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.

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