Whether it is the outcry following the G20 protests or clashes on the streets of London during the student fees demonstrations, public order policing often comes under close scrutiny. Crime correspondent BEN KENDALL joined Norfolk police on a training exercise.

Bricks and insults are hurled as a line of officers, clutching riot shields, rushes towards the angry crowd.

Protesters have little option but to retreat as the officers, four rows deep, fill the street leaving them with nowhere to go. Backed into a corner, the missiles continue to rain down.

Then a whistle blows, bringing the showdown to an orderly end. Everyone relaxes, the officers retreat and the whole exercise begins again.

We are in a former aircraft hangar at the old RAF Coltishall airbase. The protesters are volunteers from Easton College and the makeshift streets have been constructed from metal fencing.

There are about 140 public order trained officers in Norfolk who, four times each year, must undergo refresher training to ensure they are fully prepared for any confrontation.

In Norfolk, their most high profile deployments have included illegal raves, most notably in Yarmouth when a 100-strong mob attacked officers with bricks, bottles and planks of wood.

But as well as tackling trouble on the county's streets, units can also be deployed to help police major events in other parts of the country.

Insp Sarah White said there were up to 25 public order deployments in Norfolk each year. However, this was expected to increase as spending cuts lead to increased civil unrest.

As well as policing raves, the officers are also used at protests, key dates such as Christmas Eve and during the annual Tamil pilgrimage at Walsingham.

She said: 'We have to make decisions about policing levels and tactics based on a number of factors. This will include what we can see happening on the ground and intelligence about known instigators who might be present.

'We always start at the lowest level because we're aware that a high profile presence can have an impact on the behaviour of those present.

'Everybody has a right to protest and our job is to protect people and facilitate peaceful demonstrations.

'There may be thousands of individuals present but only a handful will be intent on violence, so we cannot treat everybody the same; we have to use traditional policing methods to engage and build a relationship with the crowd.'

Tactics range from loose cordons, such as those used to direct crowds at football matches, to running lines which are used to contain hostile crowds.

An open cordon may be used to allow officers to filter the crowd, look out for troublemakers and direct them towards the most desirable route.

Stronger linked cordons can be used if, for example, two crowds need to be segregated. All of this would be done wearing normal uniform.

In more hostile situations officers would be instructed to wear full kit, including helmets and pads.

PC Jim Wells said: 'We use running lines to push crowds into more manageable areas. Often we need to keep them on the move because if you stand still you are an easy target.

'The aim is always to put the crowd into a manageable area where we can contain the disorder, protect the majority and break up the crowd by encouraging them to exit in a certain direction. We tend to use the power of arrest sparingly.'

Training involves practising a number of formations from moving a crowd down a single street, closing off junctions and dealing with an attack from two directions.

Every nuance is taken into account, including what angle officers should hold their baton at to ensure they do not appear unnecessarily confrontational.

Units practice with crowd control dogs and for the worst case scenario, including petrol bomb attacks.

PC Wells said: 'We have never had a petrol bomb in Norfolk although our officers did have to deal with one once when deployed to Essex. But we have to be prepared for every eventuality.'

Public order policing has come a long way since clashes with miners during the Thatcher years and the early 1990s when officers were instructed to simply hold their ground and contain a crowd while missiles were thrown at them.

The emphasis is on crowd management, moving disorderly groups into safe areas and encouraging crowds to dissipate.

Insp White said: 'It may look very dramatic but a lot of pre-planning goes into every event and we have rules of engagement which are common across all forces.

'It is a role which requires a lot of patience as officers can stand for hours taking abuse. The emphasis is on containing people for their own safety; we don't want running street battles.'

Public order policing has come under increased scrutiny since the 2009 G20 protests which led to more than 180 complaints to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

There were three investigations into allegations of assault, including one minutes before the death of newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson.

More recently there have been legal challenges to police kettling tactics, used to detain a mass of people at protests.

Insp White said: 'Lessons have been learned in recent years and, while we're not perfect, I think things have improved.

'One of the criticisms was that officers are not identifiable. In Norfolk we ensure every officer has their number on their helmet.

'We also remind officers that they can make decisions as individuals. Just because you have been given orders, it doesn't mean you can't be flexible.

'If, for example, you are containing a group of people and an old lady or a mother with a pram asks to get through, an officer should feel confident enough to allow that, as long as they are sure she will be safe.'