Water cannons are “useless”, require specialised training and we only have six

The Prime Minister's decision to put water cannon 'on the table' may be popular - but they are ill-suited to dealing with looting, and have the potential to make things far worse

DAVID Cameron is under immense pressure to be seen to act tough in response the appalling violence and looting we have seen this last week. In his statement to MPs yesterdaay the prime minister set out his plan for restoring order, telling the House:

 “…while they would not be appropriate now, we do have in place contingency plans for water cannon to be available at 24 hours notice.”

 While most of the measures he set out are reasonable and proportionate given the severity of the circumstances, retaining the option to deploy water cannons against protestors must remain a cause for deep concern.

Last October 66 year-old Dietrich Wagner was badly injured during an environmental protest in Stugart when German police turned water cannons on protestors. As the Daily Mail reported:

“His eyelids were torn, the lenses of his eyes were damaged and part of his orbital bone – which encases the eye – was fractured.”

     
Although deployed in Northern Ireland for thirty years, it is recognised that water cannons still pose the risk of serious injury. The Defence Scientific Advisory Council’s Sub-Committee on the Medical Implications of Less Lethal Weapons recommended to the Northern Ireland Office that:

 “The impact of a high-pressure water jet from a water cannon is a high momentum event and may therefore lead to the displacement of the body. In certain scenarios (such as people close to solid obstacles), the potential for an increased risk of injury exists. Future guidance and training should reflect the risks arising from the displacement of people and objects.”

On top of the need for “further guidance and training” before using water cannons we have the small problem that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (the only force that actually has any water cannons) only has six of them in any event. Exactly how half a dozen water cannons – requiring specialised training – could be deployed across the whole of Britain “within 24 hours” remains a moot point.

 Despite sounding like a tough measure – and with 90% of voters said to approve of their use – the question of efficacy remains: Do water cannons work and will they add any value to police chiefs on the frontline?

 One man who knows better than most is Sir Hugh Orde – former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and currently head of the Association of Chief Police Officers. Writing in this morning’s Independent he said:

“In stark terms, without extremely violent and static crowds, they [water cannons] are useless.”

To avoid flatly contradicting ministers, he added that water cannons should retain “a vital place in our armoury”, but said their use had to be “proportionate and appropriate to the situation we face.”

Sir Hugh is not usually cast as a bleeding-heart liberal so his assessment should carry weight. Unlike the disturbances we have seen this week, Northern Ireland’s civil unrest usually focuses on territory; with stand-offs centred on parade routes, or in certain flashpoint communities. Protestors are usually confined and ‘static’.

The thugs running amok in our cities are peripatetic and operate in smaller units, organising and dispersing quickly in order to avoid detection.

Cumbersome and indiscriminate, water cannons are simply not fit-for-purpose for the task of disrupting their activities, making them neither “proportionate” nor “appropriate”.

Finally, the prospect of water cannons being used to quell civil unrest amounts to a creeping militarisastion of policing in England and needs proper debate and safeguarding.

The announcement that the home affairs select committee will begin an inquiry into the disturbances is welcome, but it should specifically examine the possible deployment of water cannons, including who decides if they can be used and in what particular circumstances.

 When there was speculation last December that water cannons may be used on student protestors, home secretary Teresa May claimed their use in England may in fact be illegal.

The government’s understandable desire to restore public confidence should see ministers focus on deploying existing police resources effectively; not reach for gimmicks that will add little to the task of making our streets safer.

40 Responses to “Water cannons are “useless”, require specialised training and we only have six”

  1. David Skelton

    Water cannons are “useless”, require specialised training and we only have six: //bit.ly/ou28Be writes Kevin Meagher #riots

  2. Political Scrapbook

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  3. Tim Ireland

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  4. Pam Smith

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  5. Andrew Rhodes

    Rt @leftfootfwd Why water cannons won't work //t.co/WzB8MKt

  6. Andrew Rhodes

    RT @leftfootfwd Why water cannons won't work in the #riots //t.co/WzB8MKt

  7. Emma Dent Coad

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  8. Andrew Rhodes

    Not often I agree with the Daily Telegraph, but Peter Oborne wrote an outstanding piece on the #riots //t.co/WzB8MKt

  9. Dan

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  10. Andrea Murray

    RT @psbook: Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd

  11. Joseph Burnett

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  12. Ben W

    One for @Joyouscomms "Water cannon are useless & we only have six"- //tinyurl.com/42s2d2q

  13. Brownhills Bob

    One for @Joyouscomms "Water cannon are useless & we only have six"- //tinyurl.com/42s2d2q

  14. Boris Watch

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  15. Thom J.

