Today we have more police officers in Britain than ever in our history. Those officers have more powers – of surveillance, intervention and arrest – than ever before. Yet our cities are in flames, several people have died, our Cabinet and Parliament has been recalled, and lawlessness is so rife that ordinary citizens have taken to organising the defence of their own streets.
What on earth has gone wrong?
The first thing to recognise is that it was impossible to predict the exact sequence of recent events – the shooting of Mark Duggan and the immediate aftermath. But the art of policing is all about dealing with the unexpected, and there were predictable elements to this.
Firstly, look at where the first waves of riots and looting were concentrated – Tottenham, Brixton, Peckham, Hackney, and other parts of East London. This is a list of those parts of London with the highest concentration, and longest history, of gangs. London has over 200 gangs, with about 15,000 members. Nationwide there are about 30,000 criminal gang members, many of them in the other centres of disruption, such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Even before this episode they cost Britain £40 billion a year.
Gang culture has too strong a grip in too many cities today and its symptoms are clear to see. Knife crime is up 10% year on year in London, teenage woundings up a third in three years, and eight teenagers have been killed in the capital this year alone. What does it say about our cities when a quarter of all young people know someone who has been a victim of knife crime?
And gang culture was a major catalyst in these riots. The clinical calculation carried out by these gangs to steal the highest value, most portable items, to use children as spotters and outriders, and to withdraw when the police presence increases (as in London on Wednesday) is not new. We certainly witnessed all this in the 1985 riots, from Brixton to Broadwater Farm. Only Blackberry Messenger was new.
Of course it was not just gangs. Soon it became a free-for-all for anybody amoral enough to take part – including one individual, armed with shopping bags, who plaintively asked a TV reporter, “Where’s the riot?” But even this was predictable on past evidence.
So whilst the initial trigger was not predictable, the looters’ tactics were, the risk areas were, and the copycat contagion was.
It is against this backdrop that the police’s performance must be measured.
The single thing that has most astonished the British public was the sight of rows of heavily equipped police officers standing by whilst rioters and looters engaged in brazen acts of vandalism, arson and theft. A police officer called to the scene of a bank robbery would not park across the street and wait patiently for it to finish, so why were the Met’s riot police little more than spectators during the looting? This was clearly not the instinct of the constables in the line: it had to be instructions from above.
Some senior officers have denied this, but the TV pictures speak for themselves. Other officers have said that the criticisms and court cases the Met faced after the G20 and other political protests have inhibited them from taking firm action.
This is astonishing. The idea that you use the same tactic against blatant and provocative criminal activity as you do against peaceful protesters exercising their democratic rights beggars belief. Until the senior officers in the police recognise that, and tailor their approaches accordingly, we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.
In the 1980s the police were criticised after the 1981 riots for being too heavy-handed. As a result, by their own admission, in 1985 they were too tentative. That made the 1985 riots worse. From what we have heard in the last few days, we are going through the same thoughtless cycle again.
So what do we do now? What do I want to hear David Cameron tell the House of Commons today?
There are three sets of answers I would like to see. They relate firstly to the immediate tactics of the police, secondly to how we deal with the causes of this criminal outburst, and thirdly to the organisation of the police.
THE IMMEDIATE TACTICS OF THE POLICE
In terms of the immediate tactics, I want to hear that all our police forces use completely different rules of engagement for violent disorder and peaceful protest.
THE CAUSES OF THE RIOTING
Second, we must deal with the causes.
Some have blamed poverty and unemployment. Others point to a lack of youth clubs or bad parenting. Although these people may have a point, many of the rioters and looters were not the poor or unemployed. We should always remember that poverty and greed are very different things. Among those arrested were two chefs, a graphic designer, an opera house steward and a social worker, not to mention a number of children. What these unlikely rioters should have realised is that they were not just stealing TVs and trainers – they were stealing their community’s future. The most immediate catalyst for this conflagration was not unemployment but the gang culture that flourishes in some parts of London, and the failure of the Met Police to tackle it.
Unemployment is not a cause of crime, but it can be easily exploited to fuel crime. Amongst groups of young people for whom opportunity and social mobility is non-existent, it is too easy for gangs and their leaders to offer both a sense of belonging and an alternative, albeit criminal, lifestyle.
The problems of gang culture are significant and worsening. But this is not something we have to accept as part of modern life – dealing with gangs is not impossible. One of the better models was first tried in America – Boston's Operation Ceasefire – and recently copied to good effect by Strathclyde Police in Glasgow. Under this programme, convicted gang members were offered the chance to reduce their jail time in return for putting down their weapons and taking part in a programme designed to boost their personal skills and make them employable.
In Boston, there were no teenage gang murders for two and a half years after the programme started. In Glasgow, the project cut violent crime rates in half amongst the four hundred former gang members who took part.
This shows that effective, intelligent policing can fight gang culture and cut gang-related violence. However, London’s Met Police have singularly failed in this respect, as the rising tide of gang violence and riots in our capital shows.
THE ORGANISATION AND LEADERSHIP OF THE METROPOLITAN POLICE
The Met’s failure to tackle gang culture and control the capital’s streets is only the most recent in a litany of disasters in the last few years, which brings me to the third necessary answer.
From the bungled arrest of the ricin plotters to the shooting of innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, the failure to investigate the ringleader of the July 21st suicide bomb plot, the arrest of Damian Green, the admission that not one of its 100,000 stop and searches under Terrorism Act had led to a terror-related arrest, and finally the ‘Hackgate’ scandal, the Met has stumbled from one blunder to another.
The result: its reputation, and its confidence, has been severely damaged. For a decade we’ve seen the consequences of the Met’s flawed counter-terrorism strategy, and now London is suffering as a result of its failure to tackle gang culture and control the riots.
In a disciplined body like the police force, failures of the sort we have witnessed are failures of leadership. Whether it is poor strategy, poor tactics, or slowness to respond, all of these failures point to the upper echelons of the force.
We are suffering the consequences of a decade of politicised policing. To get on during the New Labour years, senior officers had to be a strange mix of health and safety conscious, politically correct target-chasers, in a world where bureaucracy swamped initiative. Along with the “Hackgate” cull, this has left the senior ranks of the police force very stretched in terms of the sort of free-thinking, innovative officers that will be required to deliver the reform of the police that Britain now so desperately needs.
Our police force needs urgent reform. This will be difficult. Slashing through the bureaucracy that handicaps our ordinary coppers sounds easy, but it is not. Rebuilding the confidence, competence, and reputation of our police force will require toughness and courage.
We have some very good senior officers in our police force now, but in my view, not enough for the size of the task. So we should not be afraid to look outside the force, or outside the country, to find the best candidates for leading tomorrow’s police. Only with real and drastic change at the top can the police’s – and particularly the Met’s – reputation be restored.