When Tim Godwin, the Acting Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, lashed out last week at “armchair critics” of his leadership, he may have overlooked the fact the failings of the Met’s response to the London riots were visible from every armchair in the land. The television pictures of lines of police standing by whilst rioters looted with impunity were on every TV screen, and known to almost every member of the public.
When he complained that his critics “weren’t there”, he may have been unaware that was exactly what some of his constables and junior officers were saying about his own senior ranks at the weekend.
When Sir Hugh Orde, the President of ACPO, said: "I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them", perhaps he did not know that on the Met’s own calculation London has more than 200 and climbing – with 15,000 members.
Unfortunately, the reactions of the senior ranks of the police force are altogether too predictable. The raw truth is the performance of the British police in the last decade has not lived up to the resources spent on them, or indeed to the courage and application of the ordinary rank and file bobby. That is not the fault of the bobby.
Indeed one of the real calumnies of the past few days is the attempt by Godwin to pretend recent criticisms of the Met were aimed at the rank and file of the police force. They were not. They were aimed squarely at the senior management of the Met. I yield to no one in my admiration of the ordinary British bobby, and I made some of those criticisms.
They were shared by some of the ordinary coppers on the front line. One police officer said at the weekend “There was no strategy, no plan, no nothing.” Other front line policemen felt the same. The truth is our senior police have to be a lot more intelligent about the way they handle difficult areas of policing. Take Godwin’s complaint about the Met being criticised for being too tough, then being criticised for being too soft.
That particular whinge does not stand up to even the briefest inspection. The criticism for being “too tough” related to the G20 demonstration, in which an innocent member of the public, Ian Tomlinson, was unlawfully killed by a police officer. The criticism for being too soft relates to the police standing back whilst there was a mass outbreak of looting, violence, and arson, which led to deaths.
Apart from being “public order” matters, the G20 and the recent riots had nothing in common. Yet for some inexplicable reason, senior police officers used similar rules of engagement for both. This is madness. Peaceful protest is a lawful exercise of democratic rights. Looting and rioting is mass criminal activity. They are polar opposites, and should be treated differently.
Our senior officers are caught by something else, of course. A number of police forces have over the years intimated that they had gang culture under control. This is not true. Only five years ago there were about 170 gangs in London. One estimate is 205 and rising. The hallmark gang crime, knife wounding of teenagers, has grown by 30% in the last 3 years. So for senior police officers to claim that they have nothing to learn from other countries about controlling gang crime is simply to put their head in the sand.
Of course it may be true to say that they had gang culture contained. It might be true that it was confined to limited areas of our inner cities. But containment of criminality is a dangerous game, as we saw when it burst its boundaries last week.
So we should not kid ourselves. We have much to learn from other countries when it comes to policing gangs, and the best place to learn is the country that has suffered the greatest affliction with this modern curse. Within that country, the best places to learn are the cities that have done most to cut gang crime. They are Boston, New York and Los Angeles, the cities whose police forces have been led by Bill Bratton, the man the Prime Minister wants as an adviser.
It is also distressing that the senior ranks of the British police seem to misunderstand the nature of what Bratton did. It was not violent, as seemed to be implied by one senior policeman last week. He did not coin the phrase “zero tolerance”, to describe it. He hates the phrase, as do I. Apart from some modern analytical tools like the computer program Compstat, much of the policing strategy would have been recognisable to Dixon of Dock Green. Some of the most powerful interventions involved co-opting gang members to projects designed to give them a new start, others involved negotiating to stop violent gang conflict. These are commonsense approaches, some of which have been tried in Britain, notably in Glasgow, with some success. So the police have some learning to do, and I suspect that the new head of the Met will recognise that once the furore has died down.
But so do we all. There are quick solutions to the policing mistakes in the riots, largely in the design of the rules of engagement. There are no quick solutions to the malaise that created the gang culture.
Some of the answers will lie in social changes – the rebuilding of families, the elimination of the dependency culture, the reinstatement of the respect for authority in our society – but these will take a generation to work. If we are to deal with the gang problem in real time we must understand the nature of life on some of our estates, and intervene with a great deal more sophistication than anybody has ever done before.
Think of an estate where there are few jobs to be had for young men or women, where the local school is a disaster area, and where the estate itself is a graffiti-strewn disgrace. Then add in the fact that the most successful person on that estate is a the drug dealer, who drives around in a big BMW with darkened windows, demanding “respect” from all and sundry.
The dominant feature of the local economy is drugs. Children make £30 a day delivering drugs on their bikes. “Shotters” – the dealers – make about £25,000 a year. The “Elders” and “Faces”, who control the operations, can make over £125,000 a year, beyond the dreams of avarice in these circumstances. There is no tax, of course.
This “economy” is backed up by force. Violence is just another instrument of business. Nobody who wants to stay healthy “grasses up” his gang leader. Indeed taking a criminal conviction and sentence for the gang is considered a badge of honour. And this lifestyle starts young. Half the gun enabled crime is done by young boys between the ages of 12 and 20.
All of this is backed up by a culture that glorifies the rejection of normal society, gangsta rap and all. In that respect, David Starkey had a point. Against these odds, most young men will go with the flow and join up in the gangs. A bright boy that 50 years ago would have gone to grammar school and escaped to better things, will now just become a successful gangster.
This is the environment that we have to fix. It is not impossible. Targeting gang leaders is a good start, but that is all it is. These gangs are fluid and versatile, and when one collapses another moves into its place. We have to break the environment that fosters them.
To do so we will all have to learn lessons from wherever we can, whether we are policeman or politician. That means listening to Bill Bratton and all the other American policemen that have had some success in dealing with gangs and urban crime. The task of mending the broken society is bigger than all of us, and David Cameron is right to take his advice from wherever he can get it.