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  16. Kilsally

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  17. Sean Albiez

    Water cannons are "useless", require specialist training — and we only have six of them //bit.ly/poeTsJ (from @leftfootfwd)

  18. Martin Madden

    RT @leftfootfwd: Water cannons are “useless”, require specialised training and we only have six //t.co/KCOlYwU

  19. Lucy Ashton

    Water cannons are “useless”, require specialised training and we only have six: //bit.ly/ou28Be writes Kevin Meagher #riots

  20. Robert

    I see we have a yank Police officer who will tell us how to become more American, we have Miliband talking, but it’s to late mate to show us your so called socialism now, your out of power.

    I do not know perhaps we will see American police officers hired to come over, oh dear he has done that already with an ex cop being paid thousand if not millions to have a holiday here.

    What a country we cannot even run our own Police, we cannot sort out our own problems we have the Tories seeking Americans to help, we had Brown telling us we cannot build anything anymore so giving work to the Germans and Dutch, we are dead man

  21. Ed's Talking Balls

    Water cannon can cause displacement of the body and, in general, physical injury? Well gosh, I am surprised. Actually, no, of course I’m not. Batons, rubber bullets, guns and even riot shields have been used to defend society against criminals in the past. Civil society needs weapons too and, thankfully, it has them.

    There is nothing wrong with a police force deploying force: the clue is in the name. The valid point of your argument is about efficacy. Given the nature of the scum on the run in London, it has to be questioned whether water cannon will be an effective tool for the police. We should be in no rush to use them, even in response to understandable public clamour for stronger policing techniques, but their use should be debated and reports should be consulted (or new ones commissioned).

    More versatile weaponry, such as tasers, CS gas and rubber bullets, combined with a strong police presence making use snatch squads strikes me as the best way of tackling criminality of this nature in the future.

  22. Francis Cox

    Water cannons are “useless”, require specialised training and we only have six: //bit.ly/ou28Be writes Kevin Meagher #riots

  23. Anon E Mouse

    Kevin Meagher – So in your warped version of reality you say: “His eyelids were torn, the lenses of his eyes were damaged and part of his orbital bone – which encases the eye – was fractured.”

    So why is one individual white German who has a fractured eye socket for not doing what the police told him – he had a choice – more important than the three Asian men KILLED in Birmingham?

    I suspect it’s because it’s because he’s white which to me stinks of backhanded racism…

  24. David Gillon

    Good post @leftfootfwd about watercannon //bit.ly/poeTsJ They're a tool, just like a hammer is a tool, but not all problems are nails

  25. DavidG

    Note the MoD’s wording in the reference to the Defence Subcommittee : ‘Less Lethal Weapons’. That’s a lesson the military learnt through bitter example. The original wording was ‘non-lethal weapons’, but that was found to encourage reckless use, on the presumption ‘non-lethal’ meant they wouldn’t harm people, whereas it simply meant they were less likely to kill them than shooting them would be. The most spectacularly tragic lesson was probably the Israeli Defence Force’s bizarre idea that it could deal safely with Palestinian rioters during the 2000 Intifada by turning its snipers on them, but only issuing .22 sniper rifles as opposed to military bore. The fact that .22 is a preferred calibre in assassinations because however low impact it may be, it still lethal, seems to have passed them by. The results were predictable, with deaths, an urgent inquiry and the IDF Judge Advocate General ordering the weapon reclassified as lethal. Militaries around the world learnt these and other lessons and changed the way they talk about the weapons, because people considering their uses needed to remember that if they used them there was a real chance they would kill somebody, as the sad history of the 17 deaths in NI from baton rounds shows.

