Matt Baggott on flag protests, Boston tapes, G8 summit, drones & social media

It’s all looking a bit fraught. We need a recovery plan.

The words of the Chief Constable Matt Baggott describing the fortunes of his football club rather than the PSNI’s response to the flags crisis. Though the words must echo what went through the PSNI senior officers’ minds when the flags crisis didn’t abate before Christmas.

Monday’s post covered PSNI transformation, regulation and vocation. Remember that blogs aren’t newspapers, so not every post has to try to make a news story, to look for the startling and give it a headline. Some blog posts can afford to be slow burners, putting information and opinion on the record – and avoiding the mainstream media’s need to cut everything up into two or three sentence quotes after a meeting of the Policing Board – so it can be referred back to later, helping spot trends and shifts in mood.

So what did the local police chief have to say about the flags dispute, those Boston tapes, the chances of collusion today, the G8, drones and social media?


PSNI Chief Constable Matt BaggottThe Chief Constable’s view is that if, long before the flag protests erupted, the level of public order training hadn’t been upped then the resource problem around policing the multiple protests would have been worse. In hindsight, if the PSNI had known the protests would last as long, then they would have beefed up the CCTV investigations and arrests much sooner. But overall the Chief Constable says he wouldn’t have changed the human-rights-based and “proportionate” strategy along with the “risk averse” on-the-ground operation because “otherwise … we couldn’t have dealt with the rioting”.

Last week flags were back to the fore in Belfast with the council discussions over flying the Union Flag at the City Hall cenotaph. I asked Matt Baggott if he agreed that it looked to the communities affected that different communities at different times got very different policing responses?

We have to work really hard at communicating that. In all honesty, the approach has been the same. My job as Chief is to make sure not only is policing effective, but also it’s compliant with human rights. You can’t take that to the heart of an organisation and then discard it if it’s inconvenient. And I won’t do that. So whether it’s July the 12th, or whether it’s the unforeseen crisis of the last two or three months, the primary responsibility has been to protect life and public safety. And they’re judgements you make depending on the circumstances you’re facing.

For example, when you have on one night alone over seven thousand people on the streets in over eighty seats of protest you cannot commit to dealing with minor matters when you have to keep your resources back to deal with outbreaks of serious disorder. And that can look fairly messy because people for half an hour see a road being blocked and think why aren’t they sweeping it off. But I have to look at the whole province. And from our control room that’s what we did every night of the flag protests. We assessed very carefully what was the challenges coming in terms of protection of life and sometimes we had to hold our resources back to do that.

But all the time we were very clear – and I was very clear through December and January, sometimes it got a little bit ridiculed by people, that actually there would be consequences. And we’ve been clear that we would not ignore law-breaking.

A lot of people – including the PSNI – thought that the flags protests would fade out in the run up to Christmas. With the advantage of a historic rear view mirror, how wrong. Only when the dispute became protracted did the big investigative efforts begin.

When it became clear that sadly this was going to go on beyond December, we put in place the investigative resources to carry through that consequence piece. As indeed we did in the Ardoyne, indeed we did at some of the other disturbances over the last two or three years. And we’ve been working through that methodically.

There are some difficult around the Public Processions Act which are complex. They don’t lend themselves to commentary and sound bites.

If you don’t put in a form 28 days before a parade then it’s illegal?

There is a process. But there is also – it’s European law – about the right to assembly under Article 11 which basically means you do that. It doesn’t mean to say you don’t follow through, but if there’s a minor misdemeanour as we would call it being committed there’s a right to assembly which is actually there. So you have to deal with this in a very proportionate and measured way.

The decision making model we always follow is public safety and protection of life – Article 2 – you look at the offending, you look at the proportionality of your response, and quite frankly I was concerned based on a huge amount of advice from people that if we’d been over zealous not only might we have been acting beyond the human rights ethos but actually we could have made it far worse.

