Page last updated at 18:56 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Controversy, police and protests

Police photograph protestors
Police collected intelligence during some protests

It took five years to build and saw staff, contractors and shareholders fall victim to intimidation and harassment by animal rights extremists.

But as Oxford University opens its new biomedical sciences building, the BBC's Nikki Mitchell looks back at the police operation surrounding it.

Operation Rumble was set up by Alex Marshall who is now the Chief Constable of Hampshire Police in 2004.

He said it was a direct response to the actions of extremists who caused the original contractors to pull out of the university's controversial building project.

"This is a bespoke operation that was designed and brought about because of an unusual set of events - with this facility at Oxford University becoming a national target - it needed an unusual response to deal with it," he said.

The officers working for the operation are experts on animal rights activism and have dealt with more than 650 demonstrations so far. A few have resulted in violence and subsequent arrests.

But the vast majority of the protests, like those which occur each Thursday afternoon, are on a much smaller scale and are peaceful.

Contractor covers up for anonymity
Contractors were targeted by animal rights extremists

The animal rights campaigners are limited by a High Court injunction won by Oxford University to protect its staff, students and contractors from potential intimidation, harassment, and violence.

Campaigners are banned from an exclusion zone around the new research centre, except on Thursday afternoons and then they must stay within an area marked by a plastic fence.

The policing team is made up of uniformed officers and specialist detectives.

"A team of senior investigators concentrate on a series of serious crimes that have happened around the area," Chief Constable Marshall said.

Although no exact figure has been disclosed for the cost of this policing operation it is understood the Home Office has helped cover the financial outgoings.

Many protestors are angry about the level of funding the police and the university have had from the government.

Amanda Richards, a member of the Speak campaign, said: "We think it is quite disgusting that the government is using tax payers' money to fund this laboratory up to a hundred million pounds, and the police to police it, when local hospitals have been in debt and have had to make severe cut backs."

There are courses of action the protestors do not agree with - similarly the university is not always happy
Sgt Paul Riley

But the police argue they are there as much for the protestors' benefit as they are for the University and intervene when protestors are targeted by passers-by.

"There are eggs that have been thrown at them, they have had water thrown at them, threats and abuse," said Sgt Paul Riley.

Relations between the campaigners and the police reached an all time low in 2006, when more than a dozen protestors ended up in court for various public order offences.

The charges were thrown out of court a year later and the police were heavily criticised by a magistrate.

The police promised to learn from their mistakes.

In response to the criticism, Sgt Riley said: "There are courses of action the protestors do not agree with. Similarly the university is not always happy. You can't please everybody all of the time."

As well as policing hundreds of demonstrations, Operation Rumble has recorded and investigated 150 serious crimes, including acts of criminal damage, harassment and arson.

Now the university's biomedical services building is open for business, the police are hoping to be able to scale down their operation.

"The ideal outcome would be no police involvement at all and this is a debate about this type of research that can go on publicly and the police have no part in it," Chief Constable Marshall added.

But according to regular protestor Emma Speed the peaceful campaign at least looks set to continue.

"The fact that it's been built isn't going to prevent us from being here. We're going to be here day in, day out and week in and week out until they end animal abuse at Oxford University," she said.

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Timeline: Oxford research centre
11 Nov 08 |  Oxfordshire
Inside the Oxford animal lab
11 Nov 08 |  Health

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