (IAG) that was appointed by Police Scotland to offer “further focused oversight”.

However, the Oversight Group’s remit covers health and safety for officers, cost recovery for Police Scotland and preserving routine policing during COP26. It has had no role in supervising or scrutinising the force’s preparedness to ensure a human rights based approach to the policing of protests during COP26.

As for the IAG, both the Article 11 Trust and Netpol has approached it about the concerns raised in our report but privately we were warned by a member that its own forthcoming report on COP26 requires unanimous sign off by all members (including Police Scotland itself), which “limits how strong it can be”.

Sillars goes on to indicate that the SPA’s other limited benchmarks of success were identical to those of Police Scotland:

“There was no violence, disorder, damage or injury at any substantial level recorded. There were remarkably low levels of arrests and complaints compared to anticipated levels”.

No explanation was provided as to why SPA seems so unconcerned by the significant increase in the use of Section 20 powers as a potentially unlawful blanket stop and search power, or the widespread demands made by police officers for the personal details of protesters, which was contrary to operational guidance.

Concerns about intimidating and intrusive surveillance and discriminatory, violent and repressive protest policing were similarly ignored.

 

Call for an independent public inquiry

As a result, the SPA says it “sees no need for a public enquiry into the policing of COP26 or the stop and search powers used.”

However, we reaffirm our report’s conclusions that an absence of serious disorder and low levels of arrest does not constitute a ‘human-rights based’ policing operation that is compliant with international human rights guidance and law.

Along with the partners we worked with in producing our report, we also reiterate our call for an urgent independent inquiry, on the basis that currently there has been insufficient oversight of the policing operation and now, a refusal to address potentially significant human rights breaches during COP26.

 

Read Police Scotland’s response and Scottish Police Authority’s response.