People forget White rock in 2005, and Drumcree and the tens of thousands of people who came on the streets.

In January you only had to look at the Nolan Show to see the anger and the anxiety and the lack of leadership. And I think the story in time will be told that even if we didn’t get it completely tactically right sometimes on the days, overwhelmingly we’ve ended up with politics being given an opportunity to work – because it hasn’t got worse – and secondly nobody has been seriously injured.

He offered the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and United Nations rapporteurs as endorsements of the PSNI strategy to date.

I’ll give you just two examples. I’d much rather listen to respected voices looking in on the situation, for example the Chamber of Commerce in March absolutely endorsed the approach I and the PSNI had taken. Absolutely.

You had the United Nations rapporteurs sitting here watching, now recommending that other countries follow the approach of the PSNI. We’ve ended up with a number of issues needing to be addressed, the grievances that were expressed under the symbolism of that flag, people feeling alienated, disadvantaged neighbourhoods, the lack of a flag protocol, the need perhaps to review the Public Processions Act, all that needs to be done still, but I come back to that point we’ve ended up with nobody seriously hurt and an opportunity to progress.

A team from the Metropolitan Police is still examining CCTV evidence from protests to identify those who “threatened life”.

I think it’s about 177 charged, dozens reported. As you know I commissioned the Metropolitan Police team that is still in place, not because we had any lack of expertise here but actually because I though I wanted that CCTV analysis done. And that work will carry on relentlessly. Let me be clear. I am not looking for punitive, I’m looking for justice to be delivered here. So for those that have threatened life they will get what they deserve through the courts. For young people who got drawn into this I hope some of that can be dealt with through a restorative way. And for matters of obstruction we’ll deal with that proportionately. But we said from day one there would be a consequence. We said from day one we were not going to accept law breaking, even if at that moment in time we had to deal with it in a proportionate way because to do otherwise would have meant we couldn’t have dealt with the rioting.

Police officers couldn’t have been happy being asked to stand in the middle of inevitable attack and injury?

Fortunately, that hasn’t involved serious injury. We do report all injuries, quite rightly, because that’s our responsibility. One of the things I was very clear about when I took over was and one of the things I’m so proud we did in getting extra money was to completely refresh all of the public order equipment. People don’t realise this. We’ve got brand new land rovers, which didn’t happen by chance. People have been given the up-to-date, modern, internationally best kit to deal with these scenarios …

There’s a volatility in Northern Ireland. And if you’re going to expect people to deal with it – I’ll come back to the justification – they deserve the best kit. We put 600 more officers in operational duties so we had a greater resilience. And last year we doubled the level of our public order training so I had twice as many people to deploy in December than I did the year before. And none of that happened by chance. In fact in happened because although the risk assessment said that public order is getting better here we looked ahead again. So we had a far greater degree of capability to deal with it which we made deliberate choices on. I’m very mindful of officers’ safety and you don’t put new landrovers out there and more people and better training and more kit unless you have a heart for your people.

But the second thing is the best commanders in dealing with the public order situation are those on the ground. And they had the authorities to deploy AEPs [Attenuating Energy Projectiles, or plastic bullets]. They had the authority to deliver the tactics they needed. But in the midst of a ballistics threat and serious violence aimed at the police which is very different from what we saw in [Great Britain] where people ran away – it’s a very different scenario – those commanders made choices about containment rather than moving forward and arrest. You know something, as Chief Constable I have to rely on their professionalism and their judgement. And I stand over all the judgements they made because they made the right choices.

Sitting here in in the Gold Room looking at the overall strategy is very different from being a tactical Bronze commander on the streets in Carrickfergus or in Newtownards Road dealing with the reality. But what I do do is go out with them. Weekends over January and February, it would be wrong of me to intervene, but I spent a lot of time with officers talking about how they felt, whether they had the best kit, being presented with a billiard ball from an officer …

A billiard ball rests on a shelf in the Chief Constable’s office. Evidence?

