Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

Why there's whiff of desperation around skunk oil riot control plan

As Chief Constable Matt Baggott considers alternative forms of crowd control to add to his arsenal, a potential new PSNI recruit waits in the wings.

Step forward PC Pepe le Pew.

You may not yet have passed through the PSNI's strict recruitment procedure but we have decided to fast-track you because you have that one commodity a modern police outfit needs at this time of the year.

Skunk oil.

Skunk oil is apparently one of the options Mr Baggott and his fellow police chiefs have been looking at as a riot control possibility.

Although he hints it could be introduced at some point in the future, Mr Baggott confirms that the eau de skunk is on ice "for now". (Thus giving rioting youth time to stockpile the Febreze.)

"If you get hit with skunk oil then you stink," he warns.

Who'd have thought it?

Skunk oil is apparently delivered upon the warring factions via spray and herein I fear lies the big problem. The skunk oil may control the crowd. But how do you control the skunk oil?

Even those who don't get hit by it but just happened to be in the vicinity could well end up minging a bit, too. Take the entirely innocent householder who happens to live in an interface where a riot is taking place. Or a motorist passing by at the time. If either house or car takes a direct hit from an incoming canister of high-grade skunk what then?

Think of the real stink you'd be dealing with Mr Baggott if you have an entire estate in uproar because you've left their area smelling like a cesspit in order to flush out a small gang of rioting yobs.

There are problems with most forms of crowd control innovation and we know this because down through the long years of the Troubles all sorts of imaginative options have been suggested.

One of my favourites I recall was a Japanese (I think) invention which involved a net propelled by rocket into the crowd falling upon the heads of ringleaders and trapping them within.

It was Spiderman's web-shooters. Without the Spiderman.

Did it work? No idea.

To the best of my knowledge it was never even tried here. It was one of those concepts which, like skunk oil, look good in blueprint but which, you just know, are never going to translate effectively in an urban interface environment.

Like the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) which we're told can send pain inducing tones (and again is likely to hurt and enrage anyone within earshot) it's not going to work in built-up residential areas where, let's face it, most of our street conflict is centred.

So what's the point of Mr Baggott pointing this all out to us?

Does he think it will intimidate the stone-lobbing yobs? If he had any insight into the mind of rioting Belfast youth he would surely know the hilarity with which they will have greeted the notion of a skunk oil onslaught.

I totally accept that this is not what the Chief Constable was aiming to convey. He was making the point that thus far the police do not have at their disposal a viable alternative to the controversial Attenuating Expanding Projectile. The plastic bullet to you and me.

But talk of skunk oil and sonic assault alternatives frankly has about it a vague whiff of desperation.

Certainly the whiff of red herring.

For the PSNI's most formidable weapon against the rioters is the shining heroism and discipline of the officers who face down the thugs on the street.

And it's most potent ally is the backing of law-abiding people right across the community who support and applaud them and recognise the enormity of the dangers to which those officers are exposed.

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