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Why Police Can Whack You with Sticks, But Not Spray You with a Water Cannon

Theresa May won't let the police use water cannons, but are her safety concerns for real? Or Does she just want to annoy Boris Johnson?

A police water-cannon at a protest in Greece. Photo by Henry Langston

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Theresa May decided to buck the trend of Britain sliding towards a police state last week by announcing that she wouldn't be authorizing the use of water cannon in England and Wales. Would be protesters can rest easy with the knowledge that they won't have their eyeballs blasted out of their face with a jet of water by riot cops (as long as they steer clear of Northern Ireland).


Her decision has been seen as a snub against Boris Johnson, who a year ago decided to buy the Metropolitan Police Service three Wasserwerfer 9000, sold by the German federal police, fully kitted out with 67 faults that would need fixing before the cannons could be used to quell any disorder. Johnson was obviously trigger happy in his decision to purchase that water cannon, ignoring London Assembly members and the Police and Crime Committee's concerns.

But other than to annoy and disappoint London's Mayor—a gambit sure to undermine her competitor in the race to lead the Tory Party—why did May take the decision not to allow water cannon to be used? After all, it seems hardly in line with the attacks on protest we have seen since the Conservatives first came into power in 2010.

According to her speech to the House of Commons, the Home Secretary's rationale was threefold.

Firstly, despite their categorization as a "less lethal weapon"—a bizarre and oxymoronic description at best—concerns remain about the "direct and indirect medical risks from their use." Imagine a water jet up to 200 feet away throwing 2,200 liters per minute at you: someone is going to get hurt.

The other issue is whether deploying them would work at all. A water cannon doesn't magically appear out of nowhere as soon as some disorder happens, it takes time and warning to deploy. Fast moving mobile crowds can easily get away from water cannon, or, as May notes herself "vehicles may serve to attract crowds to a vulnerable location."


Lastly, the Home Secretary wants to point out that we apparently have a proud history of policing by consent and that the deployment of water cannon could be counterproductive for the "public perception of police legitimacy."

Johnson has hit back at May, writing in the Sun on Sunday that she was talking "absolute nonsense." "The police already have Tasers and clubs and any number of lethal guns. Does anyone 'consent' to be Tasered, for heaven's sake?"

Which seems like a reasonable point in a way. Why is it not OK for the police to douse you in water, whereas electrocuting you is quite alright? Underlying this debate are surely questions like, how much are the police actually allowed to harm you? And how much does that depend on the public's consent or otherwise?

Police horses charging student demonstrators in 2010. This is totally fine apparently Photo by Henry Langston

Campaigners on the issue of police brutality have had enough to deal with even without the introduction of water cannon. In 2010 Alfie Meadows, a student protester, nearly died after a police baton strike to the head that left him with injuries that would require emergency brain surgery. His mother spoke at the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime public meeting on water cannon in February 2014 and commented, "We have a right to protest. It is absolutely fundamental to our democracy. Protest is not the same as disorder, and I am absolutely certain that the presence of water cannon at protests would inflame the situation."


Alfie's case doesn't look that different from the killing of Blair Peach who died more than 30 years before the student protests at an Anti-Nazi League demonstration from head injuries after contact with the police. In neither of these cases has a police officer been held accountable yet. It seems that there is virtually no ceiling to the harm a police officer can do and get away with it. PC Andrew Ott was recently became the first and only police officer to be sentenced for an attack on a protester during the 2010 student demonstrations and that took the self-incrimination of unknowingly recording the details of precisely where he had acted criminally to force a conviction. Even then his co-defendants got off.

I asked Hannah Dee of [Defend the Right to Protest](I asked Hannah Dee of Defend the Right to Protest what impact May's decision should have on other forms of policing. First, she welcomed the decision and pointed out that it means water cannons should be removed from use in Northern Ireland, because there, ) what impact May's decision should have on other forms of policing. First, she welcomed the decision and pointed out that it means water cannons should be removed from use in Northern Ireland, because there, "the risks of broken bones and serious eye injures cited by experts during May's consultation are presumably no less."

She continued that, "It also calls for an immediate review of the range of other 'less lethal weapons' used by the police. If we are to believe Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan Howe's submission that water cannon offered a 'safe alternative' to the 'brutal alternatives' of 'batons and shields, dogs, and horses, CS spray and Taser' why are some of these tactics used so routinely against protesters? And why, given the role of CS spray and Taser in serious injuries and deaths are they not being immediately withdrawn?"


The use of Tasers seems particularly worrying as they are being carried by more and more police officers. At the end of last year two people died in the space of two months after police Taser use, which is a pretty big death toll for a "non lethal" weapon.

Sophie Khan, Solicitor Director at Sophie Khan and Co, a firm specializing in Taser misuse has noted that, "Since the roll out to non-firearms officers in 2009 there has been a significant rise in injuries arising from the use of Tasers. Police officers without firearms training are much more likely to reach for the Taser when it isn't necessary."

I spoke to Rachel Harger, a civil liberties paralegal, and she was also worried about misuse of these weapons. "Non-lethal weapons quickly become lethal ones in the wrong hands and there are plenty of examples to draw from," she said.

"The power of a water cannon is by its nature designed so that, regardless of who operates it, when simply aimed and fired at crowds it can cause life-changing injuries. Theresa May deliberately confined the basis of her decision on the technical problems with the water cannons themselves rather than the potential problems with their users; the police. This is why she was able to say she did not believe the cannons would result in life threatening injuries, yet the likelihood of such injuries increases when factoring in the misuse of supposed 'non lethal weapons.' Even the mis-use of CS Spray has contributed to significant injuries and in some cases, fatalities for example in the case of Oliver Scott."


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So whilst the effective ban on the use of water cannon in England and Wales is welcomed by those who specialise in campaigning around the effects of police use of force, there seems to be more to worry about when it comes to what weapons are strapped to an officers belt than from the driving cab of a Wasserwerfer 9000.

Taking all of this context into account, it's hard to accept that Theresa May's objection is based on a sudden and heart-felt concern about protesters' safety. While she says she can't countenance the possible injuries that water cannon could lead to, we hear nothing about the multiple deaths and near misses that police's use of force continues to cause.

It seems fair to suggest, then, that she's mainly worried about avoiding the bad press, negative public perception, and political implications that would arise from seeing water cannon deployed. That cops essentially having free reign when it comes to wielding other weapons is an issue that remains to be dealt with.

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