Unfortunately can’t be fingerprinted. There will always be, even within the organisation, our debriefs, challenges about tactics, that’s the nature and that’s a healthy thing to do. But overall the strategy was right and I stand over it.

The conversation turned back to flags later on in the interview.

During the flag protests, in spite of that we kept business going as usual. We were still doing the calls. Still doing the school visits. Still doing the serious crime. Still smashing drug syndicates. The outcomes were very [good] and we were communicating. We can always take a step back and say we could have done it better? Yes you can always do things better. But actually confidence rose.

With the benefit of hindsight, what one or two things would have been done better? Communications, investigations and those City Hall gates.

In the flag dispute? I think with hindsight I would have probably in December put in place a greater degree of consistency in terms of our own communication. That’s not [the Communication team’s] issue.

I let for the first few weeks whoever was in charge speak to that immediate situation because we didn’t want to build something in terms of investigation or support that we would have to dismantle straight away. And I genuinely hoped that it would find its level coming up to Christmas – I think a lot of people thought that.

So with the benefit of seeing it go for January, February, March would have started the bigger investigation and the more consistent approach in December.

What would we have done differently? Some things tactically on the day we might have done differently. We always do a debrief. I think we made assumptions in the way in which the crowd would react and they might have reacted a different way. For example, the very first day if we thought that the City Council gates were quite so weak we wouldn’t have had the protester. And you hold your hands up to that and you say our assessment was wrong.

But overall, I wouldn’t at all change the decision making around public safety, preserve your resources, deal with the most serious, and then talk about consequences and follow it through. Because all the independent voices have said to us “you know something, that was right”. And I don’t think we have set ourselves up for the summer on this. Because our decision making this summer will be will be the same as it was in January February and March.

There’s a definite defensiveness around the protesters storming the City Hall gates and the low profile police presence that had tried to avoid the scene of officers in riot gear (who were parked nearby) appearing behind the Christmas Continental Market.

Stopping scores of simultaneous protests may have been impossible, but what about the weekly Saturday afternoon parade to the City Hall? People coming from the east and the north, walking on the road, week after week.

There were thousands of people involved. If you’re going to close down the east, you have to close down the north. And the routes in were significant. There were large numbers. It created a huge public safety risk. Not just an obstruction but a huge public safety risk in terms of crowd dynamics, the rioting but also we had to look at the consequence of doing that there across what would happen in Newtownabbey? What would happen in Londonderry? The dynamic you set in one place affects elsewhere as well. The main thing in Belfast was – and I was visiting the command room and seeing the depth of the decision making which was fantastic – was looking at all the consequences of doing that.

I said at the time, I’d rather be accused with the benefit of hindsight of being risk averse than having been accused of being over zealous and still having the public order, and having people killed, people seriously injured, and absolutely seeing the political consensus completely fall apart. And that’s with the benefit of hindsight.

Is that political consensus affecting policing, or policing trying to create space for political conversations to happen? Matt Baggott went on:

There are legal frameworks around the Human Rights Act and around specific legislation that our job is to comply with. Sometimes that is not an exact science but we stick to that same decision making. To be told you should have been sweeping people off the streets in a completely impractical way which may have made things worse I don’t think is always the best judgement call to make. My job is to be impartial. I’d rather be risk averse and see where we have nobody seriously hurt, a great opportunity now to explore real grievances, coming up to the marching season with a less volatile situation than where we might have been if I had just said go and sweep them off the streets in North Belfast and see what happens.

There has been no violence in Belfast city centre since the first evening of the flag protest. However, there has been plenty of violence and a rise in interface tensions on the outskirts of the city centre. Many people in many communities will feel that their grievances have yet to be addressed by the PSNI.

Boston College/Belfast Project tapes

The US Supreme Court last week declined to hear the appeal over the release of the republican oral history tapes from Boston College’s oral history project – the Belfast Project. Why did the PSNI want to hear those tapes?

