The riots that erupted in London on August 6 finally petered out after four days. By then thousands of police officers had been drafted from other parts of the United Kingdom to stand guard on the streets of London and the city’s own Metropolitan Police had finally taken a more active tack against the looting, including driving armored vehicles toward clumps of rioting youths. Copycat looting then took place in Birmingham and Manchester and other cities that had sent their cops to the capital. Londoners joked that the real reason rioting had stopped in their city was because their looters had already taken all the consumer goods they wanted and had now settled down to watch the violence up North on their new plasma TVs.
In Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city, three Anglo-Pakistani men were killed while guarding stores from looters. Indeed, all those killed or seriously injured during the rioting seem to have been civilians standing up to the rioters. There were some 180 police injuries, although none of them life-threatening—except that to a police dog whose skull was shattered by a thrown brick. There are no reports of any looters being injured.
Footage of the rioting captured by onlookers, police cameras, the media, and the rioters themselves revealed a policing strategy that puzzled viewers in Britain and around the world. Lines of police officers, wearing full riot gear, stood by and watched as youths smashed windows, set buildings afire, and looted stores. In some places the youths hurled missiles at the police, who occasionally sent out snatch squads to arrest individual assailants. In South London, a cameraman filmed 30-odd young men squaring up to a police line. You could see fearless toughs get in the face of cops who were wearing full armor and carrying batons. The police looked frightened and, in the absence of an equine or canine squad, had no equipment that would give them significant combat advantage over even an equal number of rioters. After a couple of minutes the police broke and ran, chased by the youths.
It was a scene unimaginable even in the most liberal European countries. Nevertheless, senior officers refused to consider, let alone order, the use of tear gas or baton rounds even to defend their own men and continued to use tactics designed to control football crowds and mass demonstrations. Their spokesmen assured the media that thanks to watchdog cameras installed across the city and amateur footage posted on some social networks the looters were using, all the criminals would eventually be identified and caught. They seemed genuinely mystified that this did not satisfy their questioners or that it might be their duty—and the fundamental obligation of the state—to stop the ongoing violence.
It has been obvious for a while that British police attitudes to public order are problematic. Even before August’s crime wave, the police lost or surrendered control in three major public-order incidents in London over the past year. These include the incident in November 2010 during which the Conservative Party’s headquarters—a mere rock throw from Parliament—were destroyed while police officers stood by helplessly. At a second demonstration against student cuts a month later, the police did nothing as youths burned one of their vehicles and defaced the Cenotaph, Britain’s memorial to its war dead. That same day, demonstrators attacked the Prince of Wales’s limousine; his police detail allowed the attackers not only to shake the vehicle but jab the Prince’s wife with a stick. The Commissioner of Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, praised the Prince’s armed protection officers for their “enormous restraint,” even though the incident made it obvious to the world just how easy it would be for terrorists to kill the future head of state.
But these incidents pale in comparison to the apparent inability or unwillingness of the Metropolitan Police to stop the August riots. Since then Britain’s police leadership and police unions have fiercely defended their strategy and tactics. But the message communicated by their actions and inactions during those four days and nights of anarchy was clear: the police had priorities other than the protection of property and the safety of ordinary civilians. Property and public safety were of course matters for concern, but not worth breaking heads or breaking a self-imposed ban on using tear gas, baton rounds, or other non-lethal anti-riot weapons.
This attitude seemed all the stranger given that the same police department with its costly scruples about baton rounds had not hesitated to bring firearms to the arrest of a crook in Tottenham or to shoot him dead in his car without knowing if he was armed. This was the incident that sparked the first riot on August 7.
Selective police inaction in times of riot is not unknown outside Great Britain. Famous cases of governments allowing mobs to vent their anger include Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to allow anti-Sikh mobs to avenge his mother’s murder with four days of mass slaughter in New Delhi in 1984. Even in New York, during the Crown Heights riot of 1991, the NYPD took a hands-off approach to anti-Jewish violence, in part due to the attitude of then Mayor David Dinkins.
In London, however, the police did not stand off because politicians had asked them to, but because doing so reflected their overall attitude toward enforcing the law. If the public and even some politicians in England were angered by the failure of the police to challenge the looters for three days, they should not have been surprised. It was only the latest and most dramatic demonstration of a bizarre policing philosophy that implicitly rejects not only the “broken windows” theories embraced so successfully in the United States, but the basic principles of modern policing established by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.
One of the differences between London and New York, and indeed London and any other major Western city, is the absence of visible police on the streets of the British capital. Of course there are always uniformed officers guarding the Westminster governmental district, stationed in front of embassies, and patrolling potential terrorist targets such as courthouses and the major railway stations. But if you avoid those places, you could easily walk for hour upon hour from North to South or East to West or in any conceivable direction without ever seeing a police officer on foot.
