The pros and cons of water cannon policing

Northern Irish police use water cannon on an Orangeman marcher in July 2013. Image: Getty.

Here’s the first thing to say about Boris Johnson's decision to purchase three water cannon for use in riot policing: he has got us a terrific bargain.

A brand new water cannon would generally set you back around £870,000, which is quite a lot of money, even in London. But by buying them second hand from the German federal police force, Johnson's deputy Stephen Greenhalgh has managed to get the Metropolitan Police a job lot of three, for the low, low price of just £218,000.

That's more than 90 per cent off. I mean, you would, wouldn't you? If you walked past a shop selling laptops at 8 per cent of their regular price, you'd have to stop yourself from going in. Can we really expect our leaders to show any greater restraint?

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) quite fancies some toys of its own, and last January published this briefing paper, helpfully outlined the advantages of using water cannon in riot policing. For one thing, they can be used from a distance: this not only keeps the boys in blue safe from harm, it reduces the chance of minor scuffles that can escalate into something more dangerous. A cannon’s mere presence can have a deterrent effect, too, the briefing claims: in Northern Ireland, whose police force has six of the things, they’re "often deployed without being employed".

Best of all, water cannon "provide a graduated and flexible application of force, ranging from spray or diffused mode to  forceful water jets". In other words, those who fire them have at least some control over the appropriate level of force to use.

That is not something that can be said of other approaches to crowd control at a distance. If you don’t have a water cannon, the main alternative is ‘Attenuated Energising Projectiles’ which, ACPO tells us, are more commonly known as baton rounds. In fact they're more commonly still known as rubber bullets (words that don’t appear anywhere in ACPO's briefing). These, despite being rubber, are pretty nasty things: better to disperse a crowd by giving them a light hosing than to jump straight to shooting at them.

Oh, and you can water flowers with them. That's nice, too.

That's the good news. Here's the bad: water cannon are indiscriminate. They're not used to target individuals, but to target entire crowds. If you're at the wrong protest, if you’re standing on the wrong place, it doesn't matter how well behaved you are: you're going to get blasted.

And ‘blasted’ is the word. We probably all realise by now that these things aren't Supersoakers, but what happened when they were used in Stuttgart in 2010 is really, genuinely shocking. Here’s how the BBC reported it after the event:

"Dietrich Wagner – a 69-year-old retired engineer – was hit in the face at a protest in Stuttgart four years ago. His eyelids were torn and some of the bones around his eyes fractured, causing his eyeballs to fall out of their sockets."

Let’s say that again. His eyeballs fell out of their sockets. That is an extreme case: no such injuries have ever been recorded in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, it’s a reminder of quite how nasty these things can be.

The Home Secretary has yet to grant police the power to use water cannon in England and Wales. Even when that happens, senior police officers have repeatedly reassured that the technology will only rarely be used. (That briefing document identifies three protests where they may have been useful, one of which, hilariously, was the Countryside Alliance's 2004 march on Parliament Square.) As ACPO itself admits, “whilst water cannon can have a deterrent effect, it must also equally be understood that its presence alone can be inflammatory".

But the Metropolitan Police are, shall we say, not averse to using their crowd control powers to the maximum of their abilities. Inflammatory behaviour by riot police is hardly unknown either. Now they've got their toys, it seems probable that they'll want to use them.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.