Mayor of London Boris Johnson has bought three water cannons for the Metropolitan Police despite the use of these weapons not yet being authorised by the government.
Johnson claims that the use of water cannons could prevent disorder such as the London riots of 2011; it will allow the Met to counter-act any rioting this summer.
Water cannons are ill-suited for use on fast-moving groups of looters. Indeed, during the London riots, senior Met officers dismissed the usefulness of water cannon for preventing looting or vandalism. Water canons are only really effective against stationary crowds, as a means of dispersing a static or slow-moving demonstration.
While Johnson plays on public fears about smashed shops and burnt high streets, the real targets of the Met’s water cannon will be political protesters.
Water cannon are presented as a safe means of forcing a crowd to disperse, as a compromise enabling police to force people to retreat without physical harm. This is nonsense.
The cannons work by firing highly-pressurised water at sufficient speed to make people flee or be knocked from their feet. Any weapon capable of knocking people to the ground has the potential to cause serious injury.
In 2010, pensioner Dietrich Wagner was blinded whilst protesting in Stuttgart, his eyes knocked out of their sockets by water cannon. The cannon that did the damage was the same model that Johnson has bought.
Many London Assembly members opposed the acquisition of the cannons. Of the 25 members of the Greater London Authority (not including the Mayor) 20 voted against the purchase. Considering that Home Secretary Theresa May hasn’t even granted police the power to use water cannon in England and Wales, Johnson’s behaviour is not only undemocratic, but a gamble.
The media have speculated that the Mayor may be trying to force the May’s hand, or to pose as being tougher on law-on-order, so that he can outmanoeuvre May in a Tory party leadership challenge. He is playing a dangerous game — but with our safety and our right to protest.