My experience of being pepper sprayed was terrifying. When the spray hit my face, it burnt my cheeks, sending a wave of pain searing through me as it leached into my eyes. The police officer who sprayed me did so from a distance of about six inches.
When it happened to me, I hadn’t committed any crime and wasn’t acting violently.
The officer, on the other hand, has since been convicted of violent assault for beating a woman around the head. His actions should serve as a reminder of the dangers of giving the police new weapons, or weapons at all for that matter.
In some ways I was lucky. After a day or so my face stopped burning, and my vision returned to normal after a week.
Dietrich Wagner wasn’t quite so lucky. The 69-year-old retired engineer was left blind after a police water cannon in his German hometown of Stuttgart smashed into his eyelids.
Dietrich came to Britain to join campaigners in demanding that the Metropolitan Police think again before buying water weapons, during a six-week public consultation on the issue, which ended in February. His injuries, which stop him from reading, writing or cycling, should dispel any doubt: water cannon are an extremely dangerous weapon.
The clamour for water cannon in London, my hometown, came after protests and disturbances on the streets in 2010 and 2011. Theresa May has agreed to look into the proposal and Boris Johnson is keen on bring these new weapons to my city. But behind politicians’ tough talk, the truth about water cannon is being concealed: they won’t stop unrest. Boris Johnson himself has admitted that the weapon ‘would not have made a blind bit of difference’ in the London riots. Bernard Hogan Howe – the Metropolitan Police Commissioner now lobbying for water cannon – said in 2011 that it was ‘not the answer’. Senior figures in the police agree: water cannon is just not designed to deal with a situation like widespread looting.
In fact, the Association of Chief Police Officers admits the weapon is much more likely to be used against protesters like me. Its briefing on the plans sets it out in black and white: ‘There is no intelligence to suggest that there is an increased likelihood of serious disorder within England and Wales. However, it would be fair to assume that the ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest’.
Even the police themselves aren’t convinced. In fact, it’s hard to find a senior police officer outside the Metropolitan Police who supports the plans. Ian Blair, the ex-Met police chief, doesn’t think a good case has been made for their use in London, and five of the six largest police forces in England and Wales have said that they are against deploying water cannon.
But these weapons aren’t just ineffective; buying water cannon – which will cost the taxpayer up to $US1.67 million each – will be a step in the wrong direction for a police force that already lacks the public’s trust.
In a city like London, where the Met’s record for dealing with demonstrators is far from clean, the consequences of an increasingly tooled-up and dangerous police force will undoubtedly be negative. In the words of former Met officer Lord Paddick who has 30 years’ service: ‘Licensing the use of water cannon, their purchase and use on British mainland would be disproportionate and damaging to the reputation of the police service. Whichever way we look at it, water cannon are just not worth it’.
Every so often, politicians who compete to be seen as ‘tough’ on crime, suggest giving police new weapons to play with. They promise ‘strict guidelines’ to protect innocent people but, as the family of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes know all too well, police guidelines are often ignored.
My city doesn’t need water cannons, it needs a police force we can trust. Perhaps rather than arming officers with dangerous weapons, the government could investigate the causes of the protests they face and the riots of 2011. Allowing people to voice discontent – or even addressing their concerns – is surely better than attacking them with high-pressure streams of water when they take to the streets.