Sunday, 25 December 2011

Do we really want Britain to be the sort of country where the police fire on rioters?

The week leading up to Christmas is a good time to ‘bury’ bad news, parliament is in recess and the public are too busy with last minute shopping to take notice. That is, probably, why the Inspectorate of Constabulary chose last week to release its review of how the police coped with the August riots.

The review calls for new guidelines for how the police deal with a breakdown in public order, suggestion that water cannon and plastic bullets could be used where there is a risk of ‘violent attacks on the public’ or on members of the fire and ambulance services. A survey of 2000 people carried out in September suggests there is widespread public support for the use of such tactics.

This is all well and good even though, as Sir Hugh Orde of the Association of Chief Police Officers and a man with considerable experience of coping with public disorder gained during his time in Northern Ireland pointed out, water cannon and plastic bullets are ineffective against widely dispersed mobs of the sort that took to the streets in London and Manchester. The review though went on from there to enter far more dangerous territory.

It claimed that following legal advice received by the inspectorate firearms could ‘potentially’ be used where ‘the immediacy of the risk and the gravity of the consequences’ made doing so necessary. The example most commonly cited was that of protecting homes or business from being destroyed by rioters as happened in London.

Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Dennis O’Connor said that in the wake of the riots it was necessary to raise what he called ‘awkward issues’ and that the police needed ‘some new rules of engagement’ so that they could ‘protect the public in confidence.’ As is the way of things raising awkward issues, such a lazy euphemism don’t you think, provoked an instant and mostly negative response.

Speaking for human rights group Liberty Sophie Farthing said the tactics recommended by the review were a ‘very serious step’ and there was a risk they would ‘sweep up the innocent with the guilty.’ Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the Metropolitan Police Authority said that ‘endorsing the use of live ammunition is the approval of the tactics of war on London’s streets and implementing such recommendations would be madness.’

Perhaps the most eloquent rebuttal of the proposals was made on the BBC news by Professor Gus John of the Moss Side Defence Committee, he called the suggestion that the police might open fire on rioters as ‘very worrying’ and went on to say ‘the state is not in a military confrontation with its citizens, so what one should be looking at is how the police and the community engage in such a manner that you do not have these things happening.’ The real action needed was, he said, for the authorities to work to help those people who ‘have no hope, who have a future of futility, but want to engage meaningfully with the community.’

Professor John’s objections are backed by solid evidence, in a study conducted by the London School of Economics 85% of the 270 people questioned cited anger at the behaviour of the police as a contributing factor to the riots. In its interim report the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel found ‘no single cause’ for the riots but did identify ‘an overriding sense of despair that people could destroy their own communities.’

Quite how giving the police powers to fire on rioters can be expected to calm tensions in parts of our major cities where people feel alienated from society and that they have nothing to lose is a question ducked by the inspectorate. The answer is that it will do nothing to calm tensions; in fact it would in all probability inflame them.

At the time of the riots the reaction of public and politicians alike, helped by the hysteria of much of the media, was a sharp jerk of the knee. That was unfortunate but, perhaps, understandable, frightened people often exhibit extreme reactions; but the time for such silliness has long passed.

In Britain the relationship between the police and the public is different from that in the United States of much of mainland Europe, we have policing by consent, meaning the police are there to protect the public not keep them in line. Such a relationship is built on trust not the use of strong arm tactics, where it has broken down it is the result of the police and other authorities retreating from communities where they are needed most due to a toxic mix of misplaced idealism and cynical cost cutting.

The real danger is that David Cameron, a man who like all Tory prime ministers lives in constant fear of being deposed by a party that has always been ruthless when it comes to ditching leaders who aren’t up to the mark. After more than five years of frantic modernisation all he has managed to deliver is an awkward coalition in which must of the Tory grassroots believes too many concessions have been made to the Liberal Democrats, his back benchers are busily sawing away at the thread holding the sword over his head. This has prompted a recent and extreme lurch to the right.

The opportunity to portray himself as a fearless champion of law and order by endorsing these mad suggestions could prove all too tempting. Tragically wheeling out the water cannon is no solution to the problems associated with endemic social and economic hardship that lie behind the riots.

It is right that people who put the lives and property of others at risk should be dealt with forcefully, but punishment without rehabilitation is pointless. We will only solve the social problems we face when the money we spend on rubber bullets and water cannon is spent on rebuilding shattered communities and empowering their inhabitants to take control of their lives instead.

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