Water cannon useful for public disorder, Orde tells UK forces

A man on top of a police landrover gets blown off by the water cannon. Picture by David Fitzgerald.
A man on top of a police landrover gets blown off by the water cannon. Picture by David Fitzgerald.

Water cannon could fill a gap in the police’s armoury in England and Wales for dealing with public disorder, a senior officer said yesterday.

Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who deployed the machines when he was chief constable of Northern Ireland between 2002 and 2009, said they were a proportionate technique “to buy you space in certain situations”.

There was no need for their use to damage police-community relations, and there was no evidence of serious injury associated with them in deployments in Northern Ireland, he told the London Assembly police and crime committee.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson and the Metropolitan Police are aiming to buy three of the machines to have ready for use in the capital this summer, as long as Home Secretary Theresa May agrees to license their use.

Sir Hugh told the committee: “There is a gap in the armoury in England and Wales which could be filled by the availability of water cannon.

“In Northern Ireland, without it, I would have had more injured officers.”

Asked whether the machines would be suitable in London’s narrow streets, he said: “That’s one of their limitations, they are big and unwieldy, but there are several streets which are extremely wide, where they could be used.”

Asked if there was anything else which could fill that gap in the armoury, he said: “To my knowledge, no. I can’t think of anything else that does what a water cannon does.”

Just because they were deployed in certain situations, did not mean they had to be used, he said.

“In Northern Ireland, we would bring them forward frequently, but use them seldom,” he added. “What it does is buy you space, it keeps people apart, and people at distance.”

Sarah Ogilvie, policy officer with human rights organisation Liberty, told the committee that just because there was not a specific tool in the armoury did not mean there was a gap.

She described use of water cannon as “a fundamentally disproportionate approach”, saying that though many people in a riot might have bad intent, there were also people present who were not rioting but bringing their children home and so on. “There are tools that allow you to be more targeted and we would like the police to use those,” she said.