Posted: Wednesday 9th November 2016
Exercise Conquer pictures courtesy of Devon and Cornwall Police
I think we can all agree that policing is a difficult business. Police officers, among other things, are required to keep the peace. Fortunately the vast majority of people in the area served by Wiltshire Police are law-abiding folk who go about their business in a peaceable way. The same goes for the rest of Britain.
It’s the shared sense among the public of what is the right thing to do that enables our bobbies to police by consent, just as Sir Robert Peel envisaged when he set up the Metropolitan Police Service in London in 1829.
But what happens when a small element in our society chooses not to keep the peace. I’m not talking here about music belting out too loudly at a gathering (annoying though that can be). I have in mind the serious disorder that can - and occasionally does - break out on the streets of some of our cities.
Cast your mind back to August 2011. Trouble broke out in Tottenham in north London after Mark Duggan was shot dead by police. They were attempting to carry out an arrest as part of an operation to counter gun crime in the African and Caribbean communities. An initially peaceful protest turned violent and, over the coming days, serious disorder broke out in various parts of the capital, spreading to Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Widespread looting was reported and buildings were set alight.
Wiltshire Police, in common with forces across the country, has to be ready to supply so-called police support units (PSUs) within strict time limits under what’s known as the national policing requirement. The Force trains its officers for such eventualities.
I had a chance the other day to observe public order training on a far larger scale, involving the five South West forces plus fire and ambulance colleagues under the name Exercise Conquer. It took place over two weeks in a fake village used by the Army for training on Salisbury Plain.
It might have been an exercise, but I can tell you it looked very real and quite hairy from my vantage point. Officers from Wiltshire and the rest of the region came face to face with so-called “violent persons” clutching baseball bats. They were not holding back: the police shields were repeatedly struck by the “rioters” and fire bombs exploded at their feet with broken glass showering the ground. The “rioters” kept up a barrage of noise.
I saw good evidence of officers from across the five Forces working together and putting common procedures into practice. Despite the violence, the flames and the provocation, they held the line impressively when lesser mortals might have been tempted to back away.
The thing to bear in mind is that there may be occasions when the police are called to hold the line between two opposing factions, or to allow a particular group to exercise their right to protest peacefully when others are trying to scare them off.
Police officers bearing shields and wearing helmets with visors may not look like the friendly bobby in your community. But we should remember that they are there, in the front line, protecting life and property and, yes, keeping the peace.