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UK Disorders: A Serious Wake-Up Call Ahead of the Olympics

Commentary, 11 August 2011
Domestic Security
The riots in London and the rest of England have seriously shaken the public's confidence in the police. Careful planning to ensure the security for next year's Olympic Games will need to be revisited in light of this week's events.

The riots in London and the rest of England have seriously shaken the public's confidence in the police. Careful planning to ensure the security for next year's Olympic Games will need to be revisited in light of this week's events.

By Valentina Soria for RUSI.org

London Riots 3

The scenes of riots, looting and burning buildings witnessed during the past few days have been described as the worst episodes of street violence in the Metropolitan Police's  (Met) living memory.[1] Likewise, they have put other police forces around the country under severe strain. They have also attracted, quite understandably, extensive worldwide media coverage, which was particularly focused on the police's handling of the disorder and what the potential repercussions for the delivery of Olympic security would be in a year time. Thus the world's attention is now on London for all sorts of wrong reasons.

Coincidentally, representatives from several National Olympic Committees had been scheduled to convene in London during these days to assess pre-Games logistics and arrangements. And although members of the International Olympic Committee have swiftly pointed out that they have total confidence in the UK authorities' ability to deliver on their promises for safe and secure Games,[2] there is little doubt they will be watching anxiously to see how this crisis will be solved. 

Overstretch

According to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steven Kavanagh, the Met's forces were stretched beyond belief[3] during Monday night disorders. This is a statement which highlights how, from the outset, police officers quickly found themselves to be under-resourced to deal properly with what was unravelling. As a result, one of the immediate decisions made by the Prime Minister was to considerably increase the number of police officers who would be deployed overnight in the capital, from 6.000 to 16.000,[4] with reinforcements being sent from other forces around the country.

The most immediate drawback of such a concentration of forces in the capital is to leave other parts of the UK under-manned and potentially more exposed to similar disorders and incidents. In the case of organised violence or terrorist groups, this could also be a diversionary tactic aimed at increasing the chances to carry out a successful attack against alternative targets. Obviously, this has not been the case with the recent riots, where effective copycat incidents have taken place in other cities more out of opportunistic attempts than because of intentional pre-planning. What they have shown, though, is that it may be necessary to review how finite police resources are managed and deployed in order to ensure forces are in place to deal effectively with several scenarios. Needless to say, time pressure adds urgency to the task as the countdown to the Olympics goes on inexorably.

Tactical approach

It is not yet clear, though, what the operational and tactical implications of this will be for commanders and rank-and-file officers on the ground. There still seems to be uneasiness over the authorisation for and employment of more aggressive police tactics like such as the use of water cannons, which have never been utilised in mainland Britain before. At the same time,  and for the first time, police deployed armoured vehicles (so called Jankels) to clear the streets, a tactic which enabled them to gradually, if slowly, retake control of the situation. This could therefore mark a possible shift away from the traditionally 'self-restrained' approach of UK policing and towards a tougher stance to law enforcement and public order.

In any case, it is paramount for the government and the police alike to be seen to finally get to grips with the situation. This is crucial not just in order to resolve the current crisis but also to restore the public image of London and the UK as a whole, ahead of the London 2012 Games.

Foreseeing police unpreparedness

It has been a mixture of insufficient manpower, inadequate resources and poor operational guidelines which has hampered the police response to the acts of violence and criminality which have shocked the country. The slow police reaction has been attributed to the unpredictable way in which events unfolded, compounded by the high mobility and rapidity with which thugs moved around. Yet, these same factors had been identified during last December's tuition fees protests in order to partially explain why the police were unprepared to handle those disorders.

As a consequence of those incidents, the Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) issued last February a report[5] which highlighted how 40 per cent of police forces around the country had not properly tested their plans to deal with such sudden protests. It also questioned their level of readiness and ability to rapidly adapt to changing patterns of social disorder. Even more worrisome is the fact that the HMIC cast doubt over the reliance of constabulary cross-border support[6] in the eventuality of frequent, widespread and, possibly, concurrent, disorders. This was especially when the effectiveness of existent arrangements to deal with such a scenario have not yet been tested in practice.

Policing the Olympics

Clearly this has substantial implications both for the police response to the current riots and for the management of potential disorders - or even a terrorist attack scenario - taking place during the Olympics.

The ability to rely on the principle of mutual assistance is at the heart of the Met's Olympic security planning. If anything, the current crisis can provide an opportunity to effectively test the soundness of that principle ahead of the Games, especially given that London is not the only city to be affected by these incidents. At the same time, it may well prepare the police to enter in a state of mind where they would have to deal with widespread or serious incidents at the same time.

The fact that many sporting competitions have been postponed (Carling Cup matches) or called off (such as the friendly between England and Holland and the one between Ghana and Nigeria) as a consequence of the riots should be seen as a responsible decision, aimed at avoiding the unnecessary diversion of thin-stretched resources. Yet, it inevitably raises questions over how robust and resilient we can expect the security machine for the Olympics to be. In that circumstance, it will be not only desirable but indeed imperative that any competition and event go on as planned. Any disruption to the Olympic schedule due to security concerns would inevitably be seen as a failure of management, and possibly of imagination, for UK authorities which would cause huge reputational damage to the country.

Whatever the underlying causes for the recent riots, they have shown that the UK police are still struggling to anticipate rapidly changing scenarios and, as a result, there is a substantial gap in their ability to adapt their response promptly and accordingly. This has to be addressed not just in time to ensure the smooth and safe running of the 2012 Games but also to improve the way front-line policing is delivered in the UK.

From its part, the Government should be ready to provide the police with all the necessary support to do their job effectively, both in terms of powers, resources and trust.

The UK has long been identified worldwide as a model of national resilience. For this to remain the case, the public need to be able to trust the police's ability to sustain and protect their communities, especially against a terrorist attack or an unexpected burst of social anger.

 

NOTES

[1] Sandra Laville 'London Riots: Police Use Armoured Vehicles to Clear Streets', in The Guardian, 9 August 2011

[2] 'IOC Confident Over Safety at London 2012 Olympic Games', BBC News Online, 9 August 2011

[3] 'London Riots: Scale of Violence Unprecedented', BBC News, 9 August 2011

[4] 'David Cameron's Full Statement', in The Guardian, 9 August 2011

[5] 'Warning Over Policing of Protests', BBC News, 9 February 2011

[6] Ibid.

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