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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 January 2008, 19:21 GMT
An extremely orderly protest
By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

Off-duty police marching
Thousands of white-capped police took to the streets of London

As the protesting police officers gathered at Hyde Park Corner on a cold and grey winter's morning, the clatter of a helicopter could be distinctly heard overhead.

From the ground it wasn't clear whether it was a police or news helicopter.

Two of the marchers looked up and one muttered something about "Big Brother", without any apparent irony.

The gathered ranks of off-duty police could be spotted from some distance away.

This was not only due to the sheer mass of numbers - about 20,000 according to the protesters themselves - but also the bright white caps which perched on 15,000 heads.

They insist their figures are accurate, especially regarding the caps, which ran out.

The protestors began to move slowly in a hugely orderly fashion with barely any uniformed officers in sight.

As one protester put it, if one cannot trust the police to behave themselves on a march "then there's no hope for any of us".

It's never been about money, it's about how the government have lost our trust
Sergeant John Donoghue

It was a most unusual affair as there was a conspicuous absence of shouting, whistling, and only a handful of placards - and not even the usually ubiquitous rude placard about George W Bush.

However, although the atmosphere seemed to be subdued, in among the crowds was much anger, disappointment and strong resentment towards the government.

Sirens

Passions were certainly running high for Sergeant John Donoghue, who works in the London's West End for the Metropolitan Police.

He said he was "not a militant," and also apologised after he had vented his spleen in an eloquent and heartfelt manner.

Sgt Donoghue was the first sergeant to arrive at Edgware Road tube station after it had been attacked on the 7 July 2005 bombings.

The police officers on the march over their pay

"It's not about money, it's never been about money, it's about how the government have completely lost our trust. We are just asking for a fair pay settlement as laid down through arbitration.

"If you are going to treat us like employees then give us the right to strike. You ask anyone here, 'Do you want the right to strike?', they'll say yes.

"If you ask them 'Do you want to strike?', they'll say no."

Suddenly, two police vans whiz past and cut a line through the long white snake made up of their off-duty colleagues.

This arouses much interest in the crowds who turn, wave and cheer at those uniformed officers inside the dashing, screaming van.

The more suspicious-minded might wonder how necessary the sirens actually were, but it certainly lifted the protesters' spirits.

Protesters marching past Westminster Cathedral
The protest route went past Westminster Cathedral

Among the white caps was PC Lucy Nield of Surrey Police. She said: "I hope this shows the strength of feeling within the police force so both sides will see that we are taking it very seriously.

"Hopefully, our protests will mean that in future things will be done in a honourable manner and that we will not have to disrupt London."

Not everyone was in such a charitable mood, however. A small group of men with two large flags, sporting the words "Class War", waved them at the side of the road - clearly individuals not in favour of the officers' protests.

The mood grew more tense among the off-duty officers, one of them shouting back: "Have a bath mate", and another: "I'm not hiding my face, am I pal?", aimed at one individual whose scarf was keeping most of his face warm.

We want our officers to lobby their MPs so they can show their distaste and disgust
Inspector Perry Oliver

Chief Inspector Malcolm Beveridge of the Metropolitan Police said it was a very strange feeling to be on a march.

"This is the first time many of us have felt strongly enough to voice an opinion. For the last 30 years there has been complete negotiation and compliance by the police," he said.

"It's a very, very strange feeling because I don't want to be here. I don't want, even unintentionally to be drawing my colleagues away from the business they need to do. But what else can we do?"

'Peace and patience'

PC Stan Hebborn a Surrey Police officer and member of Surrey Police Federation was keen to make a point about the police pension.

He said: "We get a lot of criticism over the police pension but the government subtracts 11% of our salary. They're keen to bank the money but not so keen to give it back."

PC Hebborn also claims that the life expectancy of the average police officer after retirement is seven years.

Stan Hebborn
Stan Hebborn is a passionate supporter of police rights

As the sea of caps wound its way through the city, bemused groups of shivering smokers looked on and many began to pass comment among themselves.

One passer-by mentioned to his colleague about what would happen should there be an emergency, seemingly unaware the officers were off-duty.

Inspector Perry Oliver of the Met Inspectors said the whole ethos of the protests had been one of "peace and patience," with specific reference to the lobby of MPs which many of the officers were to take part in at the end of the march.

"We want our officers to gather in groups and lobby their MPs so the people can show their distaste and disgust," he said.

Whether this displeasure is taken seriously by those holding the nation's purse strings remains to be seen.





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