Taking To the Air

If dinosaurs became birds, their last act was to leave earth and take to the air. Jonathan Foreman, writing in the Financial Times, argues the British police have done just that and have left the ground up for grabs. But while the dinos are now happily singing in the trees, the cops went off into cyberspace where they are staring into CCTV monitors. Foreman traces the genesis of this trend.


the culprit is an out of date philosophy of reactive policing. Back in the 1970s many US forces, including the New York Police Department, abandoned beat policing and took to the car. The policy proved to be a disaster and has now been abandoned in almost every big American city. In the UK, however, beginning in the 1990s, the Met went in the opposite direction, seizing on closed-circuit television as the primary tool of law enforcement.

This seemed like a modern and glamorous new world of monitoring trouble spots with cameras and racing to crime scenes in cars. But among other problems it created a vacuum of authority in public space. Add in other cultural and legal factors and this vacuum can quickly be filled by violent young people with no respect for adults or the law. Their sense of impunity was proved correct last weekend, as gangs found that they could take over one high street after another.

Having taken the cops off the beat, Foreman argues the London Met proceeded to compound the problem by handing over the beat to barely trained civilians. Instead of taking hiring civilians to sit in the office to leave the cops walking the sidewalk, the Met did the opposite. They put the police in the office and put civilians on the street.

Obsessed with such technology, the Met’s response to problems of police bureaucracy has also been a shambles. In New York in the 1990s, when police and unions complained about the weight of paperwork, the city hired thousands of civilian employees to perform office functions, allowing a dramatic increase in the numbers of police on the street. By contrast, the Met hired some 3,000 civilians, gave them six weeks’ training and put them out on the street in place of real police as “community support officers”.

These PCSOs are often all that passes for a police presence in British cities. London, meanwhile, has become one of the least-policed big cities in the developed world – a process that has seen the abandonment of two centuries of police wisdom, and arguably the abandonment of the public. Any hope of deterrence is lost when burglars know there is scant risk of bumping into a bobby on the beat. Worse, interactions between the public and police now tend to be rare, highly charged and prone to mutual misunderstanding. Police stations are unwelcoming fortresses, impossible to contact on an informal basis, as calls are funnelled through centralised call-centres.


The retreat into cyberspace  bears an eerie resemblance to the approach of using overhead drones (instead of CCTVs) to monitor the area of operations and then descending on the malefactors with helicopters (instead of police cars) in Afghanistan. But attractive as this method may seem, there were always misgivings about whether it could completely obviate the need for “boots on the ground”.

During the recent riots, the fact that the police were only hours away when minutes counted created a need so great that it was spontaneously filled by vigilante groups.  They literally barred the looters for their neighborhoods. But this uninvited help posed a challenge not only to the looters but also to the centralized policing philosophy of the Met. For having taken the effort to ensure that only the police acted in troublesome situations, to welcome the neighborhood watches would have been to condemn the policy of the past decade.  Johnathan Foreman, in a separate article on the Frum Forum, describes how the vigilante phenonomenon started.

Britain’s equivalent of LA’s Koreans in the ‘92 riots include the Sikhs of Southall shown in this hostile BBC segment, Kurdish and Turkish storekeepers in North and Eastern London neighborhoods, Bangladeshis in the East End who rushed from the mosque they’d been guarding to protect a local bank, and Anglo-Pakistani men in Birmingham, three of whom were killed last night in an incident that locals fear may lead to an eruption of black vs. south asian racial violence. …

Many of these brave people have been threatened with arrest by the same police who stood by on successive nights and watched feral gangs of hoodie-wearing youths loot and burn stores. For some mysterious reason of institutional culture, London’s Metropolitan Police have seemed far more concerned with protecting their monopoly on law enforcement than with actively enforcing the law against marauding teen vandals and thieves.

They were particularly energetic in their confrontation with “vigilantes” in the predominantly white working class North London district of Enfield yesterday where a significant number of men, some of them allegedly members of the infamous fan club of the Millwall soccer team, had gathered to protect the community. Police in riot gear moved in force to disperse the crowd, displaying far more determination than they had shown against the rioters.


This love-hate relationship between the police and the impromptu neighborhood watches highlights the inherent contradiction in Britain’s policy of “letting the police” —  and only the police — “do the job” and adequately maintaining public order. It is the contradiction between the urge to centralize authority in an all-powerful government and simultaneously being everywhere at once. By disarming the British public and treating any spontaneous response to a crime as suspicious, the London cops have made themselves implicitly responsible for everything.  This was difficult in the best of times and insupportable in financial crisis.

Loathe to devolve authority, a centralized state hoards an inadequate amount of it, comforting itself with possession rather than adequacy. Like every other monopoly, the jealous state produces too little at too high a price.  That applies to public safety as well as to any other good. This deficit is not evident in the good times, when the social and financial waters run smooth. But once trouble spikes above the statistical norm the shortages emerge. The defects of waiting passively for the police to come when rioters are beating down the door compels expedients, like the secret private farms encountered in socialist economies or the bathtub of moonshine in a world where Victory Gin is the only brand.

Neighborhood watches are nothing but the backyard gardens of a society in which the allotted ration of public order has failed to arrive. Just as people have got to eat, people have got to defend themselves. But the contradiction between centralized power and pervasive public safety may even be greater. As Melanie Philips points out in the Daily Mail, the legitimacy of the “only the police” approach has been purchased at the price of denigrating the traditional wellsprings of public safety: parental authority, school discipline and culture.


Thus it was that teachers adopted the ‘child-centered’ approach, which expected children not only to learn for themselves but also to decide for themselves about behaviour such as sexual morality or drug-taking. The outcome was that children were left illiterate and innumerate and unable to think. Abandoned to wander through the world without any guidance, they predictably ended up without any moral compass.

All of this was compounded still further by the disaster of multiculturalism — the doctrine which held that no culture could be considered superior to any other because that was ‘racist’.

That meant children were no longer taught about the nation in which they lived, and about its culture. So not only were they left in ignorance of their own society, but any attachment to a shared and over-arching culture was deliberately shattered.

Like many other well intentioned enterprises through history, the centralizing government destroyed the village in order to save it. It sundered the last remaining bonds of authority between parent and child — in fact it has come perilously close to exterminating the family altogether in certain social groups — the better to substitute itself, and by doing so unwittingly stripped itself of the greatest force for public order — culture.  It disabled every traditional defense that societies have evolved from the beginning of time and relied upon the CCTV and the Anti-social Behavior Order.


Yet London has been fortunate in this. Despite press releases describing the arrest of riot “ringleaders” as if they were criminal masterminds, the probability is that most of the looting was the work of petty criminals, idlers, louts and similar small-timers. Had the riots been spearheaded by real gangs of the sort found in LA,  or semi-professional agitators supported by powerful ethnic or religious groups, then God only knows what may have ensued.

The riots were a shot across the bow; a warning that the CCTV-based, centralized police model might not only be inefficient, but a possible disaster waiting to happen. As the date of the London Olympics draws near, not only the Met but al-Qaeda and perhaps the Duck of Death are drawing lessons from the latest incidents.

A great welfare state may at first seem to be in control of everything, but like the dinosaurs prove in the end to retain possession of very little. The London Riots may be prove to be a case study of how a state trying to do too much is unable to do anything at all. Because any government big enough to promise you everything you want will have no taxpayers left to pay for it; and any government which swears to protect you from everything you fear is telling a lie.

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