Lancaster Online reports a remarkable fact about the recent riots in Britain. Despite the widespread chaos, not a single shot was fired. Part of the reason was to avoid shattering the single pane of glass that was really in danger of being smashed: the British policing model. It is a paradigm even the looters understand. The police were aware that if they shot, the truce would have ended and return fire expected.
Four nights of arson, looting and violence erupted across England’s largest cities and left five people dead.
British police didn’t fire a single shot.
… “If more officers were armed, there would have been shooting during last week’s riots — and it was ugly enough as it was,” said Clive Chamberlain, a police constable for 30 years and chairman of Dorset Police Federation. “Most officers believe that we have not reached that stage yet, but accept it is something that should be discussed.”
Now that the flames have died down, the policymakers want to talk about the truce between the police and the criminals. The peace has been broken before. The Metropolitan Police’s own history site notes that rioting is actually as British as steak and kidney pie. “Historically, rioting has regularly occurred in London.” And whenever it occurred the response had historically been to shift modes and read out the Riot Act.
The Strand Riots of 1749 needed the policing attention of “Mr Fielding’s people”. The 1768 Wilkes riots (caused by attempts to prevent the electorate choosing their own MP) led to a Parliamentary Committee re-examining Fielding’s “Plan of Police”, and the Gordon Riots about Catholic emancipation led to the Bow Street office and Newgate prison being set on fire. In Manchester, 11 were killed and 400 injured by the Army who dispersed crowds at the Peterloo Reform meeting.
The Metropolitan Police were involved in crowd control from their earliest days. After an experiment with passive control, baton charges were used in 1830. In 1833 a riot at Cold Bath Fields resulted in the death of PC Culley. The inquest jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide and were treated as heroes, but popular opinion turned when newspapers publicised the plight of PC Culley’s widow.
There was a tangible fear of revolution in the nineteenth century. In 1848 150,000 special constables were sworn in, and the greater part of the Metropolitan Police were deployed on bridges over the River Thames to prevent the Chartists from a meeting on Kennington Common reaching Parliament. In the event a petition was delivered by cab.
The “Bloody Sunday” riot on 13th November 1887 resulted in the Riot Act being read when the Square was subject to a mass occupation by the unemployed. The 1715 Riot Act provided for the death penalty for rioters who had not dispersed one hour after the Act had been read by a magistrate.
And it has been met in the peculiar British way: outbursts of force during the period of unrest followed by a return to the truce. The ordinary function of the police, excepting times of disorder, was to observe it; to serve as the enforcer of a social compact. “The police are the public and the public are the police. … The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”
Where the “social compact” did not exist, as in Northern Ireland where the inhabitants were happy to sing My Little Armalite, then the sight of the unarmed Bobby (named after Robert Peel) was replaced by the armored, HK-armed paramilitary policeman.
But not London. Not until now at least. But one side effect of the social changes introduced by multiculturalism, open borders and the globalized drug trade is that it has shredded the social contract on which Robert Peel’s unarmed Bobby was predicated. London became Injun Country while the police were left waving around their nightsticks. According to critics the change has left a rigid, unarmed and confused constabulary facing a totally new and evolving threat. The Economist says the police have all of 7,000 guns to keep order in most of the UK, which might at a pinch be augmented by 5,000 swords left over from the Victorian era.
Less than 5% of police officers in England and Wales carry a gun on duty. Infinitely fewer fire one … outside Northern Ireland, even bulges on belts are rarely seen. There are currently only around 7,000 authorised firearms officers out of 140,000 police officers in all.
British academics like Maurice Punch of the London School of Economics are asking whether the old model still works and is calling for a public policy debate on arming the police, a discussion which in itself is slightly subversive. “You are at a turning point,” said Maurice Punch, the author of several books on British policing. “What happened last week has just accelerated that, there is now a necessity to have a major review, to take a step back and for the public to ask what kind of policing they want.”
The depths of perplexity to which the British have been plunged can be seen from the fact they are consulting “ex-Los Angeles, New York and Boston Police Chief William Bratton” for advice on how to fix things, which means if anything that pigs are flying, beggars are on horses and snowballs are proliferating in hell.
What do they want Bratton to say? For surely no British politician would stoop to asking for help from an American policeman unless it was something only an American cop could say. A speech by Home Secretary Theresa May provides clues to the policies for which they are probably trying to solicit Bratton’s support. She said:
Our police reforms are based on the need to address three main problems.
After years of bureaucratic control from Whitehall, the police are too tied up in red tape to fight crime as effectively as they can.
Locally the public don’t have enough of a say over policing in their communities.
And nationally, the very serious problem of organized crime has for too long been neglected.
Of course, we also have to meet these challenges at a time when we will have to reduce police spending. When the last government doubled our national debt and left us with the biggest deficit in the G7, we simply don’t have a choice about whether we cut spending or by how much. The police, along with the rest of the public sector, will have to take its share of the burden.
My translation of her remarks is this. They want to elect local sheriffs and vary police models according to the locality. Point by point her remarks can be rendered thus.
- Reduce the procedural restraints which currently bind the police to the “social contract” model;
- Disaggregate the landscape so that some places can be policed differently from others, i.e. the “Northern-Ireland-within-London” idea;
- Accept that the world has changed and that the drug gang or terrorist cell is never going to quail before the avuncular, dome-helmeted British policeman.
As the Economist interpreted it it, “policing is in for a huge shake-up as the government brings in local political accountability in the form of elected police commissioners … the terrorist threat facing Britain has evolved, from remotely detonated IRA explosives to Islamist suicide bombers—and the possibility that the sort of armed attack that killed 174 people in Mumbai in 2008 could be launched in Britain, perhaps during the Olympic games in 2012. This suggests to some that, if the police are to continue to play a central role in counter-terrorism, they may need to be more heavily armed and more centrally commanded.”
What they’re probably afraid of is a repeat of the London 2011 riots or a reprise of the Mumbai attack while the 2012 Olympic Games are underway.
Britain has woken up to the ironic fact that it was more insular when it was the old Empire. Now it has become as polyglot as the another empire, the Ottoman. Multiculturalism, integration into Europe and participation in the global economy mean that its society has changed in some ways for the better, but possibly in many ways for the worse. That may force changes in the “social contract” as well, of which the Bobby was an expression.
Time marches on. And so must police work. Here’s a high speed police car chase circa 1915. Note the absence of video cameras on the dashboards.