It’s not because I want to hear them. It’s because a modern police service operates within the rule of law. And Article 2 is very clear we have to pursue effective investigations into murders and unsolved murders. And when there’s evidence becomes available we have an absolute duty to take every investigative line to pursue where the evidence takes us.

The decision making on whether there is an evidential possibility of a charge being brought or whether there is a public interest in doing it is not mine. And I think there is still a confusion particularly since devolution is so new about the role of the police. Our role is simply to gather fact, to investigate crime, and then present that to the Public Prosecution Service.

So whether it’s a Boston tape, or whether it’s a historical murder, there is no amnesty in Northern Ireland but there is the law. And the law is part of the devolution of policing and justice and my job as the impartial Chief Constable is make sure we pursue that impartially.

It would have been more straightforward to go and talk directly to the people involved? Dolours Price was around and talking to nearly anybody about her experiences?

Well no. You see you have to pursue tangible evidence. And if there are tapes in existence which contain evidence, which corroborate or may not – I don’t know what’s in them. It may corroborate, it may disprove. Following facts isn’t about provability. Sometimes it’s about disproving. It’s facts. You just follow the facts.

Reminiscences or war stories of people involved in a struggle will hardly be reliable fact that can go to court?

Ultimately whether a charge is sustained at court is a matter for the independent Public Prosecution Service. That’s where the justice system works. It works with the police pursuing facts, investigating, the Public Prosecution Service making decisions and then the courts robustly testing that evidence through due process. It’s not my job to say oh we’re not going to do that because it might not, it may be inconvenient … My job is to make sure we impartially deliver effective investigations.


Policing wasn’t squeaky clean during the Troubles. To a greater or lesser extend, collusion happened. Could it happen today?

In terms of local policing, in terms of the breadth and depth of policing, I don’t think you can ever in an organisation of this size discount the possibility that you will have police officers who step outside the law. It would be foolish. I ran anti-corruption in the West Midlands. I know the reality of that.

I sit over police misconduct appeals here and we have a proactive anti-corruption unit which works hard at this. So you wouldn’t expect me to say no no never because corruption and collusion come in all sorts of forms. But I would say though is I think the integrity of this organisation is world class. Because we have our own imposed accountability through our own internal investigations, but also the checks and balances from the Regulation and Investigative Powers Act, the Police Act, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the way the justice system scrutinises us, the PPS and the courts, plus the fact we now have the Office of Surveillance Commissioners doing robust inspections of how we manage informants, how we manage intelligence, our legal compliance. I’ve just had a letter from them talking about our grip and they used the word outstanding. So in terms of the whole level of legal and governance and external scrutiny it’s never been a cleaner organisation.

The G8 Summit & drones

Three thousand police officers from England, Scotland and Wales will be coming to Northern Ireland to help police the G8 summit. PSNI trainers are already working with them. Northern Ireland protests tend to be relatively small in scale. Some of the officers coming across from GB will give the PSNI an injection of experience around large crowd dynamics and how to police very large, peaceful protests. But will their unfamiliarity with the security threat not make them an operational risk, scared and vulnerable?

They’re very excited actually by coming here. Most police officers like to experience new challenges … [On] the assurance front. Firstly their training is already in place. Exceptional good feedback. I have some of the finest trainers in the world here who are over there training at the moment. The equipment they get will be world leading too. Their supervision will be very effective and we’re not going to put them in roles beyond their capability. Many people are used to dealing with public order problems. Their role will be limited. My hope is they won’t be needed.

I have the Olympics team working alongside me who managed the Olympics … I have the international support from the Canadians who held their own G8. So we have a lot of people alongside us who are very able in managing huge events. I’m very confident it will be a huge step forward for Northern Ireland.

Under “novel and contentious expenditure” the Policing Board recently agreed to the PSNI’s plan to buy a number of drones in time for the G8. But is there a continuing use for them after the summit?

