OK, public order training: all operational cops – those who don’t wear suits; you know, the ones who turn up at your house when you dial 999 – have to do a minimum of two days a year training for the occasion when the societal wheel comes off and there is large scale public disorder. You’ll have seen the sort of thing on TV: cops dressed in crash hats, dark coloured overalls, looking mean and dodging missiles.
The training takes place at our purpose-built training centre, with a layout of streets, junctions, houses and shops, all there for rioters to riot in and for the police to save the world in. For most of us who like physical activity, it’s two days of fun and frolics, with no paperwork at the end; for those who don’t like physical activity it’s two days of hot, sweaty hell.
The two-day course consists of, on day one: running through the already familiar routines for dealing with crowds; dealing with angry armed people; dealing with brick hurling rioters (wooden bricks – but they still hurt if they hit an unprotected bit); taking junctions with a shield team; forcefully entering buildings whilst having tyres and bricks dropped on you from above; and dealing with petrol bombs. Day two of the course consists of an exercise that involves senior officers tackling a staged public order situation and designing a strategy and tactics that we then fulfil (with varying degrees of success).
The kit is heavy and uncomfortable; the only concession I make to femininity is to ensure that I have sufficient perfume (Issey Miyake is good: nice and fresh) to counter the sweaty, musty smell that lingers around your boiler suit by the end of the first session – I only wish my male colleagues would make the same concession.
Our PSU serial was lead by Sergeant Khan: he has been a sergeant for about 7 years and doesn’t , at the moment, feel that he has to be the best at everything – this makes for a good couple of days. His briefing went like this:
“You don’t have to be the best at this – we can have a laugh and enjoy it so long as, when the chips are down and the bosses are watching, we get it right.”
So that’s what we did; take this example:
A line of helmeted and booted police officers fill the width of a road carrying riot shields; they chant rhythmically to keep in line with each other: “One, two, one, two, one, two”; at a junction the cry goes up “Hold the line” and the wall of shields stop. We wait poised, bent slightly holding our shields, waiting for the familiar drill: the sergeant shouts loudly,
“Shield to the left what can you see?”
“ROAD CLEAR SARGE” comes the over-loud, enthusiastic response from a probationer who is on his first course with us.
“Shield to the right what can you see?”
The reply comes in a voice that is a remarkably good impression of the upper class accent of John LeMesurier,
“There are a number of people in the street sergeant, they look rather cross to me and I don’t quite like the look of them.”
The line of shields wobbles and sways with suppressed mirth until the cry goes up,
“Missile” and the first of a hail of wooden blocks come raining on and over us, bouncing of the helmets of those who haven’t learnt to keep their heads down. We wheel into the junction and disperse the rioters.
Taking off our helmets after defeating the rioters we have a break; the end of the break is something I dread: during the exercise we sweat profusely into the soft padding of our helmets; during the break the sweat cools in the foam of the helmet; after break replacing the soggy cold sweaty helmet is a truly unpleasant experience.
The angry person exercise is quite good, it is meant to replicate the, not uncommon, situation when someone really loses it in a house and we have to don protective clothing and use shields to subdue them in a corner of the room. This is one occasion when the lighter officers (and I don’t just mean the women, because there are some hefty policewomen and some very slight policemen) have a disadvantage. The theory is that you pin the person in the corner with your shields and lift the shields so the they cannot hit you with the weapon – in this case a pickaxe handle or baseball bat. The most successful way is not to beat around the bush in the doorway too long and to ram them quickly, people who hesitate end up with the angry person dodging behind them: you don’t want that. It works well in an empty room; but, I am told by those who have tried it, is a nightmare in a furnished one. As an aside, this routine for tackling a wild weapon wielding person used to be called the ‘angry man'; political correctness intervened and made it the angry person – there are many quips expressing surprise that it hasn’t yet become the ‘reasonably cross person with a justifiable grievance’.
The climax of the first day is the outdoor exercise to deal with petrol bombs. For this we don our flame-proof overalls and all take it seriously. In pairs we have to walk through a wall of flame as the instructors smash petrol bombs at our feet: chins down, shields held in front, you lose all vision as the whoosh of heat bursts over and around you as you step through the flames. It is quite amusing for everyone though, when a probationer has not been before – especially when their colleagues have been winding them up before hand, by telling them that the course instructors expect a smart appearance and will check that their boots are properly cleaned; in short, they are encouraged to ensure that there is plenty of boot polish on their boots. The boots are flame-proof but boot polish is highly flammable. As they step through the wall of fire you can see the momentary panic as two flaming feet dance around in order to extinguish their boots.
At the end of the day we have done well: had a laugh but also ensured that we can all work together at the drills and techniques if we need to for real. Then it’s off home for a long hot bath – a shower just won’t cut it when you feel like this.