A report released today by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) has said the toppling of the Edward Colston statue during a protest last summer was difficult to predict.
The report on the policing of protests includes a section on the Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol last June, which resulted in the slave trader’s statue being pulled down and rolled into the city’s harbour.
The HMICFRS inspectors recognised there was no specific intelligence to suggest the statue would be toppled and in the absence of a reasonable belief this would take place, police could not use powers under the Public Order Act to put any conditions on the route of the procession. It said a statue toppling was a “very rare occurrence” in the UK.
The report goes onto say: “The police received a lot of criticism on social media and in the press following the damage to the statue. Having examined the facts, we don’t believe this criticism was fully justified.
“It is clear that, even in the absence of any intelligence to indicate that the Colston statue was going to be attacked, the multi-agency strategic group did consider the possibility of graffiti. Police attendees at the meeting told us that they weighed up the risks of what they thought may be minor damage to the statue against the risk of provoking major disorder by covering it up.
“Without intelligence to suggest the protesters’ intentions, it would have been difficult to predict that the statue would be pulled down. In the UK, this is a very rare occurrence.”
The inspectors praised Chief Constable Andy Marsh’s comments to the media in the aftermath of the protest, calling them “measured and sensible”.
In interviews at the time, the Chief Constable said: “We had deployed officers to respond to take appropriate action but the commanders on the ground made the decision that to intervene to arrest suspects would likely lead to injuries to suspects, injuries to officers. People who were not involved in damaging property being drawn into a very violent confrontation with the police that could have had serious ramifications for the city of Bristol and beyond.
“Can you imagine scenes of police in Bristol fighting with protesters who were damaging the image, the statue, of a man, who is reputed to have gathered much of his fortune through the slave trade? I think there would have been very serious implications.”
Following the release of today’s report, Chief Constable Marsh said: “I welcome this fair and measured report into our policing response to the Black Lives Matter protest, which resulted in the toppling of the Colston statue; an event which captured the world’s attention at a time of intense debate about ongoing racial injustice in society.
“The report recognises the toppling of the statue was not a spontaneous act and protestors had brought ropes to the location to carry out this act. There was no intelligence or indication to suggest this was going to take place ahead of the protest and the statue was brought down in the space of less than two minutes, giving us no time to respond.
“The inspectorate recognises many of the criticisms levelled at the response of our officers and staff have been unfair and that once the statue had been toppled, the situation would have been inflamed had we take action to stop it being rolled into the harbour, creating the potential for serious disorder and injury.
“One criticism regularly levelled at our force is why we allowed the protest to go ahead in the first place during a pandemic. It’s important to remember that when this event was held, an exemption was included within the national COVID-19 restrictions which permitted demonstrations to take place under specified circumstances.
“Our officers and staff undergo rigorous training to deal with the full range public order incidents and we have a proud history of facilitating and managing protests with fairness, legitimacy and proportionality at the heart of our policing operations.
“I whole-heartedly believe the command team made the right decisions on the day in extremely unique circumstances in the best interests of the communities we’re honoured to serve.”