Air support is critical to us. Technology itself is part of modern policing. Whether that’s the Blackberries we give officers now to cut through all the hours spent writing stuff, whether it’s satellite tracking in cars, whether it’s the new call management software, you can’t deliver policing into the next decade without the use of modern technology. It’s [an] incredibly cost effective way of delivering air support. So for me it’s an immense step forward and I’m very grateful to the Policing Board …

Two years ago we weren’t in a place to buy them yet. I wanted to do a huge amount of international research first of all because people see drones in Afghanistan, but actually what we’re buying is a much more in line of sight, compliant with the Civil Aviation Authority. A couple of years ago we weren’t in a position to do this but actually G8’s accelerated that and quite rightly so. These will be uses in a whole range of areas. As indeed they are by the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency already.

An example was given of drones being useful to search for missing persons in areas not easily reached on foot.

Social media

Social media is a policing tool as well as a source of crime. Are we going to see a big increase in the number of arrests for online hate crimes and other offenses?

I think social media gives people the opportunity to be foolish in the sense they don’t have to think so much about what they’re saying and the impact of that. How the law applies to social media is something that has had to be looked at in quite some detail in the past year. In England and Wales the Crown Prosecution Service only got to public guidance at the end of last year, 2012. So we’ve taken that guidance.

At the moment what we’re doing is if we get what we think are offences being committed on social media we will report those to the Public Prosecution Service who will make the prosecutorial decisions. And we have prosecuted some people. But for what some people think is offensive, under the law may not be criminal, and that’s that gap. We’ve taken the guidance from England and Wales, the PPS are looking at that here at the moment, and where we do have overt offences we will pursue them but the laws not quite so straightforward as people think it might be.

In yesterday’s post, a few people picked on the Chief Constable’s mention of seven people being employed to work on PSNI social networking. (There are numerous area-based Twitter and Facebook accounts. The PSNI suggests that across their Twitter accounts they have amassed 175,000 followers, “the greatest number of any other police”.)

Is there any proof yet that PSNI activity online is an effective means of communication and brings results.

I’m not sure. I think people go onto Twitter. They go onto the blogs now. Just look at people in the street looking at their iPhones, accessing social media to see that communication in the future is much more about that. We can’t afford to be behind the times. People have a thirst for policing, they have a thirst for knowledge. We need to get information out there. Sometimes that’s critical in terms of protecting life.

We do have a down side which is rumours can spread very quickly. There’s been some cases where someone fears for example abduction, puts the wrong vehicle out there, it gets changed, it gets morphed, and before you know where you are if you’re not careful you’ve got mob rule. And that’s a worry to us, particularly in emotive crimes. But we have to live in the social media.

It doesn’t sound like the Chief Constable will be getting his own Twitter account soon. He worries that social media could push the police towards “giving opinions as opposed to fact and view and sometimes explanation”. He’s also mindful that in other forces, individual police offices have “almost become celebrities in their own right”.

… if you’re not careful you almost get sucked into being the inner thoughts of Matt Baggott rather than do we have confidence in the Chief’s impartiality and the fact that he lets others speak for him when it’s more appropriate rather than putting out messages that may more be about just my own ego. We’re not celebrities. We are police officers. We have to get that balance right.

Crystal Palace

A witness to Eric Cantona’s flying kick into the crowd, Matt Baggott is a keen Crystal Palace supporter. A few days into his role in Northern Ireland he was given a Crystal Palace pencil case (and possibly also a team scarf) while on a walkaround in Derry. Palace are quite near the top of the table. Last Thursday, Matt Baggot’s analysis was:

They’ve just scored one point out of the last fifteen. It’s all looking a bit fraught We need a recovery plan. Four games left and we need at least six points. You’ll either find me weeping or celebrating in a month or so’s time. Looking pretty grim at the moment.

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