Who is advising David Cameron on policing? Surely not the police.
The Prime Minister’s remarks about the riots have been characterised by incoherence. For example, he apparently thinks the police treated the rioting as a problem of public order rather than of crime. However, he went on to give the impression that they had been insufficiently aggressive. This is strange: when British police talk about “public order policing”, they mean fighting the mob. It’s the usual term used to describe forces like the French CRS, who exist only as a (savagely tough and heavily armed) riot control squad and don’t do investigation or community policing.
On the contrary, if you ask British cops to respond to a crime, they’re meant to start by interviewing witnesses and taking prints. The distinction is fundamental. Public order policing is about ruling the streets by the organised use of force. It presupposes that the problem is a general, amorphous one - an impersonal crowd - and that the answer is to break it up. But crimes are distinct, singular acts committed by individual criminals, and the answer is to identify a perpetrator and lock’em up. The answer to crime, as opposed to disorder, is investigation.
A response to the riots as if they were just a collection of individual burglaries would have centred on identifying the burglars so as to arrest them later - getting statements, forensics, photographs, CCTV, and so on. But this is precisely what the Tories were complaining about. They didn’t want the rioters treated as individual criminals, but as a crowd to be dispersed by force - whatever the effect on the chances of prosecuting them later.
So that’s odd. (Actually, the police did make a major investigative effort - a detective we know in a highly specialist role was called back from leave to join a 400-strong incident investigation.)
Secondly, was there even a more aggressive option available?
Eventually, the answer seems to have been to put 16,000 police out on the streets, three times the usual level. The Met has 32,000 police on the books, but obviously some fraction of that number will be unavailable at any given moment. Even if officers on leave or on courses can be summoned back, there will be people who can’t return in time, who are sick, who are suspended for disciplinary reasons. There are also people who are required to keep the institution itself functioning - staff officers, drivers, odds and ends of specialists and instructors.
And the world doesn’t stop because someone trashed JD Sports. The Met had to keep providing at least a skeleton investigative police service across London, plus pulling security for VIPs and key infrastructure, and working cases that couldn’t easily be put on hold. There were two fatal stabbings and a shooting in London over the riots weekend, none of which had any obvious link to the riots other than that the killers may have hoped to get away more easily in the confusion.
That said, the figure of 16 kilo-dibble amounts to significantly more than the 50% it does of the total headcount - perhaps as much as 75%. Policemen have to sleep in the end. So there’s a need for reliefs, too. With 16,000 police committed, the Met was well past the point where it could rotate them even once a day.
Police could be drawn in from other force areas, of course, and they were. However, Greater Manchester had to grab back the officers it lent to London after major rioting broke out there as well. West Midlands had plenty to do itself. So the Met turned to South Wales for help.
Interestingly, I’ve not heard of any sightings of Yorkshire policemen off their patch although there was no serious trouble in Yorkshire, and the sizable West and South Yorkshire forces were therefore possibly the biggest reserve of manpower available.
No wonder, then, if there was a fair amount of caution around. They were quite simply running out of cops. Not only was the Met hitting the limits of its manpower, the pool of surplus police officers available for use outside their usual force areas - essentially the strategic reserve - was running low. In this light, it makes perfect sense that Inspector Gadget’s commander was worrying about “target group sensitivity”. The last thing he needed was more rioters, or even just a demo taking up resources, having no realistic prospect of more cops.
Actually, members of the public the Inspector spoke to seem to have had a very clear awareness of just what it meant for his lot to appear in London along with members of, apparently, 12 other out-of-town forces.
Even if the prime minister was talking absolute nonsense, though, at least he didn’t miss the COBRA briefings like the Shower Jobby did. Surely that has to be be the most embarrassing Coalition act yet?
It also remains true that no society has enough police, or rather that no society will ever pay enough tax to put as many policemen on the streets as there could be rioters if the public were sufficiently angry. All governments have to learn this: the size of Leviathan is governed by how much you’re willing to feed him.
It’s embarrassing for the Coalition that they’re cutting police jobs while people burn down branches of Allied Carpets. But it is only embarrassing. A U-turn on police cuts solves nothing in itself. The original Thatcherites did, in fact, have a response to urban rioting: they spent a lot of money on the police and they indulged in a lot of draconian rhetoric, and they also got into urban regeneration in a big way.
The particular, semi-privatised, securitised, rather expensive cityscape that resulted has been heavily criticised and the riots have been attributed to it. But can anyone see anything as coherent as that coming from this lot? They don’t, in fact, seem to know whether they mean public order or crime and they don’t seem to know how many police they have.