Predicting a riot? Call the cops. Police officers from Gloucestershire Constabulary have been training to prepare for mass-scale deployment for riots or other conflicts. Reporter Michael Yong gets into gear to find out just how hard they hit.
“We are the thin blue line.”
Those are the words of PC Steve Gardiner, an instructor with the public order department at Gloucestershire police.
More than 20 officers from all over the county were part of a level two refresher course this week at the police training centre in Cheltenham.
The training is aimed at helping officers diffuse difficult situations, either by communication, or force if needed.
The public order coordinator PC Paresh Bhadeshia, 49, said: “What we are practising today is derived from real-life scenarios.
“It is how it is these days. Officers have to be able to manage the situation they are being put in.”
I was greeted at the entrance by press officer Simon Masters, who explained the day’s scenarios.
In the morning, officers are to face scenarios derived from Operation Themis – the force’s response to the badger cull last year.
Plain clothes police constables played cull protesters, helped ably by students from Stroud College. Actual campaigners during the cull were invited to take part in the exercise, but they declined the invitation.
During last year’s 12-week operation, police officers had to balance reports from marksmen, farmers and cull protesters every night in the cull zone.
And the operation highlighted certain scenarios which immediately became familiar to me, after reporting from the cull zone last year.
In the first scenario, officers had to search four people suspected of damaging a badger sett.
“It was clear from the word ‘go’ the mock protesters were not just there for show.
A heated argument broke out between a ‘protester’ and constables, leading to his forceful arrest. It was a situation faced by many officers during last year’s operation.
Another situation was when a group of protesters claimed to be harassed by a farmer following them. It led to loud arguments and shouting matches, with the officers finding ways to diffuse the situation.
Farmer Simon Pain, vice-chairman of the National Farmers’ Union Gloucestershire, took part in the exercise. Last year, he helped mediate between police officers and cull operators.
“I was in a similar situation last year, when I was served a police warning after a confrontation with some of the protesters,” he said.
“I’m a law-abiding citizen, so to be served a notice was scary. The chaps with me were petrified.
“It was a good experience, to understand how the police work.”
But in the afternoon, things really kicked off. Fully kitted out with helmets, body pads, riot shields and truncheons, the officers were put through their paces in dealing with a full-scale riot.
‘Rioters’ were given metal softball bats and started swinging out at their colleagues and barging through. The hits were hard and brutal, and the rioters were certainly not holding back.
The officers stood their ground, pushing back and hitting the rioters, pinning them to walls, and stopping them with the riot shields.
But it was not the end of it.
Rioters barricaded themselves behind a stack of rubbish, flinging bottles, traffic cones, wooden planks, crates and other furniture as officers tried to dig their way into a room.
“And as they retreated to a building, officers were forced to find a way to get in, breaking down a door while their colleagues shielded them from projectiles thrown from the second floor, including a mattress.
PC Bhadeshia, who has spent more than 15 years training officers, said: “I think it’s important we train as hard as possible, and make it as realistic as we can.
“When you are in a real situation, a person angry with you can be really strong.
“It is to make sure that when the officers are sent out to help with operations, it is not a shock to the system and they are prepared for it.”
Lessons learned during cull
Hundreds of officers were sent out as part of Operation Themis, Gloucestershire police’s response to the badger cull.
They faced new and difficult situations, coupled with late nights in the cull zone.
PC Bhadeshia chose Operation Themis as the background because most officers were pushed to their limits when it came to balancing various opinions from marksmen, farmers, and protesters.
PC James Taylor, 37, from Cheltenham said: “It was a very difficult time, very tiring. We did not have many rest days and some really hard situations to deal with.
“It was a testing time for the police, and very different from what we normally do.”
PC Mark Thomas, 38, from the Forest of Dean, added: “This exercise will certainly help with any similar situations in the future.
“It’s not easy, and very tiring when I did it.”
PC Simon Hartland, 35, from Cheltenham, was part of the operation last year.
He said: “It was quite difficult, and it was different.
“People would run away from you or people didn’t want to engage with you. Sometimes you were tested on what you can or cannot do.”
College learns from experience, too
Eight students from Stroud College were given an insight into how
police officers dealt with troublemakers.
Leading them on the day was Natalie Payne, a public services lecturer, who had been a special constable herself.
The former physical education trainer said: “It was a really good opportunity for the students, as many of them want to either become police officers or work in the military.
“They said it was an eye opener and they really enjoyed it. We were quite pleased with today, the students did learn a lot.”
The students were transformed into noisy protesters, confronting and challenging officers.
“We have been working with the
police for a little while now in their public order training, and it’s always rewarding,” Natalie said.
“It was good to be back for a while, and to see some familiar faces.”