UK court rules that kettling was illegal

A UK court has ruled that kettling -- the police tactic of surrounding peaceful protestors and beating anyone who tries to leave -- was illegal during the Climate Camp demonstration in 2009. This was the same demonstration where a policeman who'd illegally removed his badge struck a passing newsagent from behind. Ian Tomlinson, the newsagent and father of nine, died immediately afterward of internal bleeding.
Officers were told they were containing or detaining those in the climate camp to prevent a breach of the peace. Protesters would be held for hours. Notebooks secured from some officers contain admissions they used violence, but officers said this was to protect themselves or colleagues.

The protesters bringing the case say police were indiscriminate in detaining and isolating the peaceful climate camp. In documents setting out their case, their lawyers say: "The police took action against the climate camp as if it were a violent crowd ... That is how the instruction to impose containment was interpreted by officers on the ground."

The Metropolitan police says kettling, or detaining a mass of people, is a necessary tactic to tackle the potential for violence at demonstrations. The force and its lawyers are expected to study the judgment.

Kettling of G20 protesters by police was illegal, high court rules

(Image: Climate Camp - police eye view, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from bagelmouse's photostream)


  1. I spy a fairly large loophole:

    “The police may only take such preventive action as a last resort catering for situations about to descend into violence.”

    So, they can still kettle people, but only if they believe there is about to be violence.

  2. My name is Ian Tomlinson. I am a British citizen. The untimely death of this Ian Tomlinson has had a bizarre impact on my life. Perhaps a blessing of inter-web anonymity, I’ll never be the top google hit for my name. Or, perhaps a curse of social media devaluation. I’m not sure. But it is sure weird to keep on reading about how I am dead.

    Family (and particularly dotty grandparents) all had some bizarre and unfounded need in 2009 to urgently confirm that it wasn’t me despite a significant different age difference and a ~6,000 mile discrepancy in our respective locations.

    Oh, and kettling and other tactics being employed in England’s quest to become the utopian police state make me question whether I want to ever return. Of course, it isn’t much better here (the US) or really anywhere else.

    My apologies for a generally spurious comment in relation to the more important topic at hand. If I was named John Smith, I would probably be dulled to this emotional state.

  3. This is an important judgement, but its important to understand what it says, its clear that “kettleing” is legal, and will remain so in a large number of situations (including in some situations where it has been complained of) .

    However, this judgement reaffirms that the police can only use such tactics against protestors where there is animminent risk of a breach of the peace by some element. That word is important because it means (in the words of the court that the use of such tactics must be necessary, reasonable and proportionate those are legal terms the courts are very well versed in judging. In particular neccesity is a well understood test that (in the words of the court) “The test of necessity is met only in truly extreme and exceptional circumstances.”

    Legally, the judgement sheds little new ground but restates firmly principles the police have not always sought to remember. iIs factual conclusions are (imho) unusually bold for the high court but seems to have been arrived at through consideration of the cross-examination.

    The police are there to protect the public and prevent disruptive/violent behaviour. It is clear from the judgement that there was a good deal of this from the royal exchange protest that day (and from reports that there was a good deal of this from the UK uncut / black bloc protestors at the recent march for the alternative). But the police may not inhibit peaceful, non-disruptive protests.

    p.s (the judgement is freely available online, readable, and relatively short – readers might find it helpful

  4. This playbook is getting old–use illegal anti-demonstration tactics, get slapped on the wrist by a court years later, do it all over in another town next year. The details may differ, but the same basic strategy gets run everywhere, G20, U.S. political conventions, immigration rallies, etc.

    The only bit they forgot was to throw in some provocateurs to commit violent nonsense the police can later cite as justification.

    1. The only bit they forgot was to throw in some provocateurs to commit violent nonsense the police can later cite as justification.

      Silly cops, you always want to send one of your own out there with a rock. Just remember to give him some boots that aren’t standard police issue.

  5. Thanks ajbpearce, for making the point — the headline here is wrong, or at best overbroad.

    Kettling, when “necessary,” remains legal.

