While no guidelines outlining the function of Police Liaison Officers (PLOs) have been publicly released, official police literature very much frames them in benignant terms, a separate class to those citizens might encounter in the course of an average day.
"PLOs provide reassurance to protesters, counter-protesters and community members. [They] act as a disorder monitor in the crowd, diffuse tensions and ensure information is shared between police and protesters. Their ultimate aim is to allow protesters to have their say without overstepping the mark. PLOs have a roaming brief so can move freely around trying to identify and deal with any issues," West Midlands Police write.
While a laudable raison d'etre in theory, behind the newfangled, friendly face of public order policing in the UK lurks a reality many may find profoundly troubling — for PLOs can play a highly insidious role, spying on protests and protesters far more effectively than their traditional police counterparts ever could.
Spying on Protests
Kevin Blowe, a coordinator at the Network for Police Monitoring, says that ever since the introduction of PLOs, campaigners have expressed concern these apparently friendly officers operate primarily to gather intelligence.
After all, their modus operandi is to engage protesters in conversation and build relationships with attendees — both activities could directly and indirectly provide PLOs with information of much value to law enforcement, and critics feel it highly improbable this potential wouldn't be routinely exploited.
"Unlike some other countries, the UK doesn't generally rely on lines of riot cops to violently suppress protests. Policing is very much focused on intelligence gathering and building up profiles of targets. PLOs clearly serve this purpose — apparently very effectively. I don't think they were ever intended to be about dialogue. For a very long time, police chiefs denied their role was about intelligence, sticking to the line these officers were merely there to facilitate protests. We knew that wasn't true — and there have been several admissions, both public and private, to prove this," Kevin told Sputnik.
For example, on July 27 2012 over 500 cyclists set off from London's South Bank as part of the Critical Mass cycle ride. The monthly event is usually convened without official restriction, but on this occasion it coincided with the opening night of the Olympic games in the capital — as a result, authorities imposed conditions on the timing and the route of the procession under Section 12 of the Public Order Act.
When cyclists assembled that evening, they were met by a team of PLOs, led by Chief Inspector Sonia Davis, who communicated the specific conditions of the Section 12 notice, and handed out maps highlighting areas cyclists were prohibited from entering. Subsequently, in the largest group arrest ever undertaken by the Metropolitan Police, 182 riders were taken into custody for breaching these conditions.
Two months later, with prosecutions against seven riders ongoing — all others had been dropped, or the individuals acquitted — Chief Inspector Davis testified in court. Initially, she parroted the official line that PLOs were simply protest facilitators — although under cross-examination by defense lawyers, she eventually admitted they did gather "information" on protests and protesters, but claimed this was contrastive to "intelligence".
"Her shocking exposures did not end there — she revealed PLOs were also deployed covertly at June's Critical Mass ride, with some monitoring the event on foot, and others on bicycles pretending to be participants, in order to identify "organizers" and other key figures," Kevin told Sputnik.
She also played a role in identifying those she'd spoken to and apprised of the Section 12 restrictions. In a perverse irony, riders who'd engaged with PLOs before the protest were at greater risk of prosecution — after all, only those aware of the restrictions would be committing an offense by breaching them.
"The report was critical of PLOs but only because they weren't used "in as effective a manner as possible", and it was unclear how PLOs fed back the intelligence to senior officers. Its conclusion recommended creating an "an appropriate intelligence sterile corridor" between PLOs and senior officers, ensuring safe, direct transmission. This kind of reporting from junior to senior officers is unusual and shows how much value the police place in the information PLOs might gather," Kevin told Sputnik.
If yet further confirmation was needed that PLOs are primarily intelligence gatherers rather than protest facilitators, it was provided by a cache of internal documents obtained by Netpol via freedom of information requests.
One — ‘Standard Operating Procedure for the Operational Deployment of Protestor Liaison Teams' — clearly stated PLOs were "likely to generate high-quality intelligence from the discussions they are having with [protest] group members". It also stated PLOs must ensure "all intelligence is recorded on Crimint [the Metropolitan Police criminal intelligence database]" and "passed to Bronze Intelligence for analysis and dissemination to Silver and the rest of the Command Team (in the same way as any other intelligence)".
Moreover, in discussing identified benefits of PLO deployments "so far", the document listed; "enhanced knowledge of protest groups and their intentions"; "greater acceptance of police among protest groups" where PLO presence in the crowd "becomes the norm"; "significant improvement in intelligence flow and feedback to enhance future MPS operations". Other documents include ‘Protester Tactics', ‘Crowd Psychology and Communications', and ‘Engagement and Involvement'.
"The standard official line now is PLOs aren't primarily for intelligence gathering, but if they just so happen to pick something up in the course of their duties, then of course they remain police officers. That's simply an attempt to maintain the fiction this isn't primarily what they're there to do. It's clear anything they hear or see on a protest is noted down and tucked away for future reference. Whether that's to build a file on a movement, understand who its key decision-makers and allies are or even to steer the activities of undercover officers, it's used to target and undermine campaigns and identify individual campaigners for further surveillance," Kevin told Sputnik.
The review also called for greater clarity about the precise role of Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT). FIT officers were effectively the forebears of PLOs, responsible for "[establishing] dialogue with individuals and groups to gather information and intelligence" alongside identifying individuals and groups "who may become involved in public disorder".
However, HMIC noted the role of FITs had "shifted significantly over the past few years, with FITs now often deployed in personal protective equipment and accompanied by photographers to identify and obtain information about protesters", despite police public order manuals not explaining the purpose for which this information is required. This lack of clarity created "the potential for FIT officers to act outside their lawful powers".
"The irony is many campaigners, particularly those attending the kind of protests involving peaceful civil disobedience where the police say they want dialogue with participants the most, simply don't trust PLOs any more. They're seen as intelligence-gatherers.and not trusted. The police have destroyed, any prospect of those officers ever genuinely playing a facilitative role," Kevin told Sputnik.