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Viewpoint: another Notting Hill Carnival - more crossing of fingers

Chris Hobbs will once again be attending this weekend's Notting Hill Carnival as an observer for Police Oracle. Here he raises some long standing safety concerns about the event.

Viewpoint: another Notting Hill Carnival - more crossing of fingers

Date - 25th August 2023
By - Chris Hobbs
13 Comments 13 Comments}

Almost a year ago to the day, late on the evening of August Bank Holiday Monday, tired and somewhat dehydrated, I entered my local pub having spent much of the day at the Notting Hill Carnival (NHC). This, other than performing duty as a young PC, was my third visit and I waxed lyrical about my experiences of the day.

I witnessed sociable and well-behaved crowds simply enjoying themselves with there being a consistently convivial relationships with the police. I did, however, experience one period of anxiety as I walked up Portobello Road and underneath the Westway. There was no hint of disorder amongst the good-natured crowd but it was the density of that crowd which concerned me. Quite simply, the area was grossly overcrowded with people moving slowly in both directions and, quite simply, I didn’t feel safe. I turned around and made my exit. Perhaps I was being over-cautious 

Nevertheless, I continued to impart to friends, the attributes of spending much of the day at Carnival until news began to filter through that there had been issues around the Ladbroke Grove. These involved a serious stabbing and officers attempting to save the life of the victim in circumstances made difficult by virtue of a packed and volatile crowd.

Disturbing memories from last year

After writing the above piece, I was contacted by several officers who were present and confirmed the horrendous events that they found themselves immersed in.

The next day bloody footage showed the horror of the aftermath of what was now a murder despite the best efforts of officers to save the life of a Bristol based rapper Takayo Nembhard. Further disturbing footage was to emerge of a swirling crowd, which, shortly after the event, caused me to write the following in an article for Police Oracle.

“The footage, shot from a first- floor window, although brief, showed a street crammed with a swaying, moving, densely packed crowd. To even the most inexperienced observer it looked potentially catastrophic and trapped within it were a serial of police officers who were helpless as they were swept along. Such was the horror of the event, that, through the police grapevine, it transpires that officers in that group thought they were going to die.”

As stated above, last year’s Carnival was the third successive event which I attended, the other two being before the interval forced on organisers by Covid and have no need to be convinced by the merits of Carnival. Many previous problems have, at the risk of tempting fate, been largely eliminated. These include large outbreaks of violence involving rival gangs and ‘steamings,’ where gangs run through crowds committing robberies.

Pre-emptive operations by police including well-publicised ‘raids’ on known addresses and banning orders have all contributed to reducing violence although, thus far this year there have been, as yet, no announcements in respect of current operations although they could still be taking place.

Last year’s event saw 74 officers assaulted including two sexual offences committed against female officers. There were 209 arrests and seven stabbings including the murder referred to above, yet these statistics, as supporters including friends of mine, point out, should be viewed against a background of over a million visitors to the Monday event. That however may be of little consolation to those officers assaulted and the members of the public who were the victims of crime.

Inherent dangers

It is however, the spectre of a ‘mass casualty’ disaster which will haunt those Gold and Silver police commanders who are ultimately responsible for the policing of Carnival

There were concerns in respect of crushing at the Notting Hill Carnival as recently as 2016. According to reports, an incident in Ladbroke Grove resulted in officers having to ‘dive into crowds,’ to rescue individuals including children who were in danger of being crushed. There were another two incidents in All Saints Road where barriers collapsed resulting in crushing and people were again in danger of serious injury or worse.

The Met Commander, Dave Musker, who was Gold for the 2016 event mentioned both the Hillsborough and Ibrox disasters when appearing before the London Assembly Police and Crime committee convened to discuss the problems at Carnival. Others, however, in the ‘wash-up,’ predictably blamed the police.

Having listened to evidence from a number of witnesses, in its report, the Police and Crime Committee concluded that the Carnival urgently needed rethinking and that the mayor must consider warnings from police that each year, including in 2016, the festival had come close to a “major catastrophic failure of public safety”

Yet six years later, the situation was again precariously close to disaster, as could clearly be seen from the above- mentioned footage.

Brixton Academy and Shaggy

Doubtless Met commanders and planners will be only too well aware of recent events that will impact on the NHC policing operation. On December 15th at the Brixton O2 Academy’ a performance by popular Afrobeat star Asake resulted in tragedy as ticketless fans tried to storm the venue. The resulting crush saw four people hospitalised, two of whom sadly died; one was a female security guard.

Doubtless, that those same commanders will have noted that the Carnival organisers recently announced that Jamaican reggae legend Shaggy will be performing on two of the Carnival stages; Rampage and Saxon. Several years ago, I watched a live feed from the Rampage stage and it seemed exceptionally well organised with professional security personnel and visible police officers. At the end of the day, as the stage closed, the organisers even put a ‘shout out,’ to thank the Met.

