Water Wonderful World – Water Cannon

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series UK Police

Police hope to make a splash at the next riots

In the months following the 2011 rioting, the cross-party Commons Home Affairs Select Committee (as well as the Home Secretary Theresa May and various former senior officers) opposed police plans to use vehicle-mounted water cannons and rubber bullets against the public, saying that such measures would be an indiscriminate and dangerous way of further inflaming passions. The boys in blue also wanted increased powers, for example the ability to declare instant “no go areas”.

Highlights of the Select Committee’s report –

We cannot recommend any increase in police powers as a result of the August disturbances without seeing specific evidence of a need for such powers and none came our way during this inquiry … It is our view that in the situation then prevailing, it would have been inappropriate as well as dangerous, to have employed water cannon and baton rounds. We agree with our witnesses, including senior police officers that such use could have escalated and inflamed the situation further … Water cannon in particular are an indiscriminate weapon and could have affected innocent bystanders, as well as rioters.”

Fast forward to the present

Predictably, the police are still pushing for the ability to use water cannons against us. They’ve been angling to add them to their arsenals for years – travelling to Belfast after the 2005 Gleneagles G8 protests for a demonstration of the technology, asking to borrow some from Belgian police during the 2011 London riots (they couldn’t get them over quick enough by ferry and they wouldn’t fit in the channel tunnel), and considering their use during the Carnival Against Capitalism in 1999, the Countryside Alliance protests in 2004, the London G20 and Israeli Embassy protests in 2009, and the Millbank student protests in 2010. An investigation by the Independent on Sunday found that “Scotland Yard first began training officers to use the weapons in May 2008, a year before [the] G20. The same month senior Met officers considered a plan to buy six water cannons for ‘quelling or moderating violent disorder’ at a cost of £5m.” Police have also been increasing the number of officers trained in the use of baton rounds (“plastic bullets”), and now, disturbingly, the police state that they need water cannons because “ongoing and potential future austerity measures are likely to lead to continued protest”, with the qualifier that the weapons would have given them an “operational advantage” in the 2011 riots.

Previously opposed to the introduction of the cannon (stating in 2010 that he didn’t want to get into an “arms race”), Mayor of London Boris Johnson now claims that police need to “come down much harder” in order to prevent more riots, calling for the deployment of water cannon in London, and saying that it’s time to get “medieval” on rioters. Comparing the cannon to nuclear weapons, he promises that they would be “very, very rarely used if ever”, but argues that it’s important they should be in the police’s arsenal, suggesting that he as Mayor would hold veto over their use (police insist that this is not the case – they would retain ultimate operational control).

A poll carried out on behalf of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) suggested 68% of Londoners were in favour of the introduction of the cannon, although this hardly seems representative of the truth, given that only 4223 people were surveyed – not to mention that at least 40,000 UK residents have now signed petitions against their use, as well as the 16 MPs who have so far backed Early day motion 984, calling on Johnson and the Met to abandon their plans. Regardless, in January Boris wrote to the Home Secretary Home in support of the police’s request for water cannon. The Home Secretary herself has previously rejected calls for the deployment of cannon, saying;

I don’t think anybody wants to see water cannons used on the streets of Britain because we have a different attitude to the culture of policing here.”

The cannon have long been utilised in Northern Ireland (police purchased six in 2002), but only now look as if they will be permitted to be used on the UK mainland. The Association of Chief Police Officers, Boris and the Met have proposed buying three second-hand Ziegler Wasserwerfer 9000, at a total cost of approximately £200,000. When bought new, the cannon “cost from £600k to £1 million [each]. It is anticipated that a cannon would last between 25 and 30 years”. The German-built 30-tonne vehicle-mounted cannon can fire up to 18 litres of water a second, heated to 41F (5C) to “prevent the onset of medical conditions associated with the shock of being exposed to cold water”. It’s tanks hold 9000 litres of water, which it can “get through … in just five minutes if it is running at full pressure, although … operating for this length of time would be difficult to justify in terms of use of force”, and which can be replenished from either hydrants or open water sources. The vehicles carrying the cannon are equipped with searchlights and CCTV cameras and “can travel at speeds comparable to an HGV”.

Reportedly only three such vehicles are needed to ensure full operational capability across the UK. Senior officers at Scotland Yard want to take delivery of the weapons within months, which will be paid for by the Mayor, after the Home Office refused to funds for the purchase.

The cannon have been linked to causing broken bones, blindness (in Germany in 2010, a pensioner attending an environmental protest was permanently blinded), damage to long-term balance (caused by direct hits to ears) and other injuries. A report by the Association of Chief Police Officers notes three types of possible injury; a) those caused by the stream of water impacting the body, b) those caused by debris or other obstacles, and c) those caused by other objects hitting the body. The Ukrainian government recently lifted a ban on using water cannons in sub-zero temperatures, resulting in hundreds of injuries and at least one reported death from pneumonia, the Met themselves admit the cannon are capable of “causing serious injury or even death”, and a 2013 report by the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory found “good evidence … to indicate that serious injuries have been sustained by people subjected to the force of water cannon”. Furthermore, the vehicles on which the cannon are mounted have themselves been responsible for deaths and injury caused by impacting or running over civilians.

Water cannon as crowd control evolved from fire hoses, with the first truck-mounted versions appearing in Germany in the 1930s. A typical modern cannon’s high-pressure pumps require a large reservoir (commonly 9000 litres), and hence they are usually mounted on/in a large vehicle. Designed to withstand attack from projectiles, from the sides and above, these vehicles are extremely well armoured (although one German water cannon was reportedly disabled by a concrete-filled washing machine tipped off a building). Effective range is suggested to be between 50 and 90 metres, but the cannon are often used at closer quarters. Most of the modern cannon can also be fitted with alternative payloads – around the world it is becoming increasingly common to mark protestors with coloured or UV dye, and many models are also capable of adding tear gas to the stream. Indonesia and Turkey have used chemical solutions (such as ammonia) to attack targets, and the company Jaycor Tactical Systems has experimented with using salt and other additives to reduce the breakup of a water jet’s stream into droplets, allowing electricity to be conducted through water (delivery was demonstrated delivery from a distance of up to twenty feet, but as of writing the company had apparently not yet tested the device on humans).

Those petitioning for the addition of the cannon to the police arsenal claim now that any use would be restricted to the ‘basic’ technology of firing plain water, but can the present or future iterations of the powers that be really be entrusted to resist the temptations of increased function creep and the resultant weaponisation of such technologies, especially when they have failed to do so time and time again in the past?

It is anticipated that water cannon would be deployed in relation to planned events and serious disorder … Examples of where water cannon could be deployed include the following … defending a fixed and vulnerable/iconic location; separation of hostile crowds during demonstrations/disorder; creating distance between police and opposing factions; facilitating the advance of police resources and other emergency services to deal with life at risk incidents during incidents of severe disorder … Some perceive that the use of water cannon is not consistent with the British style of policing. There is however a public expectation that the police will deal positively with disorder and that the level of force used will be proportionate …The mere presence of water cannon can have a deterrent effect.”

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