The London Riots prove, yet again, that one of the principal roles of the Metropolitan Police (“The Met”) in London is to be the whipping post of politicians pursuing an agenda. It is frustrating to me, but completely unsurprising, to watch politicians who for decades have deliberately ignored and demeaned advice by the police that individuals must be made to take responsibility for their crimes now turn on those police. The imperative for politicians to assert their leadership by assigning blame and stating solutions is understood, but the apportionment of blame should not come from completely misrepresenting the truth and casting misplaced aspersions. The police acquitted themselves far better than one would interpret from the media and political spin that is being applied, with a measured emphasis on making criminals responsible for their actions but not conducting in wholesale arrests of population who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are certainly commentators in the UK and the U.S. who are advocating for the much more widespread use of weapons in public order, some queries about why CS gas wasn’t used, etc. The answer is simple – if one cannot identify, incapacitate where necessary and arrest an individual for wrong-doing, as a police force, you simply become a weapon of suppression of the population, rather than a police force that is representative of the community protecting that community.
A lot has been made of the future participation of former Chief Bratton in advising the UK Government on resolving the gang issues affecting London’s Metropolitan Police. This is the most recent expression of the oldest consultancy gimmick in the book – bring in someone who understands what is required on the line and that is being demanded by those on the line, to state the need. Chief Bratton certainly has some different and valuable ideas with regard to the policing of gangs, but his message of zero tolerance and particularly of holding individuals responsible for their actions isn’t a reform that should be pointed at the police, who know this all too well, but pointed at the Home Office and the politicians.
The Met, like the other police departments of the United Kingdom (which in size tend more to resemble State Police but with responsibility for all policing within their geographic domains [less nuclear and transport]) cannot be truly hard on crime when the legislation and legal processes do not permit it. British society has been eroded by soft policies for decades. The welfare state in the UK has run amok, as has the desire to overly pander to pretty much every minority or disaffected group. Criminals, particularly youths, can rely on the fact that at worst, they will receive “yet another” warning for their crimes rather than running the risk of an actual punishment. Indeed, sentencing began in the first 48 hours, and there are already sentences being reduced on appeal.
If people do not fear punishment, then they will not avoid criminal acts. The real irony of the riots is that it is the crowd management practices of the Met Police that still allow for the identification and actual punishment of individual wrong-doers. The Metropolitan Police have arrested over 1,900 people thus far, and are estimating around 3,000 convictions by the time the investigation and subsequent prosecutions are complete. As of last Wednesday, 1,183 have been charged. Across the UK, 3,000 had been charged, 1,500 had appeared in court with most remanded in custody, and 160 already sentenced, over half of whom are now serving custodial sentences.
Would water cannon have helped in particular incidents? Absolutely. Should this whole debacle be placed at the feet of the Met Police – absolutely not. The ability of the UK police forces to mutually support each other with reinforcements so that areas could be flooded with police presence and reassert to communities and individuals the strong likelihood of immediate arrest and prosecution for wrong-doers must be acknowledged and taken as an important lesson; commonality of tactics, equipment, command and control, and standard procedures made reinforcement nation-wide a viable option that was used repeatedly.
What can be learned in the U.S. from these incidents? The repeated emphasis on individual responsibility is a critical message that must be heard and retained. This statement may seem odd, but with the RNC and DNC next year, significant protests are likely, along with concomitant civil unrest and the inevitable conflict between police and protestors. The difference between the Met Police and other UK police forces and their counterparts in the U.S. is that it is not common for UK police forces to be sued (let alone lose) wrongful arrest and related lawsuits surrounding crowd management failures. In the US, this is something that can be pretty much guaranteed at National Significant Security Events, such as National Conventions (to be held in Tampa and Charlotte in 2012), G8/20s, WTF, etc.
The Met’s problem wasn’t a failure of techniques or equipment; rather, it was the sheer scale of the problem – the number of scenes of looting and vandalism massively outweighed the capability of the police to respond. In London alone, there were 22 out of 32 Boroughs affected, up to 30,000 people involved (over all 3 nights) with 3,296 offences reported. In some instances, it took the police two hours to respond, bearing in mind that they were having to respond, react and close off prior incidents before moving on. This is a significant achievement, not grounds for criticism, or at least, not for criticism of the police. That there were this many incidents by this many people suggests a social policy issue, one for politicians to answer and resolve, but not by blaming the police.
London and Paris have provided lessons in the real threats to public order that are likely to cross the Atlantic. The question for police departments isn’t whether they are ready, because most are not, but whether they can afford not to be. The costs of mass arrest tactics and unlawful use of force hit the millions in litigation fees and payments. How many police forces, cities and their elected officials can genuinely afford not to be properly prepared in advance?