Even in the crowded equivalents of midtown Manhattan—shopping areas such as Oxford Street or Times Square–like Picadilly Circus—the famed British bobby is notable by his absence. Instead, London enjoys a kind of virtual policing, much of it provided by thousands of government cameras.
This has certain obvious disadvantages beyond the absence of someone trustworthy of whom lost children and tourists might ask directions. Over the last few years, clever thieves have raided major jewelry shops in Picadilly in broad daylight, correctly secure in the knowledge that it would take a police car at least 15 minutes to arrive through the perpetually jammed traffic (there are no traffic cops) and that there is absolutely no chance of running into a passing patrolman. If more London criminals had the brains and stopwatches, there would presumably be many more such raids. Any criminals who tried the same thing in the Diamond District on New York’s 47th Street, on Paris’s Champs Elysée or Rome’s Via Veneto would find themselves in the arms of the law within a block or two. But then, in all these countries the police still consider it their business to deter crime rather than to react to it after the fact, with investigation, arrests, and so forth.
It should be said that during your notional walk across London, while you will not encounter a bobby on the beat or leaning against a wall keeping an eye out like an NYPD cop, you will very likely see a squad car or two racing by, sirens screaming. In some areas, especially between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., you might spot a pair of “police community support officers” (PCSOs) plodding along the sidewalk. They are the equivalent of Times Square’s private security guards, but are paid for and trained by the city. Lacking powers of arrest, they are essentially human decoys. The brainchild of Sir Ian Blair, a London police chief celebrated for his Oxford degree, skill with management jargon, and public sensitivity to issues of race and gender discrimination, PCSOs function in the main to reassure a public disconcerted or annoyed by the disappearance of the bobby on the beat. They might confront you and give you a ticket if you are a middle-class, middle-aged white person who litters or rides a bicycle on a sidewalk; if you are a tough-looking teenager, they are apt to cross the street and walk away fast.
One of the most telling aspects of the comparative evolution of policing in the UK and the United States is the way the two cultures dealt with excessive demands of paperwork and bureaucracy at key moments in their recent history. In Rudolph Giuliani’s New York, the NYPD hired civilians to deal with the paperwork so officers could get back out on the street and use the abilities and skills for which they had been expensively selected and trained. In London, by contrast, Commissioner Blair hired thousands of civilians to walk beats as PCSOs so that highly trained police officers could do what was seen to be more important, less demeaning, and more professional desk work.
Just about everyone knows that London’s notorious network of cameras and PCSOs do not deter crime. This is not simply because there are too many cameras for even a small number to be monitored, or because they might not be recording, or because they might not be facing the right way into underlit underpasses—although most of us who have served on juries or watched criminal trials know that this often is the case. It is because almost immediately after the police started to cover cities with these eyes in the sky, criminals and hooligans began to adopt an effective countermeasure to such technology in the form of the hooded sweatshirt. The term hoodie soon became a slang term itself for the thugs wearing one. Ordinary, law-abiding teenagers adopted the hoodie look because it was cool in a “gangsta” way, but not coincidentally, because it inspires fear or respect in other kids and adults.
It is obvious from the footage of the August riots in London and other English cities that many if not most of the looters were hoodie youths, even though a startling number of grown-ups and ostensibly respectable young people were tempted to join in the easy pickings, especially on the second and third nights.
Oceans of British ink have been spilled since the riots on efforts to understand why the hoodie hordes (seldom larger than a hundred strong) did what they did. Among other contemporary problems, family breakdown, Britain’s Anglo-Jamaican version of gangsta culture, consumerism, and the disappearance of discipline from the schools all played a role, while projected government cuts in youth centers and education benefits probably did not. But much of that discussion was beside the point. The key to the violence was not amorality or alienation; it was not the decline of the sense of duty; it was not even the colossal sense of entitlement fed by the British media’s obsessive truckling to youth culture. What inspired youths from all over London to copy a local disturbance in the racially tense district of Tottenham, and then to keep on looting for four days, was a justified and confirmed faith in their impunity and the exciting realization that their freedom and power was even greater than they had previously suspected.
It was faith based on long and repeated experience. If you have been given the run of the streets, if you know that the chances of your being caught and then being punished for a minor crime are minimal, then you have little reason to fear the authority of the state or the adult world. Of course that faith was, until early August, countered by doubts or at least a sense that there might be limits to what could be done. But when that faith was put to the test by the most outrageous behavior most of them could imagine, it was marvelously confirmed: they were able to smash, steal, and burn, and no one in authority did anything serious to stop them.