    While it may to some appear as cynicism, Roger Krueger’s take is also exactly proportionate to an understanding of the situation.

    Our proper role as citizens, according to the state, is to shut up and stay home. The search for ways to enforce this role is never-ending.

    The abuses can be expected to both continue and increase.

    1. It may be lacking in detail, in the way that short headlines are, but it’s not wrong or overbroad. It didn’t say that kettling IS illegal, but that, in this particular case, it WAS illegal. Our funny language.

  6. Does anyone know the origin of the Kettling strategy?
    I feel like there must be a power point presentation, or a video out there that’s used by the police for training purposes. I bet that’d be entertaining.

  7. Bear with me a minute. Just as a thought experiment, imagine you had to design a strategy to contain a genuinely violent mob; one that was too big or dangerous for the forces you had at hand to arrest safely. Let’s define violent as willing to harm other people. Actually, surrounding and containing them until they calmed down makes a kind of sense.

    But not pushing them into a space too small for them, or keeping them that way for six hours, or doing it at all to peaceful protesters.

    Kettling as it currently stands is designed to punish and humiliate, and the police have too much discretion.

    Interesting thoughts, anyway. And this is a limited sort of good news.

  8. The police may only take such preventive action as a last resort catering for situations about to descend into violence.

    A.k.a. the standard excuse for police all over the world to accost, brutalize and kill the people they are paid to protect. Works pretty much every time.

    Another lesson to be learned from all this (again): the misconduct police will exhibit toward people is at best, but by no means always, limited by what they are legally allowed to do and they are ever calling for the right to do more.

  9. I was at the main part of the London G20 and being an American I had no idea what I was in store for when I passed thru a narrow corridor of police and vans to enter the main staging area. The kettle was obviously pre-planned and executed like an SOP without any signs of violence. The only ‘violence’ I witnessed was when myself and a brave group of protectors breached a section of the detention camp. But when I returned later, being VERY careful to stay OUTSIDE the kettle I saw plenty of violence perpetrated by cops swinging batons at those still unfortunate enough to be inside the kettle.
    Still, I hold more respect for the typical bobbie on the street here whom I have seen show remarkable restraint than I do the knuckle-dragging cops of America.

  10. This type of article will only be real news when some court lays a huge penalty on the government for doing so. And I don’t mean a gentle slap–I mean millions and millions of dollars in fines, and prison terms for those who were responsible. In the current example, it’s just friends in government taking care of other friends in government, and means absolutely nothing.

    1. @M:

      I quite agree, but I’d prefer millions of *pounds* of fines. Then we would be talking.

      Not going to happen, though.

  11. As long as it remains in the hands of the police to determine when the situation is “about to descend into violence”, kettling will never stop. This ruling is a paper tiger. All it’s doing is giving police guidelines on how to better justify their use of kettling to a court.

  12. I don’t get it. The article makes it clear the police crossed the line – that what they did was illegal. But I don’t see anything about a penalty.

    A lot of people were hurt. Harm was certainly also done to democracy.

    Surely someone should lose their job, go to jail, or at least be demoted for this.

    Is there some news I missed?

  13. The british police have a long history of murdering civilians. The only progress here is that they’re admitting it two years later instead of twenty. Maybe by 2030 or so they might even apologize.

  14. The desire for retribution and for evil doers to be punished is part of our human makeup. It is an essential part of any social effort to promote the good and deter the bad.

    When it comes to police mis-behavior, the state appears to be abdicating responsibility.

    It remains the task of civil society to come up with enforceable methods that will deter police criminal activity.
    May it come true in our day, amen.

  15. Same thing happened in Toronto, Canada with its G20.

    Apparently when rich folks get together to talk about money and how they plan on getting more money, illegal police action and brutality is encouraged. Democracy VS Money, Money wins.

    What I think is really sad is that not only are these police officers human beings, but citizens of the same nation of people whom they act so deplorably against. I can’t fathom what kind of brainwashing, indoctrination, and dehumanization is require for them to act is such a way apparently so easily. Truly an abhorrent aspect of the human condition.