    The calls this week for water cannon, baton rounds and even live ammunition are the voices of amateurs. They come from people with a genuine right to be concerned, even frightened, but they remain amateurs with no knowledge in the use and characteristics of weapons and the tactical circumstances where their use may be or may not be appropriate. And that’s why decisions on their use should be left in the hand of professionals who do understand those characteristics, and have been trained* to reflect on the fact that every time they authorize their use they put lives at risk.

    * That training isn’t simply for the people who will use them directly, to use them safely, the police officers who will order their use at the Gold Command or lower tactical levels need to fully understand the risk factors involved and how they interact with crowd behaviour and the physical environment. It’s obvious from his article in the Independent that Sir Hugh Orde understands those restrictions and risks, but how many other senior officers on the mainland is that true of?

  26. Kevin

    Robert – agree with the point about whether we should draft in US expertise in the shape of William Bratton or similar. Think we last did that with Bob Kiley to run London Underground. A gimmick then and a gimmick now.

    Ed – we agree on the point about the efficacy of water cannons. I see no reason why conventional policing methods cannot deal with what are (relatively) small crowds of (largely) unarmed and ill-co-ordinated youths.

    Granted, the trouble for the police is they feel they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. A tough line for them to walk; but standing by while no-go areas were created over the first couple of nights was a total mistake.

    DavidG – agree – less lethal does not mean non-lethal. I really don’t see why a few hundred unarmed kids cannot be challenged, dispersed and arrested without the need to arm up.

  27. Anon E Mouse

    DavidG – Perhaps you’d like to give your theory about not using water cannons to the 45 families who only have the clothes they stand up in.

    If the authorities had got into the carpet factory they may have put it out and indeed in France that is how fires from petrol bombs are extinguished but effectively your idea just means that as a society we are totally incapable of resisting these mindless thugs and criminals. Great.

    The left has been found wanting this week (Lammy and Abbott excepted) and these helpless comments just serve to show how far the Labour Party has got from the people.

    Just because the Miliband’s weren’t subject to riots in Primrose Hill in their £million’s property doesn’t mean they shouldn’t think of others for once…

  28. chris star

    Water cannons are “useless”, require specialised training and we only have six
    //j.mp/o49ZM7

  29. Ed's Talking Balls

    ‘Granted, the trouble for the police is they feel they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t’

    A very good point.

    Frankly, the level of criticism the police receive on such a regular basis disgusts me. Society needs to stop sending such mixed messages. Police need to know that, when tackling scum on the rampage, they will be given support when they try to protect us. I can understand why they might be inclined to back off in such situations; what is shocking is that many refrain from getting involved not because of risk of personal injury but for fear of legal rerimination. They must not be so cowed. It should never have been allowed to get to this stage.

  30. Kevin

    Quite right – consistency is key. The police’s response should be proportionate and seek to protect human life, but equally they should not be deterred from keeping control of the streets.

    The big issue is that this type of mayhem may become more common given the ease with which people can use social media to organise. Cameron seems to be suggesting that we can block social media content, which (like the water cannons)is a total red herring.

    Yes to tougher penalties and greater deterrence, but addressing the underlying issues around worklessness, gang culture and a lack of social conscience is essential.

  31. DavidG

    Mr Mouse – which part of using the right tool for the job is so difficult to understand? Will you similarly challenge Sir Hugh Orde, with whose statement I was agreeing? A water cannon could indeed have been turned on the flames, just as you can use a hammer to bang in a screw, but none of that makes it the right tool for the job. A water cannon is a tool intended for use against a massed crowd, not fast moving rioters in small groups. There are circumstances in which I might well advocate use of a water cannon if that is what the police say is needed (and where I am certain that that need is tactical rather than politically convenient), just as I’ve supported their right to use lethal force in other situations, but that is not what the police are saying would have been useful.

    “your idea just means that as a society we are totally incapable of resisting these mindless thugs and criminals.”

