Lessons from the London riots

A building burns as a riot police officer watches in Croydon, south London, on August 8.   | Photo Credit: Dominic Lipinski

These are scary moments for even the most intrepid Londoner. Beneath a façade of courage and equanimity, and a belief that things have returned to normal, there is a film of fear that will take a long time to evaporate. This is especially so because a convoy of armoured police vehicles still whizzes past your neighbourhood at frequent intervals with a screaming siren that makes you nervous. A pack of hoodlums have held London to ransom and inflicted inestimable damage to property as well as to community emotions. This is something that is difficult to repair quickly by even the most effective of governments. The fact that the unrest quickly spread to other cities — Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol — was proof enough that this was no mere London aberration, as was originally perceived, and that there were national connections for a cause that was easy to identify but difficult to describe. If economic deprivation alone explained the outburst, how do you account for the participation in the looting of shops by those who had a steady job — a chef and a school teacher, for instance — and a stake in the social order? Also, although the role of the non-white population in the riots was undisputed, the presence of a substantial number of whites confounded even the smartest of sociologists who have been on television trying to analyse the events.

The riots were a poor advertisement for a city that is feverishly preparing for the world's largest sporting event next year. There are already misgivings about the capacity of London's transport system to carry at least a million additional passengers a day for the three weeks that the Olympics will bring in, both immediately before and after the massive event. An added dimension now is the state of fitness of the law-enforcement agencies to cope with the demands of the occasion. It is not terrorism of the July 7, 2005 variety alone that one will have to factor in. The ability of young thugs — there are thousands scattered all over England — to disrupt life at will, is an additional dimension that was not in the reckoning until last week. This may be viewed as an exaggerated fear on the part of a cynic. It would be ingenuous, however, to dismiss it as paranoia. Such casualness could prove fatal to the image of a nation that is most hospitable and benign to the rest of the world. Prime Minister David Cameron's eloquent words, since he returned from his aborted holiday abroad, offer hopes that his government is determined to do all it can to set things right in time for the extravaganza.

Focus on the Met

Discussion across the country now centres on the first response — or the lack of it — from the Metropolitan Police. It has been squarely accused of handling the hooliganism softly right from the start. The Met's explanation: any use of force against the looters would have exacerbated the situation. This was possibly under the mistaken assessment that this was an essentially isolated London phenomenon that could be swiftly contained. It proved to be grossly flawed, resulting in a huge loss of property to shopkeepers with only very modest means, who stand devastated and ruined. Worse was the mowing down of three young Muslims in Birmingham by a hoodlum driving a car. Their sin was one of trying to protect their business establishments and their neighbourhood from vandalism. Two of them were brothers. The composure and nobility of their grieving father in pleading for restraint while reacting to the savagery were touching. This again confirms that crime and thuggery can bring out contrasting emotions, the best and the worst.

Police's dilemma

Two aspects of the riots need some reflection on the part of criminal justice policymakers. Maintaining order is not a mere police problem. Although this is an accepted proposition, when it comes to the crunch, the police alone are left to hold the baby. Secondly, the executive and the judiciary need to keep in mind that while they are well within their charter to punish an errant cop who violates human rights, they should take care to ensure that such well-deserved penal moves do not send the wrong message to the entire police force that firm, bona fide action is hazardous and is actually fraught with possible risks to careers. Judicial outbursts against ‘encounter deaths' in our country are an example. They instil fear in the minds of even straightforward policemen, who may feel that their strong-arm methods to contain mob fury or mindless terrorism could invite judicial ire and arbitrary sentences. There is a strong perception that Met officers chose to ignore looting and vandalism taking place in their presence only because of the several lawsuits pending against some officers for years. It is easy to be critical of such apathy. But the underlying misgivings within the police, a crucial arm of the executive, are hard to dismiss as an excuse for inaction.

Mr. Cameron has spoken of the need for some “robust policing.” I presume this means proactive policing that not only explores preventive measures but also dictates intervention when a crime is committed right before your eyes. It was appalling to watch the Met policemen standing by and not doing anything at all when looters — predominantly teenagers to start with, and young adults joining the fun later — were helping themselves to goodies that included liquor, jewellery, designer clothes and electronic gadgets. This indigenous culture of measured and patient policing is no doubt admirable under normal circumstances. But whether it is valid for the current times is highly debatable. This is especially in the context of the huge public criticism among many devastated Londoners that the police have failed to protect them. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Mayor Boris Johnson were subjected to some uncomfortable questioning on this when they went into the streets a few days after the lawlessness started.


The London riots could be a watershed in the history of the Met. A new strategy of aggressive policing is now well merited. It is needed not only because of the new dimension of the proclivity of some youth to take the law into their own hands. It is also demanded by a wounded public in England that has for long been used to only minor strains of public violence and has submitted itself to cautious policing, which now seems suitable only for an earlier time. It will be amusing for an average Indian police officer to know that policymakers in London are still mulling over tactics like the use of the rubber bullet and the water cannon by the police to handle public disorder. Neither of the devices is known to cause death or serious injury.

It is my strong perception that the U.K. society has moved far from the halcyon days when an unarmed Bobby could hold his own against the largest of mobs. The imposition of curfew or the use of the army to quell the riots has been mentioned in whispers only in the past few days. The time is not far when the police in the whole of the country will necessarily have to attune themselves to a modified style, with the accent on instant use of force to disable a misbehaving gang. An unequivocal decision endorsing the new tactics by the Home Office in London brooks no delay. A police force which does not deter the law-breaker, without diluting the respect and wholehearted support of those who adhere to the law, is not worth its salt.

The whole world must have watched the evocative television images of the dismaying events of the past few days in England, especially London and Birmingham. They ought to leave an indelible impression and generate new ideas on policing. There is a constant reference to the use of modern technology by the thugs who went on the rampage, particularly in London. The initial days were dominated by teenagers moving swiftly from place to place. The slightly older ones jumped into the fray only thereafter. It is almost confirmed that they were communicating with one another through cell phones, confounding the police. The popular toy in their hands was the BlackBerry. It is said that the phone's Instant Messenger Service (BBMS), in particular, came in very handy for the hoodlums. This is a hard fact, and any criticism that this theory only romanticises a despicable activity is ill-founded. That BBMS provides both security and confidentiality to the underworld is now undisputed. Those — including me — who had misgivings over the unrelenting stand of the Union Home Ministry vis-à-vis Research in Motion, the makers of BlackBerry, now stand corrected. Police officers the world over need to be wary of this destructive tool, which has proved to be lethal in the hands of the unscrupulous. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater by indiscriminately banning BlackBerry, a great vehicle of swift communication. It must, however, be ensured that the BlackBerry and similar devices do not offer a cheap and convenient gadget which aids the criminal in his diabolic designs. This is a challenge to police officers as well as intelligence agencies across the globe.

(The writer is a former Director of Central Bureau of Investigation.)

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 11:44:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/lessons-from-the-london-riots/article2347729.ece

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