Is Britain ready for water cannon?
Water cannon are used in Northern Ireland and abroad – with varying degrees of brutality – but have never been deployed in Britain. So why are Boris Johnson and the police now talking about introducing them here?
Anyone watching the news on TV will know the basic scenario. There’s a riot of some kind: perhaps political, maybe largely senseless, occasionally related to an international football match. The police duly get stuck in, using horses, or baton charges, or even plastic bullets. And then, just to underline the fact that something really serious is afoot, a number of armoured vehicles will appear. In the manner of giant weeing daleks, they will then fire huge jets of water at their targets, sending them flying across the street, and clearing a space in between the cops and their quarry – or, in a different situation, one set of miscreants and another.
Such are the wonders of water cannon, first used in 1930s Germany, and now part of the armoury of police forces all over the world. Its use in Northern Ireland goes back to 1969, and the police there currently have access to six of the renowned Zieger Wasserwerfer 9000, a few of which were used last summer. On the so-called British mainland, however, the water cannon has usually been thought of as either a signifier for the kind of trouble unique to Ulster, or something best left to the sort of countries where regimes routinely brutalise their citizens (Egypt, Indonesia, China) or the streets have, at some time or other, echoed to the sound of jackboots, and the authorities asking people for their papers (France, Germany, Ukraine).
Until now, that is. In January, it was announced that, in his capacity as mayor of London, Boris Johnson was backing the Metropolitan police’s drive to get its hands on water cannon – and was prepared to foot the bill. The Met’s chief commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, had briefed Johnson about the water cannon’s merits, while other senior Met officers advocated its use. The mayor wrote to Home Secretary Theresa May, serving notice that he was “broadly convinced of the value of having water cannon available” to the Met, and viewed it as the “most economical interim solution that allows the [chief] commissioner to meet his desire to prevent disorder on the streets”. Yesterday, Johnson was at it again, telling radio listeners that though water cannon “will be very rarely used”, he and the Met are “going ahead with it. There is a consultation and we’ll have to see what the home secretary says.”
Meanwhile, some senior police figures have been loudly singing the same tune. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) reckons that, though “there is no intelligence to suggest that there is an increased likelihood of serious disorder”, protest against “ongoing and potential future austerity measures” is part of the case for bringing water cannon into the police’s range of options. May will be approached any time now, it seems, “in respect of water cannon authorisation”; whether any particular force wants to use it will be up to its chief constable, and its elected police and crime commissioner.
An Acpo report, written by the chief constable of West Mercia, David Shaw (more of whom later), has made the case for its use, and retrospectively identified three occasions when water cannon might have been a sensible tool: 2004’s Countryside Alliance demonstration in London; demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy in 2008-09; and the student protests of 2010 – when, as you may recall, irate twentysomethings laid waste to the Tory HQ in Westminster, and some of them managed to menace the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall.
Some of England and Wales’s new police and crime commissioners are said to have rejected the idea of using water cannon and have suggested they don’t want to share the cost. And plenty of other voices have warned of water cannon’s huge dangers. Some have talked about Dietrich Wagner, the 66-year-old Stuttgart resident who was effectively blinded by water cannon in 2010 when German police clamped down on a protest against the building of the city’s new railway station (horrifying images of the incident show blood streaming from Wagner’s eyes). Such injuries as broken bones and ruptured spleens have been mentioned. Even Acpo’s own briefings acknowledge that “water cannon are capable of causing serious injury or even death”, and that “there is a range of water cannon footage available online showing injuries caused by water cannon”. By way of reassurance, its documents also insist that “deployment criteria as well as the tolerance for disorder or protest vary significantly across the world”.
One of the six Wasserwerfer 9000s belonging to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Photograph: Stephen Barnes
Which brings us to perhaps the most powerful argument of all, once elegantly voiced by the home secretary herself. In 2010, May said: “I don’t think anybody wants to see water cannon used on the streets of Britain because we have … a different attitude to the culture of policing here in the UK. We police by consent and it depends on that trust between the police and the public.”
Interestingly, some of the police officers now pushing for the use of water cannon seem to have only recently changed their minds. In 2011, when he was mulling over that summer’s riots, Hogan-Howe said that though water cannon had “been effective” in Northern Ireland, it had distinct limitations, and was “not the answer” to rioting elsewhere in the UK. “In any country, if you haven’t used things before then, of course, nobody is going to go willingly towards this new approach,” he said. There was also the small matter of money (the trusty Wasserwerfer 9000 costs £1.3m per vehicle). “These things are expensive,” he added. “Most of the time, they just sit there doing nothing.”
There is some truth to this. In the early 1980s, after such cities as Manchester, Liverpool, London and Leeds had experienced riots, the Home Office borrowed German water cannon to “evaluate” its use, and ended up buying two British-built prototypes. By 1985, they were gathering dust in a Metropolitan police garage in Greenwich, amid what one Guardian report called “growing doubts” that they could ever be used.
Things then went quiet, with water cannon making the news only when it wasthey were brought on to the streets overseas, or British firms sold the requisite kit to foreign governments. In 1997, for example, water cannon made by the defence firm British Tactica were unleashed on demonstrators in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta – and they were used there again as recently as March 2012.