The terrifying incident – screened today during a BBC documentary series called Critical Incident – happened after police on duty in Canvey Island were told about a motorcycle being driven dangerously. Following an eight-mile pursuit, they managed to corner the rider on an estate in nearby Basildon.
He was arrested by officers with tasers – but the situation escalated dangerously when a hostile crowd of between 20 and 30 people gathered.
Police were threatened by a woman wielding a hammer before a man covered eight of them with petrol hurled from a can in a shocking incident which was caught on camera.
The culprit was then knocked to the ground by an officer with a baton.
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Two officers were hospitalised after swallowing petrol and Essex Fire Service had to wash petrol out of their eyes.
In total, 90 officers were called to assist their colleagues, with Essex Police’s helicopter capturing dramatic aerial footage of the confrontation.
During the documentary, PC Andrew Bird, one of the officers present, said: “Out the corner of my eye I saw a gentleman appear from down one of the alleyways.
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“It was as I was trying to control this gentleman who had run out of the middle of nowhere that this other chap has appeared with a watering can.”
PC Matthew Cutts, who intervened, said: “I could smell petrol so I sort of fumbled around to get my baton out but once I’ve got it I’ve put it behind my head and just struck him in line with my training.
“It’s not a random act of violence, it’s a controlled measure that we are taught to use to get people away from us.”
The footage shows officers realising they cannot use their tasers for fear of setting off a deadly conflagration.
Chief Inspector Jonathan Baldwin said: “One match, one lighter, one spark could result in us going up in flames and being disfigured for life or possibly even dead.
“I was hearing them shout ‘light them up’.
“I don’t know how we didn’t just cut and run but then that’s not the way we’re wired – we all stuck together.
“There’s something running in the core of us that says you don’t run away from the danger, you run towards it.”
The man who threw the petrol was eventually sentenced to three years and nine months in prison.
Additionally, a woman was sentenced to nine months in prison, suspended for 18 months, for possession of an offensive weapon, while a youth was disqualified from driving for 12 months.