Police anger after they cop the blame for English riots

English police have defended their tactics in the riots. AFP/Leon Neal

English police officers have defended their handling of the riots which erupted in several cities across the country last week.

After the worst urban disorder in living memory, leading politicians are blaming individual criminality, but have also criticised police for allowing the situation to get out of control.

Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that parts of Britain were not simply “broken”, but “sick”. Many point at police for not having acted swiftly and forcefully, and for having “stood back and watched” rioting and looting.

What caused the violence to spread?

A former senior officer argued that too few officers were on duty in Tottenham and that “if the officers [present] had acted rather than standing back - we saw the pictures on the television of police officers standing back and allowing people to go looting - then I don’t think we would have had the copycat violence”

The idea of “copycat” violence obscures the fact that the disturbances across England were shaped by the history of social relations and the demographic make-up of each affected area. Rather than assuming that one-size-fits-all model, we must understand the riots in their different contexts.

Fear of criticism

The policing of the riots also needs to be placed in a wider context. Some commentators suggested reluctance by many commanders and front-line officers to “go in hard” since they were wary of being accused of using too much force.

Britain’s police – and in particular London’s Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) - have been under sustained scrutiny since a passer-by died after being trapped in the much criticised containment tactic “kettling” during 2009’s anti-G20 protests.

It is claimed that police sensitivities in deploying robust and aggressive tactics towards political demonstrators fed into a “timid” response to rioting.

Cameron – “leading the fightback” upon his return from holiday - complained that “there were simply far too few police deployed on to our streets and the tactics they were using weren’t working”. He said the riots should have been treated as “criminal” rather than “public order” events.

Police tactics

From our observations – which tally with more recent police accounts - however, it seems clear police lacked sufficient numbers of appropriately trained and equipped officers.

The key tactical options open to commanders are arrest, containment and dispersal. Arresting miscreants eats up resources, and removes officers from the crucial front-line.

Containment of large mobile groups of people, armed and intent on violence, is difficult and dangerous and requires large numbers of officers.

Dispersal works only where rioters have specific targets. In most instances it seemed that whilst police could protect some areas – the main shopping centres and districts – rioters simply diverted themselves into nearby, and less policed, streets. The tactic of dispersal under such conditions simply spreads the disorder more widely.

Likewise water cannon may be good at clearing people from particular spaces, but is rather less well suited to rioters without specific targets of their anger.

What works in such situations is a massive police presence. By last Tuesday night London was flooded by 16,000 public order officers.

This facilitated greater tactical options and meant that dispersal succeeded in doing more than simply relocating any crowds that assembled.

As Hugh Orde, Britain’s leading police officer, insisted: “The more robust policing tactics you saw [in London and elsewhere from Tuesday] were not a function of political interference; they were a function of the numbers being available to allow the chief constables to change their tactics”.

Of course such a strategy is unsustainable, and had the by-product of encouraging the disorder to spread to other areas. With many Greater Manchester Police officers bussed south, local criminal gangs targeted designer outlets in that city.

Community relations

The recent disorder raises two issues for British policing. There was a clear (and subsequently admitted) deficiency in Tottenham in police communication after the shooting of Mark Duggan. This led to the circulation of a number of wild rumours, which fed into rapidly rising tensions.

Whilst the police have built good relations with different parts of the community in London, this is much less true with regard to young people (black and white) in deprived areas.

These were precisely the groups most angered by the rumours – and they were most sensitive to recent council cuts which reduced the number of youth clubs in the area by over a quarter.

As Lord Scarman - investigating England’s urban riots of 1981 - concluded, police need to work harder in reaching out to sections of society who mistrust and, frankly, hate them – and be given both resources and encouragement to do so.

Secondly, British policing is founded upon consent and community engagement, but when the legitimacy of both police and government is questioned it becomes much harder to maintain social order. Police must be properly tasked and equipped to open up communication and dialogue with communities thus enhancing police legitimacy and enabling more and better information in advance of, and during, public disorder.

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