  16. Ian Tomlinson did not conclusively die of internal bleeding, at least from what I’ve read in the UK media.
    AFAIK, three different pathologists have given at least 2 different theories, either internal bleeding or a heart attack. can probably explain it better than I.

    1. Well, yes, but the three different pathologists break down like this: two of them agree that it was internal bleeding, and the other one has incidentally been suspended for, basically, being crap at his job.

  17. So, now that it has been established that the police acted illegally, does the UK have laws allowing a civil class action suit against them by the protesters for damages?

  18. Kettling likely wouldn’t work very well against an actually violent group. Unless, of course, the objective was to increase the number of injuries on both sides.

  19. There is only one way to stop police aggression against innocent protesters: the courts. The illegally detained in Toronto and London and Scotland and everywhere, have to sue their City for damages and lost rights.

    Other protesters have won settlements in the millions in other cities. That is a huge incentive to Cities to train their police better, train them in rights, teach them that their personal political beliefs are not the same as the law, and teach them what situations actually require the use of force, and which uses of force will cost the city millions, or tens of millions, or if the ‘Toronto 1000’ get a million each, maybe a billion dollars.

    Yep there’s a path forward toward rights, and a hard clean path it is.

    1. “There is only one way to stop police aggression against innocent protesters: the courts.”

      Actually, that’s not true. You would do well to remember that the courts are part of the offending government, not apart from it. Don’t expect a police state to wake up one day and decide not to be a police state. The court just had its chance to remedy things and it dodged it. The historical solution to this problem is that when the people have had enough, the streets will fill with blood. Will the English people one day wake up and decide they’ve had enough?

      1. “You would do well to remember that the courts are part of the offending government, not apart from it.”

        Well, that’s not entirely true. If it were then you would expect the courts to never interpret the law in a way that did not favour the government. Even the law lords (certainly a part of parliament at least until they became our “supreme court”) ruled against the last government a couple of times on ECHR matters.

  20. in the US, any death during a crime resulting from illegal actions committed by one conspirator is charged to all conspirators in a crime as if they pulled the trigger themselves. every one of these police officers should be tried and found guilty of murder and sent away for life. they are the danger.

  21. “@M: I quite agree, but I’d prefer millions of *pounds* of fines. Then we would be talking.”

    Fines are useless… it hurts the general public as it comes out of taxes… the ONLY thing that concentrates the minds of the heirarchy is personal jail time and/or personal fines and/or loss of job and pension rights… that’s when you see them erecting scads of procedural bumph to go through such as risk assessments etc. For a subordinate to fail to ensure every last t is crossed and every last i is dotted and every last box on the massive checksheet is checked with evidence in triplicate means that the heirarchy can dump it on the subordinate…

  22. So when are they going to put these cops in jail for their crimes?

    or do we have to do this ourselves?

  23. Seems reasonable, if the crowd could become a danger why not just encircle them and then beat anyone senseless that tries to escape. I mean at a calm protest who would panic when surrounded by cops with riot gear slowly approaching a crowd of protesters and braining those that try to leave. Sadly this tactic seems to be used most everywhere in the world today. As soon as someone panics and tries to fight their way through the circle of cops the cops get the result they wanted which was being attacked so they can in turn say they were protecting themselves and go on to beat anyone not in riot gear that’s near them.

  24. You know, there is an answer here.

    So, the police that are doing this are assuming that this is a violent situation, and treating the people as if they’re violent offenders, as well as, in certain situations, using agent provocateurs to turn it into a violent situation.

    So, if it’s going to become a violent situation anyway, why not just come prepared for it to be one, and open fire upon (or, if firearms aren’t readily available in your country, stab) the corrupt cops, en masse?

    If it’s a situation in which the cops are outnumbered and can’t arrest people quickly enough, if it goes violent, the cops will lose BADLY.

  25. @bhtooefr:

    Well, the pragmatic argument against that is that the cops are wearing body armour and carrying shields, and the protesters aren’t?

    And the ethical argument — do I even need to point out the ethical argument? If the police beating up protesters is wrong, what is the protesters stabbing police?

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