The UK Riots- Impact on Policing
This appears to be a season of protests in many countries. But what happened in some cities of the United Kingdom recently was a very ugly kind of protest, if at all it can be called that. It was rioting in its worst form, in which buildings and vehicles were burnt; shops were looted; property was vandalized; and people were killed and injured. What added to the ugliness of the disturbances was the ease with which people, including young children and women, joined in the looting and vandalising spree. It was “criminality, pure and simple,” as the British Prime Minister called it, whatever its root causes might have been.
The police came in for considerable criticism. This had to happen, as they were involved in the event that triggered the riots. Their initial response to the rioting that followed was weak and incompetent. They took considerably long to reclaim the control of the streets and to bring some semblance of order. In the beginning, the deployment of strength was inadequate and their tactics were softer than what the situation required. Though the Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner, Steven Kavanagh denied the police were soft on rioters, the fact that their initial tactics left a lot to be desired was acknowledged by the government. The British Prime Minister, on returning from holidays, referred to the inadequacy of deployment and said “the tactics they were using weren’t working.” Michael Gove, the education secretary, told Channel 4 News “the police response had not been robust enough…” Even the Home Secretary Theresa May told the Parliament “…police only retain the confidence of the wider community if they are seen to take clear and robust action in the face of open criminality”, clearly implying action taken by police was not strong and forceful enough to deter the rioters.
This critical assessment about the initial handling of riots by the police created unnecessary tensions between the political executive and police officers. There was a sharp reaction from Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers who felt the attacks on policing were totally unjustified and negative. He also opposed the Prime Minister’s decision to invite former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton to advise the government on policing in the UK. Occasionally one got an impression as if these riots had created a wall of distrust between the political executive and the police.
Will the widespread mayhem that occurred in some cities of the United Kingdom (from August 6 to 10, 2011) and the criticism of the police that followed their initial handling of the riots change the face of public order policing in the UK? The British Police till now have enjoyed the reputation of policing by consensus as opposed to doing it by fear. They believe in the principle of using minimum force and always tried to implement it uniformly throughout the UK in the last few decades while dealing with public order disturbances. Is this likely to change now? The question becomes relevant as increasing violence in that country has produced responses, some of which are disturbing.
In the United Kingdom at present, there is an overwhelming public sentiment in favour of hard and tough public order policing. The government is definitely giving an impression that police can no longer afford to be soft in dealing with violent disturbances and want them to change their tactics as well as their response equipment. The Prime Minister gave his support to “whatever tactics” the police officers considered necessary to control riots. The police are authorised to use baton rounds and plastic pellets and contingency plans to use water cannon to break up disturbances are in place. The government is even considering the use of CS gas on such occasions, if necessary. In addition, they feel it is time to consider whether the police need powers “to impose a general curfew in a particular area” and also to impose curfews on individual teenagers under the age of 16.
The Prime Minister said they would not let “phony human rights” obstruct the criminal justice system to bring rioters to justice. The courts are swift and harsh in inflicting punishment on those who took part in rioting. Even Social networks were not spared, and two young men who instigated others through entries in Facebook and Twitter were sentenced to four years imprisonment.
The government is not content with subjecting the rioters merely to the rigours of the criminal justice system. They want to cut off government benefits to offenders and this includes evicting them and their family members from publicly subsidised housing. This form of punishment reminds one of Section 15 of our Police Act of 1861, which authorised the colonial government in India to impose collective fine on all the inhabitants of an area that suffered disturbances, requiring the deployment of additional police. The government’s action to evict the offenders and their family members who had nothing to do with the disturbances has been called draconian by many within as well as outside Britain. What is at stake is much more than just the image of the British government and of their police force. As the New York Times states in an editorial piece, “Fair play is one traditional British value we have always admired. And one we fear is increasingly at risk.”