Policing the mobs
The police stand accused of allowing mayhem to go unchecked
Aug 13th 2011 | from the print edition
Trying to catch up
AFTER five days of spreading Saturnalian anarchy on the streets of English cities, the disgust and anger felt for the rioters was accompanied by growing dismay at the failure of the police to get on top of the violent thuggery in some places. In violated towns and cities, there was angry incomprehension at the apparent willingness of armoured police to stand back while shops were pillaged and torched by marauding youths.
A poll conducted by YouGov for the Sun newspaper reflected the widespread belief that the police had got their tactics wrong. Of those questioned, 90% favoured the use of water cannon; 78% tear gas; 72% Tasers (an electroshock weapon); 65% plastic bullets; 33% even wanted the police to use live ammunition against the looters. And 77% wanted the army to be deployed.
The criticism of the police is understandable, but is it justified? Most experts doubt whether the use of traditional riot-control weapons would have made much difference this week. Although water cannon and tear gas can be effective in getting a large mob to disperse from a particular area, or in allowing the police to “buy distance” or hold ground, they are indiscriminate and fairly clumsy. Tasers are not a public-order weapon—they cannot be fired into crowds—but a non-lethal method of individual incapacitation.
Martin Innes, of the Universities Police Science Institute at Cardiff University, says that water cannon would not be much use against the kind of “fluid, highly mobile satellite groups” that the police have faced. Both he and Peter Waddington, a former policeman and now an authority on crowd control at Wolverhampton University, are sceptical about plastic bullets (or baton rounds as the police call them). Mr Waddington says that the trouble with baton rounds, which travel at nearly twice the speed of a cricket ball delivered by a fast bowler, is that they can be dodged, leaving them to smash into other people. “Hit an 11-year-old girl in the head,” he says, “and there is all hell to pay.”
卡迪夫大学警务调查及培训组织（UPSI）的马丁•因尼斯（Martin Innes）认为，警方面对的暴动人群“不固定地点，不停流动，呈卫星状”，高压水枪不会其多大作用。彼得•沃丁顿（Peter Waddington）原来担任警察，现在是伍尔弗汉普顿大学公众秩序控制方面的专家。他和马丁对塑料子弹（警方称之为“防暴子弹”）的作用均持怀疑态度。沃丁顿认为，防暴子弹问题在于其速度仅为一个板球手快速投球速度的两倍，子弹能够躲开，有可能射到其他人。他说：“有个11岁的小女孩就被误伤到头部，警察有的赔了。”
Both water cannon and baton rounds have now been made available to the police, but they have shown little appetite for employing either. They have, however, started to make greater use of armoured vehicles to break up crowds. As for calling on the army for help, that is something that the police, politicians and the army itself regard as almost unimaginable.
But if the police are right to be cautious over the use of crowd-control weapons, they seem to have been slow to react in other ways. Mike Waldren, a retired chief superintendent who formerly ran London’s firearms unit, blames senior officers at Scotland Yard, fearful of being charged with overreacting, for hobbling commanders on the ground. According to some reports, riot police had initially been ordered to “stand and observe” rather than confront rioters. Mr Innes says that, with a few exceptions (principally those who have served in Northern Ireland), there is now a generation of police leaders whose only experience of public-order problems involves football hooliganism and planned political demonstrations that turn violent.
In their defence, this week’s disturbances were of a new, if not wholly unexpected, kind. The police’s old tactical manual is based on two principles that were suddenly irrelevant. The first is the assumption that rioters want to attack the police themselves. It makes things a lot easier if you know that they will be where you are. The second is that the main objective is to control ground rather than people. But now, Mr Innes points out, the police have to find “flash mobs” who use social media to gather and grab loot in one place, disperse, then meet somewhere else: “You have to follow them, harry them and channel them away.”
The problem with that approach is that when looters are chased, they split up and police resources are dissipated. Even if officers catch and arrest one (tying up at least two policemen who may be needed elsewhere), they might only be able to charge him (or her) with a minor disorder offence.
Mr Waddington thinks that the police may have been right to rely mostly on CCTV cameras and their own photographers to gather evidence, with the aim of nabbing culprits later in their own homes with the stolen goods in their possession. As long as rioters are part of a street mob they feel strong and invulnerable. Once individuals are arrested in large numbers (well over 1,000 had been by the time The Economist went to press), powerful peer networks and the groupthink that goes with them can be broken.
If that is right, the rioting is unlikely to be stamped out by rounding up the feral mobs and giving them a good hiding, popular though that might be. Rather the key is to demonstrate through the courts that their behaviour brings with it serious and long-term personal consequences.