VIDEO: The day WMN reporter threw missiles at police, rather than words...
Officers from Devon and Cornwall Police are increasingly being called upon to help quell protests around the country. WMN Chief Reporter Andy Greenwood, pictured above, took on the role of 'rioter' during one recent exercise to find out more.
The invitation went something like this: "Come on Andy, come and throw missiles at the police, instead of words".
So this week, I found myself facing the intimidating shield line of Devon and Cornwall's public order officers on the drizzle-ridden airfield at RAF St Mawgan, near Newquay.
The officers are being put through their paces on the final day of a two-part refresher course. Drills include snatching "violent" individuals from the mock mob, pressing forward using riot vans and, for the first time, deploying baton guns in the line.
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The exercise during the afternoon, pits the "rioters" – mainly police officers but also including an author, a former Royal Marine, and brewery owner – against the force. The scenario is a factory dispute which suddenly turns ugly.
Assistant Chief Constable Paul Netherton, another of the rioters, said deployments during the London riots, and elsewhere, and the G8 summit in North Ireland had made training much more real.
"We have always trained for this and in the past it was pretty much formulaic," he said.
"We trained for urban disorder based on some of the big riots of the 1980s.
"Recently we have been training much more on what we are likely to face – dealing with sit down protests, lock-ons and environmental protesters. Today we were dealing with a violent protest group.
"These scenarios change all the time and through my service I have seen that develop."
Mr Netherton said police forces across the country had learned from the London riots and violent clashes in Birmingham where shots were fired at the police.
"From the London riots what we really learnt what that we need to make sure we go forward," he added.
"If looting is going on, instead of just traditionally standing in a line and taking the missile fire, we have got to move forward into the crowd and arrest the key individuals.
"The use of batons guns in a riot situation hasn't been used on the British mainland yet. We use them in a firearms scenario but we don't use them in a public order situation.
"What we were training for was that capability, so if it was required, if we had people who had firearms, or had axes or swords, we could respond using a baton round rather than putting officers into immediate danger.
"Most of the time we don't have to use our tactics, particularly in Devon and Cornwall but actually what we need to do is support our colleagues around the country.
"Officers are currently out of force dealing with the badger cull in Gloucestershire, so we are always giving up officers to deal with national requirements and they likewise will come to support us, if we need it."
Ironically, the missiles we are given to pummel the advancing officers are old baton rounds as well as a few hand-sized blocks of wood.
As soon as the public order units arrive at the "factory gates" they are met with a volley, the majority of which thud harmlessly into their shields.
The line then moves forwards, breaks and reforms, as officers arrest one of the rioters whose just attacked a man with a baseball bat.
It is then a game of cat-and-mouse as officers methodically make ground, albeit under regular missile attack, and the "rioters", including an enthusiastic Mr Netherton, retreat.
At an assembled barricade, it becomes a close-quarter battle as rioters barrel into the line.
When the shields briefly split, exposing an officer tasked with dragging clear the pallets and fencing, an unerring missile finds its mark and hits the officer hard and full in the visor. The gap is quickly closed.
At the final stand, the officers in the front of the line, who seem remarkably unperturbed, are hit with petrol bombs.
Mr Netherton said: "A lot of the exercise is not just about training the officers, it is about training the commanders in a testing scenario where communications break down, where we split units up and put them under pressure to make sure they have got control of the situation and deal with whatever comes at them – and that's what it is all about.
"Three years ago we had the London riots and our officers were deployed to London and to Bristol and faced quite considerable violent disorder, petrol bombs and everything like that.
"Then this year we had Northern Ireland where again they were facing having blast bombs being thrown at them, people shooting at them. Officers need to be able to deal with all of those different scenarios.
"One of the big challenges is looking at a crowd and identifying who is the most dangerous person there, who are the people that are causing the riot and if we take them out of play does everyone else give up and go home?
"Can we identify the peaceful protesters? Someone who feels very strongly about an issue, and badger culling is a classic example of that, but at the same time isn't going to break the law.
"Can we negotiate with those people while at the same time dealing with those who are going to be more violent or criminal?
"Week in, week out, we have to deal with protest marches, football matches, we have an EDL march coming up, and all those different scenarios police officers may have to face.
"Those are the large scale situations but day-to-day, officers having the confidence to deal with situations, as they have here, allows them to work more effectively on the street.
"Having the confidence to deal with someone who has gone berserk armed with a baseball bat – officers can deal with that whether it is in a town in Devon and Cornwall on during a riot scenario."
Mr Netherton, and assessors from the College of Policing, seem well satisfied with the exercise. Mr Netherton's only complaint is that the "rioters" have not been loud or abusive enough.