The sophisticated tactics of protestors are being matched by the efforts of a specialist BTP team. Stewart Thorpe visits its headquarters to find out more
It’s a mild day in November and I’m stood on a pavement in Lambeth, south London. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this scene except for one small detail: my hands are superglued around a lamppost on the doorstep of BTP’s protestor release team (PRT).
After volunteering to be at the centre of this demonstration, a pair of goggles have been placed around my head, black tape has been stuck onto my shoe and I’ve been assigned the protestor identity ‘A1’, which has been written onto the tape.
While officers work to free my hands and bring this underwhelming protest to an end, the initial enthusiasm for taking part has waned and the realisation of just how vulnerable I am has taken over. Aside from climbing the lamppost or ripping my skin free, I have placed my trust in these officers to set me free from this compromising position, and I’m not alone. Protestors, using far more complicated ‘lock-on’ methods involving chains, locks and concrete, some without the option of self-releasing, are doing exactly the same.
Behind the scenes
An invitation to visit this specialist division was extended to RailStaff following the flurry of activity on October 17, when Extinction Rebellion action caused disruption to London’s rail network after protestors climbed onto and glued themselves to trains. It was one of the PRT’s busiest days since the team was established in 2016 and brought its work into the public eye.
Although specially-trained officers are spread across the country, in London, the PRT is based in Lambeth at a site shared with fellow colleagues from BTP’s operational support unit (OSU). The OSU contains officers who are trained in dealing with public order and incorporates another group which is often called upon to respond to protests on the railway: the working at heights team.
From the outside it looks like any other BTP base – riot attachments on vans parked in the forecourt are the only signs that it isn’t. But, as unit leader Sergeant Ed Vafa – who pulled the force’s previously fragmented expertise together three years ago – welcomes me inside, it’s clear how unusual this site is.
Flags, taken as mementos from political demonstrations, are displayed on the wall. There’s a large storage unit packed with power tools and a miniature museum of seized ’lock-on’ devices as well as a workshop to analyse them and create new ones for training purposes.
Cat and mouse
Sitting down to chat about the unit’s tricky work, Sgt Vafa explains that the tactics of protestors evolve in an attempt to stall officers and maximise the disruption caused.
One of the simplest methods for locking on to rail infrastructure, he said, is to use super glue. However, the force is equally adept at using its secret ‘debonding agent’ to detach them.
On the other hand, what has proved difficult for officers to tackle is the manoeuvre referred to by some as “the sleeping dragon”. This involves a protestor using handcuffs or a carabiner to attach themselves onto a small pole, or another person’s wrist, inside an arm pipe, which is covered in layers of different material.
Sleeping dragons are used to join a number of people together or to lock onto objects such as railway track or machinery. They are difficult to break because each layer requires a different tool to safely cut through without injuring the protestor. Sgt Vafa described one device which was covered in a mixture of cardboard, carpet and duct tape.
In its storeroom, BTP’s PRT has thousands of pounds worth of tools and equipment – conventional items such as angle grinders, car creepers and breakers that are used in unconventional ways to deal with whatever officers are faced with.
If a protestor is able to successfully lock-on to a train or the rail infrastructure, every passing minute leads to further train delays and higher costs to the industry. It’s a pressure of the job that Sgt Vafa cannot ignore.
“The entire problem of being locked-on to the rail network comes down to me or one of the other team leaders until that person is released,” he says. “The team shouldn’t be thinking ‘I’ve got to get this done really quickly’ but every tactic we’ve developed is the quickest way of doing something safely.
“As a team leader that is my problem. That is one of the things I have to deal with. But that person’s safety, the safety of the team, and what is available to me at that time are the plates I have to spin.”
Whether they’re on duty or not, when a report comes in of a protestor on the railway, enough officers within the PRT have to be prepared to drop whatever they’re doing to form a team and depoly to the scene. They also respond to incidents that take place on non-rail infrastructure, such is their expertise. It’s a reality of the job that has led to a strong sense of camaraderie.
Since the unit was formed it has dealt with close to 100 protestors, none of whom have either been injured or complained as a result, according to Sgt Vafa. He said there is a great deal of respect between the protestors and his officers – who do not make the arrests – to the extent that some know each other by their first name.
“It’s not unusual for us to get a handshake because they respect how we do our removals,” he adds.
But the high skills and standards of this specialist division have not been achieved by chance. The discipline and almost surgical-like precision needed to cut protestors out of the trickiest of lock-ons means it is, unsurprisingly, no walk in the park to join the team.
Any serving BTP officer who is a member of the OSU can apply to join if they are a level two public order officer. At first they have to pass a one-week course that covers how to safely use the full suite of tools at the team’s disposal for removing lock-ons, but it doesn’t end there. To ensure high standards are upheld, PRT officers undertake 24 hours of training each year, practising on actors in station, depot and general railway environments they are unfamiliar with. And even when a new officer joins the protestor release unit, they’ll initially only be tasked with lower-risk assignments such as debonding. After all, there is little room for error when it comes to cutting through complex lock-ons.
As protestors develop new manoeuvres, the PRT has to challenge itself to find new solutions and think about what might come next – and BTP isn’t alone. In 2018, the protestor release experts of police forces from across the country came together to put each other’s skills and knowledge to the test, taking turns in creating and breaking through their most innovative lock-ons.
A public appeal
Returning to the Extinction Rebellion rush-hour protests of October 17, many people will remember the footage of clashes that took place between protestors and commuters at Canning Town station, actions which were condemned by BTP.
Sgt Vafa adds: “I think everybody would understand why the aggression was there to go onto it. But let the police do what it is there to do which is to handle it. We live in a country of law, the land of the law, let the land of law rule and not mob rule.
“In countless countries across the world we have seen how bad it’s gotten when the public take the law into their own hands.”
Meanwhile, at Shadwell station, the PRT was swift, decisive and professional and, with colleagues from the working at heights team, brought the protest to a close within half an hour of arriving at the scene.
The team may have respected the protestors in removing them from the railway, but that doesn’t mean it respects their methods.
“It’s just a silly idea,” says Sgt Vafa. “First of all, it’s an environmentally friendly mode of transport. Also, when you do it, you’re thinking of your own cause within it all, and you think you’re delaying people getting to work and that the impact isn’t much. What you don’t consider is the pregnant woman who then gets stressed out. You don’t consider that, at rush hour, the trains might be packed and that people in there are already overheating and might end up passing out because of that. Even that person who’s going for that job interview to try and better themselves gets impacted because of people’s actions. And you don’t win the hearts and minds of the public.
“It’s hard to argue with climate change, but you need support and support doesn’t come from impacting the general public to this level.”