OPINION - Sir Mark Rowley: Protest is an important right, but it is limited
The Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III and Her Majesty Queen Camilla was an historic moment of huge national significance. We are proud to have successfully ensured its safety and security despite the most challenging, fast-moving and complex policing picture we have ever encountered for a national celebration.
This was the largest security operation the Metropolitan Police has ever led – 11,500 officers and staff and volunteers from across the Met, along with those who joined us from across the UK and overseas did an incredible job alongside over 6,500 military ceremonial troops.
Months of planning for Operation Golden Orb, preparation and coordination, together with swift response to escalating intelligence, ensured this event went ahead without disruption.
With 312 of the world’s leaders and dignitaries in the area being protected by 800 Close Protection officers, no practical alternative processional routes in the small footprint of central Westminster and hundreds of thousands looking to enjoy this event we explained in advance that there would be a low tolerance of disruption and zero tolerance of security and safety threats. It is in this extraordinary, almost unprecedented, security context that our officers operated.
The UK, and London in particular, has a long history of policing protest. Last year we policed more than 4,000 events and protests in London, 500 were protest-specific and involving millions of people. Over half of these pass without any arrest being made. We do everything we can to respect protest.
Protest is an important right in any democracy, but it is limited and has to be carefully balanced alongside consideration for the rights of others so they too can go about their normal business – in this case participating in a once-in-a-generation event. Parliament has created laws requiring police to act to bring this careful balance.
By Friday evening, only twelve hours from the Coronation, we had become extremely concerned by a rapidly developing intelligence picture suggesting the Coronation could suffer. This included people intent on using rape alarms and loud hailers as part of their protest which would have caused distress to military horses. We also had intelligence that people intended to extensively vandalise monuments, throw paint at the procession, and incur on to the route.
Adding to our concerns, military colleagues shared their worries about how some of this disruption would significantly unsettle their 160-strong mounted regiments, with the potential of causing multiple serious injuries and compromising public safety. The threat was so concerning that on Friday the Home Secretary and Mayor were given late-night briefings as plans were being put in place.
Clearly, this would not only have been unlawful, but also extremely dangerous. Officers worked around the clock to try to identify the full criminal network, establish the detail of their plans, and make arrests.
While we said that our tolerance for disruption of the Coronation celebrations was low, it was not zero. I must challenge those claiming there was a ‘protest ban’ around the Coronation. This is simply not accurate. There were hundreds of undisturbed protestors along the route including a large group in Trafalgar Square, although small in comparison to the tens of thousands seeking to enjoy the event.
The intelligence and subsequent investigative work led to officers making arrests across multiple locations. These included arrests made for sex offences, illegal drugs and fighting but also groups who were believed to be involved in the type of criminal activities our intelligence had indicated. Officers have told me how the celebrating crowds applauded and cheered as they made 17 arrests in The Mall area close to the processional route and imminent to the start of the procession.
We are committed to sharing all of the information we can with the public to reassure people about our policing tactics. However, it is frustrating that there are things we are unable to share and investigations are ongoing. It is the hallmark of good policing when it prevents crime that it often goes unnoticed. But while our investigations continue, I can report that we found people in possession of possible lock-on devices and people that appeared to be purporting to be stewards of the event in possession of plastic bottles containing white paint which we believe were specifically to be used to criminally disrupt the procession and resulted in arrests for going equipped to commit criminal damage.
Much of the ill-informed commentary on the day is wholly inaccurate – for example protest was not banned. I want to be absolutely clear - our activity was targeted at those we believed were intent on causing serious disruption and criminality. Serious and reliable intelligence told us that the risks were very real. 53 individuals have been bailed and most of the following investigations will be lengthy as we work towards criminal charges.
However, on reviewing the evidence we will be taking no further action against the six Republic protestors arrested. Officers searched a vehicle on Saturday morning and found items which at the time they believed could have been used as part of a ‘lock on’ style protest. As I would expect the arresting officers were vigilant, curious, and proactive. They formed the ‘reasonable suspicion’ necessary to arrest for the new Section 2 Public Order Act 2023 offence of Being Equipped to Lock On, and these were the only arrests under the new legislation. Having now reviewed the evidence and potential lines of enquiry we do not judge that we will be able to prove criminal intent beyond all reasonable doubt.
While it is unfortunate that the six people affected by this were unable to join the hundreds of peaceful protestors, I support the officers’ actions in this unique fast-moving operational context.
The Coronation was one of the most significant events the Met has ever policed and presented a constantly evolving threat picture. I am immensely proud of the exceptional work of our officers who prevented criminal disruption, damage and danger destroying such a unique occasion.
Indeed, personally, I am immensely grateful to them that I am not currently trying to explain why we failed to prevent the perfect Coronation celebration being significantly disrupted or injury or harm to people witnessed on the world stage. In the coming weeks, months and years we will deal with further challenging events.
While too often polarised public commentary will criticise based more on bias than facts, we will always strive to pursue our responsibilities without fear or favour, acting on the information available on the day, and striving to strike that balance: protecting freedom of expression, as well as the rights of Londoners, and visitors, to enjoy our city.
Sir Mark Rowley is Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service