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The police are still the only option to deal with rioting Britain

Commentary, 10 August 2011
Domestic Security
Even though senior police officers foresaw the onset of disturbances and rioting, they were completely unprepared for the scale of violence witnessed on the streets of Britain in summer 2011. Seeing police failure, some have called for the Army to be drafted in. This is unrealistic, the police needs to stay in charge.

Even though senior police officers foresaw the onset of disturbances and rioting, they were completely unprepared for the scale of violence witnessed on the streets of Britain in summer 2011. Seeing police failure, some have called for the Army to be drafted in. This is unrealistic, the police needs to stay in charge.

By Dr Tobias Feakin, Director, National Security and Resilience, RUSI

London Riots

'This is criminality, pure and simple and it has to be confronted and defeated.'

So spoke the Prime Minister emerging from the meeting of COBR to discuss the startling violence and rioting that took place across the country on Monday night.  The scale, geographical dispersion and intensity of the rioting appear to have taken the government, the police and society by surprise. The astonishment is compounded by the fact that the UK is looking to promote its image ahead of the 2012 Olympics.

Over the past twelve months we have seen protests taking place against the government's measures to cut expenditure and lower the public debt: teachers, students and other public sector workers have protested, a majority of whom have done so peacefully against cuts in their sectors, pensions and other social provision.  But we have also seen some of these protests run out of control, the most prominent example being the student protests in November and December 2010, when students expressed their anger at the introduction of increased tuition fees for degree courses.  Even members of the police themselves warned that the country may be heading for a period of sustained public disobedience because of these government measures. Chief Superintendent Derek Barnett, President of the Police Superintendent's Association warned in 2010:

In an environment of cuts across the wider public sector, we face a period where disaffection, social and industrial tensions may well rise...We will require a strong, confident, properly trained and equipped police service, one in which morale is high and one that believes it is valued by the government and public.[1]

Reflecting on the previous student protests, the head of the Metropolitan Police public order branch, Superintendent Bob Broadhurst said; 'It's difficult to ball-gaze but if the last few weeks of 2010 are anything to go by, unless there's a change in circumstances, it's likely we'll see more protests on the streets as people come out for a variety of causes, a lot of them linked to fears around employment.  Whether any of those turn to violence or disorder is a totally different matter.'[2]

However, the protests on Monday night bore no relation to people protesting against injustice or for a particular political cause, this was indeed raw expression of violent and criminal behaviour and intent.  The targets were not places of political or public importance, but rather high street stores targeted for their telephones, TVs, clothes, trainers.  The perpetrators, as far as we are aware, were not political activists, but disaffected individuals who saw an opportunity to take advantage of a vastly overstretched police, who with 6000 officers on the streets of London still had no way of dealing with such large numbers of rioters.

Reports emerged of rioters using social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter to communicate with one another. But a new dimension for this incident has been the increased use of Blackberry Messenger service (BBM), which allows instant, free and private communications, unlike Twitter , Facebook and text messages.  This allowed rioters to coordinate instantly and plan their meeting points without the police having an ability to monitor their communications.  It must have been very difficult indeed to try and respond to such a fluid and rapidly changing situation with an already overstretched police force and limited field intelligence. There was interestingly a controversial case in the United Arab Emirates whereby various federal states banned the use of BBM as it was being used to pass discontented messages about the ruling elites between nationals.  Could this latest example lead to a similar case in the UK?  What is certain is that this debate is not closed, as today hackers attacked Blackberry-maker Research in Motion stating that they would publish personal details of their employees if they assisted the authorities in identifying people involved in coordinating the rioting.  A group calling themselves 'Team Poison' published a message on RIM's website stating:

 "if u assist the police, we _WILL_ make this information public and pass it onto rioters.... do you really want a bunch of angry youths on your employees doorsteps? Think about it.... and don't think that the police will protect your employees, the police can't protect themselves let alone protect others."[3]

Dammed if they do, dammed if they don't

The Police have been criticised for not being able to restore calm to the situation quickly enough across London, failing in their basic duty of protecting citizen's property, as homes, businesses, and vehicles were set on fire. They have also been accused of failing to protect innocent citizens who were mugged, attacked and had personal property taken from them.  Theft was rife, and pictures permeated our screens of looters taking anything they could get hold of.  What was clear that there were not enough police available to respond adequately, and not enough who were trained in riot control to be able to apply specialist tactics. 

However, one could imagine that had the police reacted more violently then they would have been criticised for overreacting.  Across the country hundreds of people were arrested, holding cells across the capital city were full and there is no doubting that the Metropolitan Police were and are stretched.  We now understand that additional police forces are being pooled in from across the country to assist during the day and by the evening of Tuesday 9 August some 16,000 police will be on the ground.

In December 2010, following the disturbances in London following the student protests, the police were criticised for some of the tactics that were used, and for intimidating protestors. The tactic of 'kettling' was the focus of particular criticism, which kept protestors within a restricted position. In response to this the police decided to use containing tactics in later demonstrations, which once again attracted criticism as demonstrations became violent.  There is no easy solution for dealing with large crowds of people who have strong feelings of frustration, anger, or despair, so the police find themselves in a no-win position: react in a heavy handed manner and they will be dammed, if they do not react strongly enough, as has been mentioned in their responses so far to these London riots, and they are also dammed.

There have been suggestions that there is the potential for the military to be deployed on the streets to assist the police in controlling the rioting, however, this is highly unlikely.   Politically this would be seen as almost losing control, as the military being utilised can only be an absolute last resort, it would be highly politically damaging.  The military had been called upon to help civil authorities during floods in Gloucestershire and Cumbria, and to crew Green Goddess engines during fire service disputes, but to do so now would be a last resort. Indeed, during the floods, some police leaders had not welcomed any loss of operational control.  Certainly in this case the police would be loath to allow the army to be involved.

Restoring calm

Calm needs to be restored, rioters need to know that they cannot get away with theft, violence, and vandalism.  This is the job of the police and the judicial system.  Once normality has been restored and those responsible are serving the appropriate sentences for their actions then the long term questions need to be asked.  What has caused this level of violence?

If we now have a 'lost generation' who are so disaffected with their position in society, the question now arises as to why violence is the only option.  There is clearly a disconnect between the political powers in this country and the people who are carrying out these actions.  As much as this option will seem unpalatable to those who have been affected by the rioting, we need to listen and understand why these people carried out these acts, by understanding the motivation we can then try and address the grievances that they have and look to address them at multiple levels, individual, community and national level, and in that way bridge the gap between their lives and the political powers who obviously command no respect in their lives.



[1] Derek Benett quoted in, Tom Whitehead (2010), 'Cuts will bring civil unrest, says police leader', The Telegraph, 14 September. Available online:

[2] Bob Broadhurst quoted in Graeme Green (2011), 'Civil unrest 2011: A year of more discontent?' The Metro Online, 4 January.  Available online:

[3] Matt Warman (2011), 'London Riots: Blackberry workers threatened', The Telegraph, 9 August.   Available online:


Dr Tobias Feakin
Senior Associate Fellow

Dr Tobias Feakin is Australia's inaugural Ambassador for Cyber Affairs. He leads Australia's whole of government international... read more

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