Some brave unarmed citizens did stand up for law and order. Several of them got stomped. Others, mostly immigrant storekeepers defending property that represented decades of exhausting work, showed such fierce determination that the looters slunk away in search of easier targets. But the state was either absent, or as the world saw, bizarrely passive.
Among the rioters interviewed in the midst of the looting (several reporters who went where the police feared to go had cameras smashed, although none was hurt), a surprising number articulated a spirit of impunity combined with defiance. One declared to a TV correspondent’s mike, “We are looting and showing the police they can’t stop us!” Another told BBC radio, “I’ll keep doing this every day till I get caught.” And even then it wouldn’t matter, he explained to the interviewer, “as it’s my first offense.”
Many observers were confused by the fact that the looters did not seem to be particularly angry. They seemed instead to be joyful. Some were clearly high on violence and destruction. The greed so often referred to in subsequent newspaper jeremiads about “Thatcher’s children” seems to have played a lesser role. One reporter in Manchester saw a teenaged girl loot a Blackberry from a mobile-phone store and then smash it on the ground. “We’re not doing it for the stuff,” she told him. “We’re doing it for the laugh.”
This is not an attitude that the middle-class middle-aged leaders of Britain’s media and political set find easy to understand, especially as traditional explanations for riots such as deprivation or anger at discrimination clearly do not apply. The British commentariat is unaware of the phenomenon of sports riots in North America, during which relatively privileged people like students at the University of Massachusetts and Ohio State and hockey fans in Vancouver burn cars, attack police, and smash windows, all for the sheer mass-hysterical joy of mob violence.
Those sports fans, who presumably were not especially evil or alienated, perpetrated acts similar to those of the British rioters, but only for a few hours. They did it because, at that moment, they could. They stopped because the police stopped them. The British rioters, on the other hand, faced the temptations implicit in a situation in which the state had vanished and the law had for all practical purposes been suspended.
Those entrusted with enforcing the law, by ordering their men to stand around impotently rather than use appropriate force, communicated to the mob and the country at large the message that they did not value the law enough to fight for it. And if the police do not value public order or private property enough to hurt and get hurt, you can hardly blame a feral hoodie for having no respect for the former or the latter.
Since the riots, the reflexive reaching for economic or spiritual explanations for the looting has drowned out the words of the looters themselves. It has simultaneously distracted attention from those responsible through their inaction and from the damage that was done as a result.
Certainly there is an unwillingness to connect the failure of the police to stop the rioting with the deepening failure of the police to maintain law and order in England since the early 1990s. Nowhere is this more the case than with the police themselves or, more accurately, with Britain’s police chiefs. The latter have been uniformly adamant that police performance was superb given their resources, that nothing could have been done differently or better, and that all criticism is ignorant and not constructive—“armchair generalship,” to quote London’s acting commissioner.
The police establishment was especially angry with Home Secretary Theresa May when, after praising the brave men and women on the front line (and having previously opposed the recruitment of former NYPD chief Bill Bratton as London’s next commissioner), she openly wondered if more forceful tactics might have been appropriate.
Unfortunately, thin-skinned defensiveness has been the norm in recent years on the rare occasion that the British policing establishment is confronted with even mild criticism on matters of effectiveness. (Criticism concerning matters of ethnic discrimination in hiring, promotion, and law enforcement are a different matter, as those prompt self-mortifying rituals and internal inquisitions.)
For their part, top police in the UK are traditionally deferential to the shibboleths of the ruling elite, hence the political correctness that consumed the various British police forces during the reign of Tony Blair’s New Labour Party. The Tory administration of David Cameron has until now been even softer on crime and criminals than its predecessors were. This is partly because of its coalition partners, but mostly because the Prime Directive of Cameronism has been “detoxifying the Tory Brand” and changing the conservatives’ image as the Nasty Party.
Public anger however has prompted something of a shift in tone, a shift that has taken the top cops by surprise. They are used to complaints in the popular press and have become good at dismissing public irritation at the lack of police on the streets as the results of tabloid sensationalism. The problem, they always say, is one of perception. Their numbers, after all, show that crime is down. What is needed to reassure the public is not policemen on the street, but better marketing. And British police do indeed put a great deal of effort into branding themselves, with advertisements proclaiming the success of various community policing efforts.
The efficacy is somewhat undermined by all the other police advertising and posters warning the public not to leave valuables where they can be seen through car or house widows. (Leaving jewelry or a phone out on a table where it might be seen by someone looking into your home is apparently a provocation. It invites burglary just as a bulging wallet invites pickpocketing or, presumably, a short skirt invites rape.)
In the collective mind of Britain’s self-consciously “modern” police services (they are no longer police “forces”), criminals are forces of nature, like earthquakes or thunderstorms. You can no more prevent their predations than you can prevent the tides. In the long term, society can perhaps decrease crime by addressing its root causes, like inequality and poverty, but that is for the politicians. What the police can do effectively, however, is preserve social peace by monitoring racism (“white racism,” of course) along with Islamophobia and other offensive and dangerous prejudices.
