(Published in the Statesman on 19 October 2011 and reproduced in Asia News Network and leading Sri Lankan daily The Island on October 21 under the title Bumbling Bobby)
The Tottenham riots (early August) took the British police by surprise. They fumbled initially for apparent lack of contingency plans. They lost more face when the trouble engulfed not only the city of London but much of the British urban landscape (surprising why these. did not spread to Scotland, Wales and North Ireland) exposing lack of coordination among the different city police forces. The London Bobby has long been viewed as a role model for police forces the world over and the Scotland Yard as icon among the detective agencies. Post-riots tongues started wagging that foreign police agencies might think twice before turning to London for advice on public order. There was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Prime Minister David Cameron might be calling in experts from New York and Los Angeles police on tackling gangs.
Whatever might have been felt and said in the heat of the moment one should not be too harsh in judging the police. The Metropolitan Police had been headless for some time denying the police the benefit of a centralised command. Not having been exposed to a serious riot since the Broadwater Farm riots 26 years ago they seem to have forgotten their riot drill. They were grossly under equipped and under strength They rose to the occasion like one man once the reinforcements came with sufficient riot gear. The London cops, with their strength gone up from 6000 to 16000, effected 1700 arrests; of the 700 charged two-thirds were remanded to custody. Within hours they were tried and those found guilty were sentenced. (Contrast this with India where there is virtually no conviction following a major riot.) Going by a media poll, despite the initial setback the public (at least the majority of the whites) continue to view their police as professionally competent, fair and impartial. In their view the riots were the outcome of the skewed policies of the government over a period of time.
Britain has been a divided society for the last few decades and the hiatus is only growing. The country has had a problem with its youth, a generation that is functionally illiterate, unemployable, demotivated and criminalised from early childhood, stuck in a vicious cycle of generational poverty. They have no jobs, no prospects, and no future except living on dole in dwellings built out of public money. Hate and anger had been building up over a period of time. The super rich bankers in the Square Mile and the rioters next door in Hackney may be next door neighbours but there is little in common between them besides their fondness for the same gizmos. Walking down the trashed streets one found the items looted were electronics, designer clothes, phones, perfumes, cosmetics and jewellery. It is therefore being said that the riots were a consumerist uprising of the have-nots against the haves.
The native white population has reason to feel threatened by the size and relative prosperity of the non-white immigrant communities. Police will have to remain on guard against the rise of right (white) extremism of the kind that was responsible for the Norway carnage last month. According to his own admission the suspect in the Norwegian attacks, Anders Behring Breivik was only trying to draw attention to the imminent danger of ‘black’ immigrants engulfing the whites if the tide was not arrested.
Leave aside the government police too failed to read the writing on the wall. When the society was static the beat constable knew his charge by name and face. He bore on his person nothing more than a truncheon, more as a symbol of authority than as a weapon of assault. If police was unarmed, so was the criminal and so the cycle went. Law and order problems were few and far between. Lately
police have largely abandoned visits to racially sensitive areas. Any law enforcement in these areas is treated with a simmering resentment which quickly erupts into violence. The easy option for the police has been to designate them as "no-go areas", effectively abandoning the silent majority to a life of misery under the threat of violence and crime. Cuts to policing are evident in the mere fact that visible, proactive patrols don't exist any more.
It is time for police to introspect and to answer a few questions. Was there enough provocation to open fire at Tottenham? It looks like not having had to handle anything so serious for a long time police had become complacent. Fire power was used where other methods such as parleying, baton charge, water cannon and tear smoke might have done the job. Police have to answer the charge of intelligence failure and not having a contingency plan ready. Why did they not activate their ‘sleeper cells’? The deteriorating socio-economic scenario and the near total alienation of the youth were bound to result in an outburst sooner than later. Police failed to feel their pulse. Once the trouble started there was obvious lack of coordination between the police forces of different cities. Why could the conflagration not be prevented from spreading to other cities? If the looters could coordinate their actions through Facebook, Tweeter and other social network sites the police could also have responded in kind and intercepted or jammed them? Perhaps they could not under the law. After all, United Kingdom prides herself on being a free, liberal society.
What complicated matter for police was that the victim in Tottenham was an Asian immigrant. Police, nearly all white, have not been able to shake off allegations of racial prejudice. Considering the large immigrant segment of British population a fresh dose of sensitization is called for. The United States is trying to deal with this problem by inducting a sizeable number of Afro-Americans in their police force.
Having lambasted the autocratic regimes in the Arab world all these years for human rights violation spy glasses are constantly turned on UK for any signs of similar transgression. With the sword of human rights violation hanging over their head British police law enforcement has become lax. In coming years law enforcement without compromising on human rights is going to pose a challenge for them.
The British police are still one of the best in the world. Let them treat the riots as a wake up call, fine tune their strategy and tactics, and take stock of what they have and what they need. Equally or more so, government must take note of the changed environment. With latent hostility at home and international terrorism staring country in the face days of the unarmed beat constable have to end. Police need latest equipment and gadgetry, mobility and, most of all, manifold increase in numbers. Policing, proactive as well as reactive, is going to cost the exchequer a packet, budget cut or no budget cut, and there is no running away from it.
(Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha)
(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar)