This past summer saw urban disorder on a dramatic scale. Many were shocked and appalled by what happened, with blame and cries for ‘something to be done’ sounding very quickly afterwards. The Prime Minister claimed this was ‘criminality, pure and simple’ and proposals for making water cannon available in strategic locations around the country are currently being considered. From the heightened emotions displayed in the reactions of the ‘law abiding’, one would think that the August 2011 riots were something unprecedented, and that the response of the police during those five days was largely ineffective and poses serious questions about the safety of the public in the future.
While I am not dismissing the trauma that people directly affected by the riots have experienced, especially that of the family and friends of those who died, I would urge that we all take a step back and a deep breath. This has all happened before. It has been happening for centuries – for as long as there have been urban areas in which to riot. And while the role of the police is indeed significant for how the events unfolded on the days in question, the police are not the only factor in the equation. Research tells us that if we have a group of people so angry that they are on the verge of rioting, the battle began some time ago and is in effect already lost. However, it is not within my remit to discuss the causes of riots here. I mention it only to point out that there are larger factors at play in any riot situation beyond the police which must also be considered (such as youth unemployment, relative deprivation, environmental conditions, and feelings of powerlessness and desperation). It is to a specific discussion of the role of the police in this to which I now turn.
The police, of course, do have a key role to play in urban riots. What is important to keep in mind though is that their role is much more complex than it may seem on the surface. Not all riots are the same and thus the role of the police in those riots will also vary. For example, the police in Tottenham in August 2011 had a key role in the genesis of the riots. The treatment (or lack thereof) the Duggan family received from senior officers, followed by the response of the police to the peaceful protest outside the station, not to mention police shooting Mark Duggan in the first place are key moments in the development of an angry crowd into a rioting one. However, the role of the police is much deeper than that. The police also serve a very important symbolic role in some riots. They are the face of authority, the symbols of power, especially in disadvantaged communities such as Salford. There, while some looting did take place, most of the aggression of the rioters was aimed directly at the police. This was not the case in neighbouring Manchester on the same day. For Salford rioters, the police represented all that was wrong in their community – too much policing, too much control, not enough investment and a sense that no one is on their side. In Manchester, meanwhile, the police played a largely instrumental role in that they were mainly there to stop the looting and end the violence. They were not in themselves the focus of the rioters.
In terms of the police response to the rioters, I would repeat my earlier statement that once a riot has begun the battle is already lost. The best the police can hope to do is to contain the damage, prevent injury if possible and perhaps encourage a swift ending. We have to keep in mind that the police will always be outnumbered in a riot and thus they are limited in what they can achieve.
Bringing in additional staff from other forces can help redress the balance somewhat, but then they are relying on officers who do not know the area and so are at a disadvantage. Suggestions for drastic measures, such as water cannon, may seem to be a way to add some power to the police side. However, I would argue that this will only exacerbate the situation. Research has shown that people riot when they feel, as a social group, that they are all being treated badly by those in authority, that they have a collective grievance, and nothing to lose. An indiscriminate measure such as water cannon would only serve to reinforce this view. It is up to those who contribute to this sense of collective powerlessness, desperation and frustration which forms the backdrop to the riots that we must turn our questions. The police are not the only members of this group.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society