Until two decades ago, British policing was dominated by big ex-servicemen who were too tough, disciplined, and experienced to be intimidated by teenagers, even teenagers with knives. The general public also was less easy to intimidate and less tolerant of antisocial behavior. Both the police and the general public knew that the establishment, led by people who had fought wars and run empires, was very much on the side of order.
The primary reason the police today seem to be torn about their role in enforcing law and order is that they have absorbed some of the more toxic attitudes of the country’s new ruling elite, an elite that takes its lead from the media and marketing industries. The police know that their masters in the new elite are not only obsessed with youth culture, but also subliminally hostile to policing in its traditional form.
When the baby boomers who later formed the core of New Labour were young radicals in the late 1960s, the police were “pigs”—brutal defenders of an unfair social order, lovers of the British Empire, representatives of the most reactionary elements of the working class. Some continue to have an ambivalent attitude toward order itself and sympathize more with those who challenge the law than with those who submit to it.
The Cameronites have tended to be every bit as youth-obsessed and soft on crime as their Blairite and Brownite predecessors. One got a sense of the Conservatives’ confusion about crime and class from Home Secretary Theresa May’s words when it was suggested in August that the police use water cannons against rioters. She primly announced: “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police is through consent of communities.”
It is a fascinating and revealing sentence, and not only because of its implication that rioters must consent to the means used against them, or that there is a “looting community” in the same way that there are black and gay communities. May must know that eminently consensual societies like, say, Holland do use water cannon. She also knows that the great majority of Britons would not see the use of water cannons or tear gas or other nonlethal methods as evidence of unacceptably nonconsensual or authoritarian government.
The “we” to whom May was referring does not really signify the British people as a whole but rather the enlightened elite. There is and has long been a big gap between the political class and the people when it comes to law and order in Britain. The political class tends to be insulated from crime and therefore does not take it very seriously. And because Britain is a much less democratic and culturally demotic society than the United States, the views of its elite prevail on such matters. It is why Parliament always votes against the death penalty even though a majority of the electorate continues to favor it.
It was telling that when stories of New York City’s crime turnaround under Rudolph Giuliani reached the UK at the turn of the millennium, the city’s careful combination of “fixing broken windows” law enforcement and the deployment of officers to neighborhoods experiencing crime spikes was wrongly described as “zero tolerance” policing. The latter sounds crude, authoritarian, frighteningly American to educated British ears, and no British politician has ever understood or championed it. Indeed, pundits, judges, and politicians on both sides of the British political divide often find it easier to empathize with young criminals than with the humdrum, law-abiding, unromantic, “unquestioning” working-class folk the hoodies prey on. The country’s legal establishment has been far too obsessed with often chimerical police racism and brutality and too little concerned with the surrender of public space to violent lumpen youths.
Anyone who has dealt with the British Foreign Office over the last half century or observed a British decolonization effort is likely to have encountered a similar preference for the extreme and therefore authentic “native” forces over reasonable, dull, Westernized types. In fact, British foreign and military policy is actually a surprisingly useful guide to underlying assumptions and attitudes of elite Britain. The British Army in Iraq used a playbook similar to that of the Metropolitan Police with equally disastrous results.
The Prince of the Marshes, a memoir by writer and MP Rory Stewart about his year working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, recounts an incident in Maysan province, where a Sadrist mob threatened the governor’s headquarters. To his shock, the British troops whose job it was to guard the building decided not to turn their guns on the mob, which then stormed the building and wrecked it. The colonel explained to Stewart, then deputy governor of the province, that the building was mere bricks and mortar and not worth the taking of human life. The Iraqi who served as the province’s governor was furious. He understood the precedent that had been set, the authority that had been permanently undermined, and the power that had been granted to the mob.
After 2005 the British military officials decided that the army’s very presence in the streets of liberated Basra, the most important city in Southern Iraq, provoked violence and caused casualties, and that absence was therefore the answer. It withdrew into fortified bases and sat in them while various militias and street gangs fought for control of the city streets. When U.S. pressure on London prompted a feeble and doomed effort to restore order, the British garrison discovered that the Basrawis whom they had betrayed had come to hate them.
The one good thing about the August riots may be that they have forced the political class to confront the factors that have caused the police to become unfit for purpose and made British cities so dangerous that you are six times more likely to be mugged in London than New York. If the Cameron government were to leap on this opportunity to reverse the evolution of law-and-order policy, it might reap great political benefit. If it fails to do so, it may discover there are far worse fates for a Conservative party than being thought mean.