With the Olympics less than a month away, small but noticeable changes are transforming London. Special signs in Olympic pink that guide visitors to venues have appeared, announcements at major London Underground stations have become multilingual and the first of the Olympics traffic lanes have been painted. More immediately disconcerting, however, is the appearance of Royal Military police in London. For those out in Leicester Square last Saturday night the Olympic-prompted mutual aid between the Metropolitan police's territorial support group and service personnel from the army and Royal Navy police was certainly a startling and confusing sight. It isn't every day you see patrols by officers in desert camouflage.
But beyond the unease generated by this development there are also concerns about how the use of these officers will play out in practice. Military personnel service police have statutory powers of arrest, but in the context of Olympics policing, their role will be to aid the police in dealing with the public. Here they officially have the same powers of citizen's arrest as anyone else does under section 24A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; yet, on their Saturday night patrol they were equipped with handcuffs – an article not typically afforded to even police community support officers.
One question that this immediately raises is of accountability. While we should not be quick to hold up the IPCC as a good example of holding police to account or fetishise what passes for police accountability, the deployment of service personnel without any mechanism for the public to make complaints to an independent body certainly worries. Lessons that have supposedly been learned from complaints against the police have taught us that it would be foolish to rely upon commanding officers to handle concerns raised about conduct of their officers.
This becomes even more of a concern when we consider that service personnel working with the police is just the beginning of the military's role at the Olympics. The Ministry of Defence will be providing 7,500 troops to Locog to provide security at venues. Moreover, it seems that while using the army to deal with the riots of last August was recognised as a threat to "policing by consent", a number of paratroopers have undergone public order training since and are ready for deployment during the Olympics. In the midst of concerns surrounding policing of public order situations, it should be unthinkable to use soldiers in this role. But just as it was once thought unthinkable to station missiles on top of apartments, it seems this could easily become reality.
It is beginning to look as if the state has declared war on its citizens.
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