20 Dec 2011

Lawyers dispute police ‘right to shoot arsonists’

A police review says arsonists could be shot, while guidelines are needed on the use of plastic bullets and water cannon. But one leading lawyer tell Channel 4 News: “This is not the rule of law.”

Liverpool fire during riots (R)

The latest police review into the riots, frm Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), says that officers have the right to use live ammunition on rioters in some specific circumstances, giving the example of an arsonist who sets fire to commercial premises that are attached to residential propery. The report also argues that there should be clearer rules, allowing police to use plastic bullets and water cannon.

But could an armed officer shoot someone who is about to set fire to a building? Lawyers say it is not as clear cut as the report suggests.

They say the more important question is why police should turn to increasingly severe tactics, when it could increase the volatility of riot situations rather than calm them down.

‘Reasonable force’

Bhatt Murphy is a leading law firm dealing with human rights issues and claims against the police. Solicitor Raju Bhatt told Channel 4 News that while the police can use “reasonable force” when faced with someone who is a threat to life, arson might not fall into that category.

“My understanding of the law would certainly not allow the police to shoot arsonists for the heck of it. If they have someone facing them with a weapon that could result in fatal injury, they can use reasonable force to combat that threat. But just the fact of someone torching a residential block is not necessarily enough.

“It doesn’t take more than common sense to see that lethal force isn’t always the right answer – you would have to show the person couldn’t have been apprehended.”

Plastic bullets

Also discussed in the review are rules surrounding use of plastic bullets and water cannon. Although plastic bullets have never been used on the British mainland, the police have had the power to deploy them since 2001. They were used extensively in Northern Ireland against demonstrators, along with rubber bullets from 1976. The HMIC recommends making clear the guidelines for their use, so that they can be available more easily to officers.

Also on the agenda is whether water cannon could be used more frequently. There are none on the UK mainland currently, but the Metropolitan Police are considering buying four cannon at a cost of nearly £4m.

Are there alternatives to bullets and water cannon?

The idea that the riots could have been avoided without recourse to heavier-handed police tactics is shared by the home affairs select commitee. In a report out on Monday, the committee, led by MP Keith Vaz, was highly critical of police tactics over the summer and said that the riots might not have escalated so quickly if police had “appreciated the magnitude of the task”.

The committee said that more police officers rather than more powers to deploy tougher tactics – such as plastic bullets and water cannons – could have helped police maintain better control of the streets.

Northern Ireland

Mr Bhatt said: “We have seen what water cannon and plastic bullets have done in Northern Ireland. We have seen how the rule of law came to be perverted there. Can we afford that kind of injury to the fabric of our society? The answer so far has been no and I like to think we have a strong and vibrant civil society that would not support that.”

Other human rights activists have said that there would be better approaches than increasing use of force.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: “The police have always been able to use violent force to save lives in extreme situations. No new power or strategy is required for that to remain the case.

“But how on earth would bullets have quelled and not inflamed this summer’s riots? Didn’t the widespread disorder all begin in Tottenham with a fatal police shooting?”