As you may have noticed, things have got a bit ‘rioty’ in a number of cities over the last week or so. I have been involved in a few conversations on Twitter about it. I’ve avoided talking about the causes and the ‘deeper’ rights and wrongs (damaging other people’s stuff is just wrong) but did get involved in a conversation about getting the army in. After I’d expressed my thoughts, someone asked me if I’d blog about my take on it. I’m only going to look at the legislative and practical issues rather than the political aspects.

As regular readers will know I’ve been involved in the UK Civil Contingencies field since the early 2000s so this element of the response really interested me.

Putting the army on the streets to support the police has two main elements; how they are deployed and what they do once they are out on the streets.

The policies and procedures for using military assets/personnel to aid the police and local authorities are contained in Joint Doctrine Publication 02: The Defence Contribution to Resilience. This covers both Military Aid to the Civil Community (MACC) and Military Aid to the Civil Powers (MACP). Supporting the police is MACP.

Any request for the military to assist the police has to be passed from the Home Office to the MOD and be subject to scrutiny at ministerial level. The Home Office explains the task that they need assistance for and then the MOD will then deploy resources as it deems appropriate.

This process takes time and it can be 36-72 hours from initial request to the first units arriving on scene. This isn’t ideal in a rapidly changing situation. There is also the issue of the availability of appropriate military units with public order training. Following the end of operations Banner (Northern Ireland) and Telic (Iraq), there is far less public order training and fewer units with an appropriate level of currency in this training. Other operational requirements and force reductions also reduce the availability of suitable personnel.

Military personnel and assets remain under the command of their officers and the MOD with all requests at a local level being routed through a liaison officer at either tactical or strategic command (Civil Contingencies Act usage rather than military usage).

As will be obvious, this presents a time delay and less responsiveness and flexibility compared to police assets under direct police command.

Another key restriction in the use of the army is the powers they do or don’t have. JDP 02 states:

Legal powers of Service Personnel conducting Military Aid to the Civil Power in the UK

411.        General Powers. Service personnel are required to act within the rule of law and will normally have no special legal powers beyond those of the ordinary citizen. Hence Service personnel may use reasonable force to prevent crime, including in self-defence. As a last resort such force may include firearms if authorised by the MOD and subject to the relevant Rules of Engagement (JSP 398).

412.        Arrests Although Service personnel should not normally attempt to arrest a civilian, in certain circumstances there may be no other option. Any citizen, including a member of the Armed Forces, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland may arrest offenders for a breach of the peace.

However without appropriate control and restraint training there is significant risk to both those making the arrest and the individual being arrested. Any injuries inflicted on the detained person whilst being arrested may constitute assault.

This lack of additional powers over and above the ordinary citizen may remove any advantage of having the Army on the streets as opposed to police officers. There are also issues where, for reasons of security, the testimony of Service personnel may not be able to be used in court. This would have a significant impact on court cases following any disturbance where they were involved in arrests.

In summary, the Army are far less useful that might have been at first thought for the following reasons:

  • They take a significant time to deploy
  • There probably won’t be appropriate units available
  • They only have the same powers as ordinary citizens
  • They may not be able to give evidence afterwards, resorting in failures of prosecutions.

This ignores the social and political impacts that having soldiers policing our streets would have.