Scroll through the comments posted online after any major protest in Leeds and it won’t take long before you come across the grumbles about the disruption caused in the city centre, the impact on people going about their daily business and the cost to the taxpayer.
You might even find some posing the question of why the authorities ever allowed it to go ahead in the first place.
In the wake of three protests in Leeds connected to the jailing of far-right activist Tommy Robinson, a senior West Yorkshire officer has given an insight into the policing of demonstrations in the heart of our city centre.
Assistant Chief Constable Tim Kingsman, of West Yorkshire Police, said: “The starting point is that legally people have a right to peacefully protest under the Human Rights Act. There’s a legal basis, even if some of your readers and members of the public will find protesters’ views distasteful.
“It means we have a positive duty to protect the protesters as well as everybody else. That’s where we have to start with planning the operation.”
Ensuring the rallies held on June 1, June 24 and July 7 passed peacefully is estimated to have cost at least £240,000, with officers drafted in from neighbouring forces for the most recent when a larger counter demonstration was also staged.
Policing West Yorkshire when you’re taking hundreds of officers from their day-to-day jobs, it does impact on us.Assistant Chief Constable Tim Kingsman, West Yorkshire Police
“For the three of them, all together, we had around 800 officers,” Mr Kingsman said. “The number of officers required to police the most recent meant we didn’t have sufficient within West Yorkshire.”
This sharing of resources through ‘mutual aid’ agreements is not uncommon – West Yorkshire has sent officers to London to help police the visit by US president Donald Trump and the associated protests – but the force is large enough that this is not often necessary.
Just as with major events like football matches, Leeds Festival or the Tour de Yorkshire, a dedicated command structure is put in place ahead of any significant protest. It is headed up by a senior officer like Mr Kingsman, who will act as Gold Commander for the particular event.
“My job is to set the strategy, the Silver Commander will put the plan in place and it’s the Bronze Commander on the ground that actually makes it happen,” he said.
If a group simply plan to assemble in one location then there is no legal requirement to tell police, but if they intend to march through the city centre then should supply written details of the date, time, route and organisers six days beforehand.
“Some protests will put forward an organiser and we can talk,” Mr Kingsman said. “Other protesters aren’t so helpful and we struggle to find out people’s intentions. Always we try to do it so we can come up with a negotiated plan.”
While legal rights to protest are the starting point, consideration must also be given to the rights of local people.
Mr Kingsman said: “On July 7, there was 30 to 40 minutes of disruption on Vicar Lane which was really the only disruption to the city centre, other than them being stood there. I would have preferred no disruption but sometimes it happens.”
With demand rising and resources already stretched, there is also no denying that there is an impact on the force itself when a protest is staged.
“They often require significant resources,” Mr Kingsman said. “Policing West Yorkshire when you’re taking hundreds of officers from their day-to-day jobs, it does impact on us.
“It does become challenging, particularly in the current context with the World Cup, the Trump visit and it’s a long, hot summer.”
More than reason than ever, some might argue, to consider preventing a protest likely to cause disruption.
But Mr Kingsman is clear this would only ever happen in exceptional circumstances and, even then, it would not be down to the police to make that call.
While is no legal process for preventing a static demonstration due to the right to assembly, a council could seek to prevent a march from taking place.
“The local authority can apply to the Home Secretary to prohibit a procession – a moving protest – but for them to do that there has to be a belief that there’s going to be an outbreak or loss of control,” he said.
“If you ban one procession, you ban them all for period. It’s a blanket ban.”