Ben Mitchell writes about how the role of the police in sparking, and then failing to deal with, the England riots is becoming clearer.
Another week, another report surrounding the England Riots enters the public domain. Common themes begin to materialise, facts and figures converge.
The latest, out this week, saw the publication of 5 days in August, an interim study commissioned by the government.
This saw the setting up of the “riots communities and victims panel,” and sought to address such things as: why the riots took place; why some areas remained trouble-free whilst others around them erupted; and what measures could have been taken to prevent and manage the disturbances.
Those in attendance in the affected areas were a disparate bunch. Some were part of organised criminal groups, and some had purposely travelled to riot sites in order to loot – the ‘late night shoppers’ as they’re called – but many were opportunistic, caught up in ‘moments of madness.’
The demographics of the rioters, unsurprisingly, also echo the Home Office and Ministry of Justice’s statistical findings. The panel estimates that between 13,000 and 15,000 people took part, with over 4,000 of them arrested. They were overwhelmingly male, mostly under 24, with previous convictions, but not gang members.
Of the children brought before the courts: two-thirds had special educational needs, they were more likely to come from the most deprived areas, and therefore be in receipt of free school meals.
However, it is in its criticism of the police that this latest study differs.
From the very start, the actions of the police were found wanting. Firstly, in their levels of communication with the family of Mark Duggan, the man shot dead by police in Tottenham, which then sparked off the unrest.
Despite rumours circulating over the circumstances surrounding Mark Duggan’s death, family members came up against an ‘information vacuum’ from the police, who had failed to act upon Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPPC) recommendations when faced with such events.
As the report (pdf) says:
This was set against a historic backdrop of antipathy between some members of the black community and the police; some felt that these underlying tensions in the community had been rising for some time.
Most damningly, when it came to the riots itself, the report found that:
The vast majority of people we spoke to believed that the sole trigger for disturbances in their areas was the perception that the police could not contain the scale of rioting in Tottenham and then across London.
Lack of confidence in the police response to the initial riots encouraged people to test reactions in other areas… Rioters believed they would be able to loot and damage without being challenged by the police. In the hardest hit areas, they were correct.
Even before the release of this week’s interim report, we heard from Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, claiming that had the Met Police managed to contain and quickly stamp out the rioting, it would never have spread to Manchester.
People saw rioters in London ‘getting away with it,’ and that ‘the authorities weren’t in control,’ and so wanted to have their turn.
At the time, the government and the Metropolitan Police found themselves in a war of words over the handling of the trouble.
David Cameron used an emergency Commons debate to attack the police’s “insufficient” tactics and numbers during this week, whilst the home secretary, Theresa May, said that the public had lost confidence in them to take ‘clear and robust action in the face of open criminality.’
Predictably, the police defended themselves, rejecting criticism by people ‘who weren’t there.’
However, they have now recanted and admitted to mistakes being made, for which the PM can feel somewhat vindicated.
The insistence on persevering with the unpopular and discredited ‘stop and search’ tactic was highlighted by young black and Asian men in their motivations for being involved in the rioting; forming part of a much wider, general anger with the police.
Whilst probably already known, it is worth repeating what the latest studies have shown: that black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than their white counterparts, a figure which has risen in recent years. They are also more than three times more likely to then be arrested.
And both black and Asian people are also more likely to be sent to prison for committing similar offences to white people.
Is it any wonder that so much resentment exists?
It is no surprise that the report recommends that ‘stop and search’ receive “immediate attention to ensure that community support and confidence is not undermined”.
Its author, Darra Singh, paints a depressing picture and warns of future riots unless urgent steps are taken:
“…not only with the symptoms… but with the deep-seated causes of dissatisfaction beneath.”
We so often hear about the importance of community policing, built on consensus and fairness. This report illustrates just how important.
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• IDS jumped the gun: Gangs had nothing to do with the riots – Ben Mitchell, November 10th 2011
• Coalition split on riots sentencing – Ed Jacobs, October 10th 2011
• New York Times slam Cameron, Liberal Democrats over riots reaction – Daniel Elton, August 18th 2011
• Riots – the view from the devolved nations – Ed Jacobs, August 11th 2011
• A crowd psychology analysis of the riots – Clifford Stott, August 9th 2011