Nevertheless, the prospect of excessive numbers attempting to witness a performance by a global superstar will now inevitably feature in the Met’s planning in order to avoid any chaotic and potentially dangerous scenes.

Seoul, Astroworld and the Hajj

Met commanders and planners will also be acutely aware of the disaster that took place in Seoul just ten months ago on Halloween where 159 revellers died in a crushing incident which took place in a massively overcrowded narrow alleyway. It appears that a group became impatient and starting pushing causing some people to fall which in turn resulted is a disastrous ‘domino’ effect.

There was much subsequent criticism of police in terms of the lack of officers assigned to the popular event and the absence of any meaningful planning and threat assessment which most certainly won’t be the case with the NHC.

Other crushing events in recent years include the Astroworld Festival in Houston in 2021 where rapper Travis Scott was playing; ten died and 300 were injured. However, the greatest tragedy occurred at the Hajj in 2015 where more than 2,400 pilgrims perished.

Given the above and, to state the obvious, the streets of Notting Hill are not purpose built to hold an event of this magnitude. Even Lee Jasper, an arch critic of police, back in 2017, stated that the Carnival is unsafe and criticised the Met for sanctioning it.

Recent events

The NHC came under the spotlight recently when a Tik Tok announcement publicised a proposed mass robbery of JD Sports in Oxford Street. Several hundred youths of mainly school age assembled and the media went into overdrive describing ‘mass looting.’ In fact, there was no mass looting; an attempted incursion into the Microsoft store was easily dealt with by police. Later, about 30 youths stole a few items from a souvenir shop while a Vape shop also complained of several items being stolen.

However, with the NHC just weeks away, I and others, found that the most disturbing aspect was this strange form of hysteria that emanated from the girls and then drew in the males present. The girls would group together and, for no apparent reason would begin to scream as if there was a celebrity in their midst. As the screaming reached a pitch, the group would either ‘surge’ for a few yards or stampede.

The final screaming episode followed by a stampede saw hundreds running along Regent Street with the boys joining in. I captured this on my mobile phone and it was viewed more than two million times.

Initially, police clearly were concerned as the screams reached fever pitch, but realised that this was some sort of strange, if harmless, form of mass hysteria. Whether screaming and ‘stampeding,’ amidst the dense crowds of Notting Hill would have a more unwelcome effect remains to be seen or perhaps I should replace that with, hopefully won’t be seen’

Nightmare scenarios

Notwithstanding possible panic engendered by screaming and running, there are many other types of incidents which could result in panic; a terror incident whether real or perceived would be one of the worst-case scenarios as would an individual or group being seen to use knives as would mass disorder which some were clearly hoping to orchestrate in Oxford Street. Last Sunday, at a Sikh sporting event, shots were fired in a clash between rival groups which resulted in panic that was captured on social media footage. Similarly, back in 2017, similar panic ensued at Carnival when some form of corrosive liquid was thrown over a crowd.

Fortunately, in the two cases referred to above, those fleeing were able to do so with relative ease as the crowds were not densely packed at both locations. Shots fired, an explosion, a knife attack, fluid being thrown or simply gross overcrowding by itself could spark a catastrophic event which would be a daunting challenge for all the emergency services.

Of course, we should not become risk averse and public events, be they concerts, football matches, coronations or indeed carnivals should go ahead unless there is specific intelligence or circumstances, such as Covid, that preclude such events being staged.

Yet, Carnival critics will point out that the major problem with the NHC is that it takes place in an area of London which is unsuitable for that purpose. It could be argued that football stadia, were, in many cases, also unsuitable for purpose which led to the tragedies of Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough. Those disasters led to dramatic improvements in ground safety, but, other than road closures and barriers, there is a very real limit as to how NHC safety can be improved in the event of a major incident.

Communication with the vast crowds will always be problematic although the emergency alert system could be considered. Having said that, I and others experienced difficulties with the phone signal last year due, it would seem, to demand across the Carnival footprint. This apparently is a recurring problem and is surely one that should be addressed and perhaps is being.

So, on Monday, I and hundreds of thousands of others will enter the Carnival footprint. I will hopefully again witness good relations between police and revellers. As in previous years I may also well see officers help those who have over-indulged, become unwell, experienced being a crime victim or who are simply lost and disorientated.

My focus will be on these and other aspects of policing but I can’t deny, there will also be a feeling of trepidation. Whether previous experience will ensure I stay out of trouble remains to be seen, but hopefully I’ll be able to retrospectively report an enjoyable day with no major issues.

However, at the back of my mind will be the question as to when, despite the best efforts of the Met, the organisers and those SIA qualified competent stewards and security staff (as opposed to those hapless individuals hired for the day who clearly have no idea of what they are supposed to be doing) the luck that has helped keep Carnival alive over many years will eventually run out.

Chris Hobbs is a retired Special Branch officer 

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Ordered by:
Paul - Thu, 31 August 2023

Make the organisers responsible for all the criminality that takes place at this event or better still make them responsible for its policing and libel for any damage,thefts etc.