'It makes our job incredibly difficult': Police surrounded by cameras on protests as they make ‘on the hoof’ law changes

1 May 2024, 06:05 | Updated: 1 May 2024, 06:08

LBC observed how Scotland Yard manages to police divisive demonstrations in London
LBC observed how Scotland Yard manages to police divisive demonstrations in London. Picture: LBC

By Fraser Knight

LBC has seen first hand the challenges facing officers as they police demonstrations in the capital, with one senior officer saying the scrutiny is making the job evermore difficult.

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On Saturday, thousands of people again descended on London to march in protest at the killing of civilians in Gaza.

And while the 13th national march by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign saw fewer numbers than it has in the past, a growing consideration from officers is on the slowly increasing numbers turning up to counter the march - the pro-Israel demonstrators.

“We treat every protest on its merits,” chief superintendent Joe McDonald told LBC as we joined him in response to the protest.

In the middle of the protests

“They are always complicated - but we do allow them to get pretty close while keeping a bit of a distance to keep people safe.”

Read more: Shocking moment Met police officer threatens to arrest man for being 'quite openly Jewish' at pro-Palestine march

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The Met police 'nerve centre' where they monitor protests
The Met police 'nerve centre' where they monitor protests. Picture: LBC

As he spoke to us, one pro-Israel protester started chanting “two tier policing” claiming officers weren’t allowing their demonstration to be seen by the marchers across the barrier.

"Obviously I don’t like to hear that,” he said. “We believe we make these decisions fairly - we don’t give more tolerance to one side than the other.

“I know we can’t convince everyone all the time but we want the public to trust us, and do I believe we are being fair to everyone? Yes I do.

Police at a recent Israel/Gaza protest in London
Police at a recent Israel/Gaza protest in London. Picture: Alamy

“We put conditions in place to balance people’s right to protest, freedom of speech, and to keep people safe and one of the incredibly challenging but powerful things with conditions is you’re essentially creating a law on the hoof.

“There’s a very broad scope in the legislation to come up with whatever is needed in the circumstances.”

A gap of about 10 metres was held by police between the demonstrations on Pall Mall, with officers prepared for any trouble.

They had riot helmets clipped to their belts and there were more officers on standby around the corner.

Police have to balance people’s right to protest and freedom of speech with keeping people safe
Police have to balance people’s right to protest and freedom of speech with keeping people safe. Picture: LBC

But the only real issue came as another group - unknown to police - tried to join the pro-Israel demonstration in another area.

One man, for example, walked right up to the metal barrier by the Pro-Palestinian march before unravelling a sign that read ‘Hamas is terrorist’.

Officers immediately started to talk to him - using a 5-point engagement tactic they’re given as part of their briefing before making an arrest.

But the swarm of cameras around them was immense.

“It makes our job really difficult,” Chief Superintendent Joe McDonald said.

"Those officers have got a lot of legal things to consider. They're trying to go through that process and then having all that scrutiny around them and all of that noise is making it really difficult.

“There’s no getting away from it.”

Among the phones and microphones surrounding the interaction, was a police camera, beaming images back to the control room in Lambeth where LBC’s Nick Ferrari was watching on.

He described the attention towards the police as being more intense than a football manager gets after winning the FA Cup.

Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist told LBC: “It’s a hugely pressurised situation, where officers who are engaging with people have a dozen cameras or phones in their face, recording everything they say. It’s enormously difficult.

“The commanders here at the special operations room will make decisions around the initial conditions at the start of the demonstration but thereafter it falls to the senior officer present to make that decision on how best to balance people’s rights - the right to protest against the rights of people impacted by that protest.

“It’s very dynamic, very challenging and at times intimidating - not necessarily from the protest but from people shoving cameras in their face.”

Tensions are high between members of these groups and the way their protests are being policed.

Last month, a video went viral of an officer telling Gideon Falter he may have to be arrested, and that he was “openly Jewish”.

The clip - while damaging - had been cut from a longer interaction, in which the officer said he was preventing him crossing the pro-Palestinian march, before offering to walk him away from the area.

As chief executive of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, Mr Falter then criticised the police response to the protests, which he said led them to cancel their planned demonstration on Saturday over concerns for safety.

The Met apologised for the language used by the officer speaking to Gideon Falter, before being forced to apologise again for causing more offence.

Since 7th October, policing demonstrations in London linked to the conflict between Israel and Hamas has cost the Metropolitan Police £38.5 million

45,000 officer shifts have been dedicated to the protests, with 6,400 rest days cancelled to cope with the demand on resources.

The Met Police Commissioner joins Nick Ferrari tomorrow morning. Listen LIVE from 8am on Global Player, the official LBC app - or send your question for the UK's top cop here

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