Posted on August 9, 2011

London Riots: Why Did the Police Lose Control?

David Green, Telegraph (London), August 8, 2011

What caused these riots and why did the police lose control? Some commentators think the disorder was understandable and justified; some say the police “had it coming”; others that the violence was only to be expected given the unemployment and poverty in the area.

Some local people told journalists of their resentment towards the police. One student said: “The police never talk to us, they ignore us, they don’t think we’re human in this area.” A youth worker claimed: “The way the police treat black people is like we’re nothing.” And a retired accountant who has lived locally for 30 years reported that some of the police “behave in an arrogant manner that puts people’s backs up”.

Other residents who witnessed people carrying off carpets, trainers and watches noticed that they included individuals of all “colours and creeds”, suggesting an outburst of sheer lawlessness rather than righteous retaliation for past racial slights.

Did the police inflame the initially peaceful crowd protesting about the shooting last Thursday of Mark Duggan? It will be impossible to answer that question until the independent inquiry is complete. But what should we make of another theory, that the police handled the rioters with kid gloves because they were paralysed by fear of being called racist?

Anyone in touch with police leaders will know that most are fully signed-up supporters of the doctrine that the police should use force only as a last resort. As one of the famous “nine principles of policing”, published in 1829 at the very founding of the Metropolitan Police, puts it, the police should “use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient… and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion”.

This was the policy of the Met during the recent protests against student fees. It had worked well enough a few days earlier when the trade unions held a march against the cuts, but the student protests turned violent. Reluctance to use force is right and we should be reluctant to reproach the police for it. However, a second attitude was at work in Tottenham. Since the Macpherson report of 1999 the police have been hyper-sensitive about race. This attitude has now become so paradoxical that they find themselves standing aside when members of ethnic minorities are being harmed. The people who ran shops, or who lived in the flats above, were not given the protection they deserved.

The police have been made to feel that they are the “white police”, and that they lack legitimacy in “black areas”. This unfortunate attitude began with the report by Lord Scarman on the Brixton riots of 1981. He said: “There is widespread agreement that the composition of our police forces must reflect the make-up of the society they serve.” He found that ethnic minorities were significantly under-represented. Soon after the Macpherson report made a similar observation in 1999, the Government set a recruitment target for ethnic minorities of 8 per cent.

Scarman’s remark that the police should reflect the make-up of society is profoundly wrong. The police have never been representative of the social or ethnic breakdown of society. Police officers are people who have been chosen because they deserve to wear the uniform, not because of their ethnic status. They are individuals who deserve to be part of a profession that upholds the law without favour or affection, malice or ill-will. So long as that remains true, then every officer is entitled to respect, whether black or white, male or female. The legitimacy of the police has nothing to do with the racial composition of the force. It has to do with impartial enforcement of the law.

Instead of upholding strict impartiality, in 2002 police leaders published a “hate-crime manual” via the Association of Chief Police Officers. It was a defining moment that undermined the highest traditions of policing. The ideal of impartial justice was dismissed with particular scorn. “Colour blind” (in quotation marks to signify its implausibility) policing was defined as “policing that purports to treat everyone in the same way. Such an approach is flawed and unjust. It fails to take account of the fact that different people have different reactions and different needs. Failure to recognise and understand these means failure to deliver services appropriate to needs and an inability to protect people irrespective of their background.” Impartial justice was now “unjust” and it’s not surprising that many rank and file officers have had difficulty accepting the new approach. But their concerns have been given short shrift. They were to be “retrained” or disciplined. And yet it was not easy for officers to be sure how they could stay out of trouble. In another section of the manual they were told: “Anyone who is unable to behave in a non-discriminatory and unprejudiced manner must expect disciplinary action. There is no place in the police service for those who will not uphold and protect the human rights of others.”

In this kind of atmosphere, it’s not surprising that officers in charge of a riot think it safer to wait for orders from the top rather than use their discretion to protect the public without fear or favour.

Another element of police practice contributed to their failure. The police do not have deep roots in most localities and especially areas such as Tottenham. Few, if any, officers live locally. In earlier times, policing was seen as primary prevention, based on a visible uniformed presence. Gradually, under pressure to appear more “efficient”, policing became more a matter of reaction and detection. Officers waited for calls and responded as fast as possible, while teams of investigators tried to solve past crimes. Only in the past couple of years has it begun to be accepted that primary prevention has its merits, and the Government is supposed to be moving towards neighbourhood policing with named officers covering particular areas and charged with getting to know everyone. An officer who knows the law-abiding locals as well as the miscreants is in a much stronger position when things go wrong than the officer whose “response unit” has been called in to deal with some trouble every now and then.

Coalition cutbacks in the number of police officers have also been blamed for the riots. It goes too far to blame the Government, when the immediate perpetrators were unequivocally at fault, but cutting police numbers doesn’t help. The Coalition plans to cut spending on the police by 20 per cent. In the 12 months to the end of March 2011, the number of officers fell by 4,625 to 139,110. The number of community support officers also fell by 1,098 to 15,820. At the same time the number of police volunteers, or special constables, increased by 2,916.

So much for the underlying factors, but even after they have been taken into account, there has been an inexcusable failure of police leadership in the first few days of these riots. CCTV pictures of looting are now available and it seems likely that the police would have been watching from their control rooms. If they could see the window of a carpet shop or a jewellers being smashed and looters taking their pick of the goods, why didn’t they immediately dispatch a dozen officers to arrest every culprit? There are always people who are willing to become criminals for a day if they calculate that there is little chance of being caught. It seems likely that televising the fact that the police would just stand there while mass looting took place led to its spread to other localities the next night.

Being reluctant to use force can be admirable. But when events have got out of control, the fullest use of police powers is justified. The present generation of police leaders gained promotion by mastering the art of talking about “issues around” racism or bearing down on hate crime “going forward”. Learning the management buzz words of the last few years has not produced leaders able to command men in a riot. The injuries sustained by officers show that we have plenty of men and women prepared to be brave when needed, but they are lions led by donkeys who listened a bit too intently to the sociology lectures about “hate crime” at Bramshill police college.