20 Dec 2011

Rioters ‘could face live firearms’

Police dealing with rioters need clearer guidelines about when to use guns, plastic bullets and water cannon, according to a report into the summer disturbances by the Inspectorate of Constabulary.

A review from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has suggested that when rioters are posing a risk to peoples lives – for example, arsonists threatening commerical premises that are linked to people’s homes – there would be a justification for police to use firearms to shoot them. Legal advice justified shooting rioters given “the immediacy of the risk and the gravity of the consequences”.

The report also suggested there could be more use of plastic bullets and water cannon if riots similar to those seen across the UK this summer were to happen again. Plastic bullets were suggested as a response to barricades and missiles thrown by protesters, or if police witnessed violent attacks on the public or emergency services. They could also be used when petrol bombs are thrown.

Water cannon was described as an “effective means of dispersal and incur fewer injuries to the public” in slow-moving scenarios. There are currently no water cannons available on the UK mainland and cost more than £1m each.

The HMIC believes that if clear rules of engagement could be established, police would be better prepared to protect the public from violence and looting. It said that there is a need to set up “an agreed envelope of available tactics and associated use of force, that are likely to maintain public support.”

The recommendations are more severe than those of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which gave it’s reaction to the policing of the riots on Monday. The commitee, led by Keith Vaz MP was highly critical of police tactics over the summer and said that they might have been avoided if police had “appreciated the magnitude of the task.”

Read more: Lawyers dispute police 'right to shoot arsonists'

‘State effectively ceased to exist’

Mr Vaz said: “Individual police acted with great bravery… However, in London and some other areas, in contrast with the effectiveness of police responses in some towns and cities, there was a failure of police tactics. For those who lost their homes and businesses, the state effectively ceased to exist – sometimes for hours at a time.”

Rather than encouraging the use of plastic bullets, the committee recommended increasing the number of police officers and reacting more rapidly to disorder, saying: “The single most important reason why the disorder spread was the perception, relayed by television as well as social media, that in some areas the police had lost control of the streets.”

Ministers are also under pressure to speed up compensation payments to businesses and households left damaged by the August riots. Senior Liberal Democrat Lord Clement-Jones complained at question time in the House of Lords that thousands of households and businesses were still waiting for compensation from police authorities.

He said: “Some £3,500 has been paid out from the £200m or so claims, and many valid claims are being contested. This is quite unacceptable.”

What is an 'attenuating energy projectile'?
In police jargon, they are called an AEP - or attenuating energy projectile, writes Channel 4 News producer Stuart McTeer. The term that's more likely to be used in the headlines is plastic bullets.

37mm in diameter, encased in an aluminium shell, these bullets have been designed with a "squidgy top" PVC tip. Officers can fire them from as little as one metre away - they aim for the area of the body below the bottom rib.

The idea is that their force on impact is spread over a wide area. Being struck by one was described by a firearms instructor as feeling the same as a "good baton strike".

So far 60 of these AEP bullets have been fired on the UK mainland by armed officers in the last five years. They're regarded as a "less lethal" alternative to conventional ammunition.

Police insist these plastic bullets have not caused any serious injuries - just bruising and in one case a fractured hand.

However they have never been used in a public order incident on the UK mainland before.

And police are keen to stress that they are the "next generation" of baton rounds, which they stress stopped being used in 2002.

And they point their use is strictly monitored by senior officers. Marksman also have to justify every plastic bullet they fire.