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Policing the G20 Summit Under the World’s Gaze

Commentary, 1 April 2009
Domestic Security, Europe
The G20 Summit will entail the biggest security operation London has ever seen. The manner in which agencies deal with the influx of heads of states and legions of protestors will be instructive for the 2012 Olympic Games.

The G20 Summit will entail the biggest security operation London has ever seen. The manner in which agencies deal with the influx of heads of states and legions of protestors will be instructive for the 2012 Olympic Games.

By Dr Tobias Feakin, Director, National Security and Resilience Department, RUSI

As the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations descend upon London to commence discussions to rescue an ailing global economy, organised protest groups and the public are eager to sharpen minds and stress the need for substantial change. However, it is the concern about the involvement of known anarchist groups and highly radical individuals that has led to a great deal of worry about potential violence on the streets of London.

The G20 security plan codenamed ‘Operation Glencoe’ (which one would hope is not named after the massacre in the Scottish Highlands in 1692) is costing, at a conservative estimate, £7.5 million. This would seem a small price to pay for securing the safety of twenty of the world’s most powerful heads of state, as well as policing seven large-scale demonstrations within the space of a week in the gaze of the world’s media. However, the discussions that the G20 leaders will have must lead to substantive change in global economic mechanisms for this amount to be deemed value for money. A high profile, ‘toothless’ meeting would lead to questioning of the high costs the UK taxpayer is incurring as host.

The multiplicity and scale of the events taking place in London has led to the largest security operation the capital has ever seen, and one that is both complex and difficult to conduct. Commander Simon O’Brien of the Metropolitan Police, who has been involved in the security planning, has commented that London will see an ‘almost unprecedented level of activity’ during this week. It is expected that at least 5,000 police officers (a conservative estimate) will be patrolling the streets of London. More than thirty police forces have contributed to the security effort, all leave has been cancelled for Metropolitan Police staff and forty armed convoys containing the G20 leaders will be protected by 1,200 security personnel.

Demonstrations May Turn Violent

On Wednesday alone, the police will be dispersed between four different protests taking place in the City of London, the US Embassy, Trafalgar Square, Canary Wharf and the ExCeL Centre, where the G20 summit will take place on Thursday. There are evident concerns about the potential for violent protest, as those around the G8 summit in Genoa were in 2001. Those riots led to the death of one person and injuries to many hundreds of others, as police responses to violent protestors became ever more aggressive. In those riots a violent minority amongst some 250,000 protestors, and a ‘heavy-handed’ approach by Italian police, led to some of the worst rioting seen in recent times on mainland Europe. This led to fifteen Italian police officers being found guilty of brutality in 2008 in relation to events in 2001, and the negative press that accompanied both the summit and the subsequent inquiries was damaging to perceptions of Italy as the host nation. A repeat of anything like this could be harmful for the UK in the build up to the 2012 Olympic Games.

Police Must Respond with Restraint

In facing large-scale protests, the police have to tread a fine line between maintaining control of the crowd and facilitating a citizen’s right to legal protest. Officers on duty this week will have to be wary of their actions, understanding that excessive use of force will lead to a high degree of scrutiny by both the public and the media. Even though their restraint will no doubt be challenged on occasions, the police should be ready to respond in a responsible and proportionate manner rather than one that is overly aggressive. However, this should not curtail their ability to act in a swift and decisive manner in the face of violence, as this will be paramount in stemming the potential for damage to property around the centre of London. With intelligence suggesting that members of anarchist groups from all over Europe are arriving on UK shores, and a high level of internet activity from those groups relating to violent action, London needs to be prepared for the worst. Banks have advised their workers to dress down and postpone non-essential meetings amid fears that they could be targeted by protestors venting their anger at the economic recession. This is something that was seen as AIG workers were targeted with death threats and random attacks from members of the public after President Obama publically criticised the bonuses being given to AIG’s senior staff.

Obama’s Presence Adds Significance

As Barack Obama undertakes his first big international meeting as president, the spotlight will be firmly placed upon him. He will be accompanied by hundreds of staff who have been planning his security detail for months. With death threats having been made, and on one occasion foiled, during Obama’s campaign for office from white supremacist groups, they are only likely to have increased in number since his inauguration. This, added to the high-value target he represents to terrorist groups, means that the potential for seeing the presidential hand waving from an open window whilst being driven in his heavily armour plated limousine nicknamed ‘The Beast’ could well be quelled by his accompanying security team.

The security planning around the G20 summit is rightly under sharp focus and the relative success of the plan can only be measured after the week is over. The conclusion will hopefully be a peaceful summit, whereby protests take place and citizens are able to demonstrate their anger at the current state of world affairs without resorting to violence. However, should matters escalate, the watching public and media will want to see that the UK is ready to calm violence rapidly, effectively, with restraint, and with absolutely no relation to the operation’s namesake.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Dr Tobias Feakin
Senior Associate Fellow

Dr Tobias Feakin is Australia's inaugural Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. He leads Australia's whole of government international... read more

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