Five of six largest police forces do not want water cannon

Controversial water cannon plans 'as much use as a chocolate teapot', according to one police chief

Five of the six largest forces in England and Wales said they were against deploying water cannon on their streets, with one police chief dismissing them as being "as much use as a chocolate teapot" for quelling disorder.

The Metropolitan police and the London mayor, Boris Johnson, are pressing the case for water cannon to be deployed in the capital as soon as summer, amid warnings that austerity could fuel disorder.

But the views of the other forces leave the Met in isolation, weeks before it is expected to ask the home secretary for formal approval. The police and crime commissioners (PCCs) for the forces in Greater Manchester, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Merseyside and Thames Valley have all rejected the idea and suggested they would be unwilling to share the cost.

Currently water cannon is approved for use only in Northern Ireland.

The Met was bruised when it lost control of London's streets for three nights during the riots of 2011, which led the force to re-examine its tactics for dealing with disorder.

Water cannon was used on England fans during the Euro 2000 football tournament in Belgium
Water cannon was used on England fans during the Euro 2000 football tournament in Belgium. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian Photograph: Sean Smith/Guardian

One senior critic said the Met had made basic errors in the runup to the riots, thenwhich were compounded by more blunders once the disorder erupted: "The Met made a mess of it and now they are looking for a gimmicky solution."

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) is also exploring water cannon and its use on the streets of the mainland.

Tony Lloyd, the PCC for Greater Manchester, said he remained sceptical. "No convincing argument has been made about how water cannons could improve policing or community safety," he said. "Before we moved anywhere close to using them on our streets, there would need to be a full and proper public debate about when they would be used, how they would be used and why they would be used. For example, they would have been completely ineffective on the streets of Manchester and Salford during the 2011 riots."

Greater Manchester's chief constable, Sir Peter Fahy, is in agreement with Lloyd.

Bob Jones, PCC for the West Midlands, told the Guardian: "I feel such equipment would be as much use as a chocolate teapot. I fail to see why we should pay towards a provision I cannot see us using.

"Water cannon would have been of no use whatsoever, as the groups of people involved in the disturbances dissolved to avoid confrontation with any significant police presence and reformed elsewhere to loot etcetera. If anything a water cannon could have been more of a liability, as an asset that scarce police resources would have been needed to protect."

Jane Kennedy, PCC for Merseyside – where Met commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe once served as chief constable – was also dismissive: "The chief constable, Jon Murphy, and I have considered the use of water cannon and believe them to be of limited value for Merseyside.

"I would not want to see precious resources diverted to purchase such vehicles when their value is yet to be proven."

David Shaw, who is leading the water cannon project for the police service nationally, wrote a document for police chiefs saying one reason for considering water cannon is that "ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest".

But Shaw said it was virtually unforeseeable that he would need water cannon in West Mercia, where he is chief constable. "I'm not a water cannon zealot," he said. "I'm absolutely clear it's virtually unforeseeable I would ever need to use water cannon.

"They are a useful additional tactic, to be used in exceptional and rare circumstances. It feels very un-British, but it feels un-British when the streets of London and Salford are on fire."

London's government and police chiefs say they are listening to public views and if they feel they have enough support, are likely to ask the home secretary for approval later this month. They are expected to buy three second-hand water cannon from Germany, the Wasserwerfer 9000, which can store and fire 9,000 litres of water.

It is also possible that additional water cannon could be bought and stationed around the country in case police chiefs outside London decided they were needed.

Sir Hugh Orde, president of Acpo, said: "There is a gap in the armoury in England and Wales which could be filled by the availability of water cannon."

Orde, formerly chief constable in Northern Ireland, who was speaking before the London Assembly, added: "I understand the sensitivity of this, I've worked with these things for seven years, but because of the way we used them, it didn't damage confidence in policing in the long term."

Police chiefs say London has special public order needs, as it is the home of national institutions that have traditionally been the focus of demonstrations.

Met assistant commissioner Mark Rowley explained the benefit of water cannon when dealing with protesters who police believe are intent on violence. "When their obvious objective is attacking a fixed location, such as parliament, such as an embassy, such as the Millbank buildings, then you've got a small group of highly violent people … posing a lot of risk to the public," he said.

"In those situations it's potentially credible. We're not going to use it against a small number of violent people in the midst of thousands of peaceful people."


Vikram Dodd

The GuardianTramp

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