    As demonstrated in the following nights there are a range of options that could be used, ranging from simply more men and women on the ground up through the use of the Jankel Guardian armoured vehicles. Some of that needed the additional preparation of knowing trouble was going to happen, but a more interventionist approach in the first couple of nights (where that was compatible with the safety of officers) might have paid some benefit; the rioters were mobile, but moving slowly enough they were still able to commit mayhem, forcing them to spend even more time moving would have complicated the tactical situation, but limited their opportunity for systematic destruction and looting, which might in turn have reduced the spread from violent elements to opportunist elements drawn by the opportunity to loot. But these are questions that can only be answered by professionals with the knowledge and skills to analyze the situation and see what could or should have been done and measure it against what was actually done. We owe the police the opportunity to do this in proper after action analyses and the operational freedom to implement the lessons as they see fit. Being on the left does not mean being soft on crime, nor tying one hand behind the police force’s back, nor does being effective on stopping crime simply mean being authoritarian, it does however require you to think about the whole issue and deny you the luxury of arguing solely on the basis of knee-jerk emotions and not the facts.

    What exactly is your issue with people, including one of the most senior police officers in the land and the one with most practical experience of dealing with serious rioting, asking that reactions be thought through and that the police be allowed to do their job in the most effective way possible?

  32. Ed's Talking Balls

    ‘addressing the underlying issues around worklessness, gang culture and a lack of social conscience is essential’

    Very true. The problem is that there is no easy answer to this and I suspect people across the political spectrum will have very different ideas about how to deal with these issues, which have been blighting this country for years.

    Honestly, I don’t see how anyone can still stand up for this bien pensant stuff, i.e. give them plenty of carrot, don’t mention the “R” word (responsibility), resist educational reform at all costs (sink schools have served society so well, after all…) and let’s not have any of that prehistoric stuff about families.

    The status quo is wrong. In truth, that’s one of the bigget understatements I’ve ever written. We need drastic change and, although it’ll stick in the craw of the left in this country, I believe we need to look at unfashionable/old-fashioned concepts (such as personal responsibility and strong law and order policies) afresh.

  33. Matthew Pearson

    some details on water cannons and 'water-tight' reasons why they would not have been effective in #ukriots //t.co/qYkV4nq

  34. Kevin

    Ed – agree. There’s that other ‘R’ word too – respectability. That’s been a major casualty over the past thirty years. Not bringing shame on your family and feeling part of a real community helped bind people together and avert the nihilistic behaviour we’ve seen this week. A toxic combination of Thatcherism and moral relativism saw it off…

  35. Ed's Talking Balls

    Yes, moral relativism has infected society to a horrifying degree. Some of the quotes from the rioters and the incitements published by the likes of Jody McIntyre should repulse all right-thinking people.

    This “R” word theme is developing nicely. I agree that respectability is conspicuous by its absence here, but I was at least heartened to see some parents turning their brats over to the police: let’s have none of this “grassing” nonsense.

    I resent the abuse of the word “communities” in commentaries in the aftermath. Geography alone does not a community make. Where are the ties that bind? These people don’t have respect for those around them. They smashed up their own streets.

    I would add another “R” word actually, which is respect. This is a term even more abused than the aforementioned “communities”. The scum talk about it incessantly, saying that police don’t respect them. Well, given recent events it’s hardly a surprise. Respect must be earned, just as rights exist alongside responsibilities. If you watched Jamie Oliver’s Dream School on Channel 4 a while back, you will know precisely what I mean. The pupils genuinely thought they were on the same level as the teachers. No. Accepting authority is an important aspect of maturity.

  36. Paul Meagher

    Water cannons are “useless”, require specialised training and we only have six: //bit.ly/ou28Be writes Kevin Meagher #riots

  37. Kevin Meagher

    Former Met Commissioner Ian Blair says tonight water cannons and plastic bullets a 'nonsense' re rioters Agree entirely //t.co/YNVqzYDG

  38. Paul Meagher

    Former Met Commissioner Ian Blair says tonight water cannons and plastic bullets a 'nonsense' re rioters Agree entirely //t.co/YNVqzYDG

  39. The creeping militarisation of our police must be resisted | Left Foot Forward

    […] Left Foot Forward has previously argued, water cannons are ill-suited to the kind of civil disorder we witnessed during August’s riots as […]

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