Brian Paddick writes: Lessons from the Tottenham riots

What can be learnt from the riots in Tottenham this weekend?  There have been many controversial police shootings in recent years but this would not appear, on the face of it, to be one of them.  The matter is being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and from my experience that might be part of the problem.  There are also deeper issues that need to be addressed.

Local people are apparently complaining that the police have not talked to them or the family of the deceased about what happened.  Most police officers have learnt the importance of police community relations and how important it is to share as much information as possible with the community as soon as possible after a controversial incident.  I have been the police commander when there has been a death following contact with the police.  A Gold Group of community leaders has been immediately convened.  The idea is to ensure that those with influence in the community are given the facts in order to prevent false, malicious and damaging rumours from spreading.  In addition, a Family Liaison Officer has been appointed to ensure the family are kept informed of developments.

The difficulty I have faced in the past is the reluctance of the IPCC to fully understand the importance of such consultation in preventing community tension and their almost exclusive emphasis on conducting an independent investigation.  As the police could potentially be ‘suspects’ in such a shooting, the IPCC are reluctant to share information with the police or the community and have even prevented the police from sharing information with the community in the past.

We do not know in this case whether the complaints of a failure to communicate with the family of the man who was shot or with the community are justified or whether any such failure lies with the police or with the IPCC.  What is inescapable is that underlying tensions remain within the black community that must be addressed.  Many have lost their lives at the hands of the police in the past without such a violent reaction from the community.  Whilst this incident may have been the spark, you need a volatile atmosphere before there can be an explosion.

When a young white man loses his life on the streets of London, which happens too often but irregularly, the media coverage is disproportionate compared with the tragically frequent murders of young black men, which hardly get a mention, devaluing black lives.  There are also concerns about the witness protection provided by the police to black witnesses in murder cases, giving rise to concerns that the police don’t really care.  And you are still more than seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police if you are black than if you are white, more than 20 years after the Brixton riots.

More widely, many people, including me, have serious concerns about the investigation of complaints against the police, where the impression given is that police officers escape prosecution in circumstances where members of the public might be expected to face trial.  Recent allegations of corruption, where police officers have allegedly been taking money from newspapers in exchange for confidential information will not have helped public trust and confidence in the police.  The apparent failure of the police to investigate phone hacking, questionable hiring of former employees of News International and the resignation of senior police officers over apparent errors of judgment, will further undermine police community relations and negatively impact on police morale.

The Metropolitan Police Service desperately needs strong and decisive leadership from someone who has experience of dealing with similar issues in an equally difficult and volatile situation.  The Mayor of London and the former Home Secretary failed to appoint him last time, instead appointing someone who got out of the kitchen as soon as the heat was turned up.  Boris Johnson must not make the same mistake again and have the courage to appoint Sir Hugh Orde this time around.  London also needs a Mayor who knows about these issues, who is not afraid to hold the police to account and who can give the new Commissioner the political backing he needs to take decisive action.

This article was written before the further outbreaks of violence in London last night.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I don’t think Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for heavy-handed pro-active policing and PR exercises helps.. But the more general problem is lack of jobs and the long term social effects that has,

  • Jonathan Hunt 9th Aug '11 - 12:39pm

    Although we are all horrified and appalled by the scale of mindless violence and organised crimminal acts across London, Brian is bang on. His approach is one that all Liberal Democrats must bear in mind when the fires and extreme views die down and tranquility returns to the streets.

    What he doesn’t say is what I, among others, warned about when the cuts started: it is madness to cut police numbers when youth unemployment is rising to high levels, and when youth provisions is seen as an easy item to chop. Rather that police ressources should rise in proportion to the numbers out of work.

    As Rio Ferdinand says in his book, he too could have been tempted into wrongdoing if it had not been for the youth workers on the tough Peckham estate where he grew up. Both he and Anton continue to visit and help kids on the estate in my former ward.

    Without in any way seking to excuse what occurred, we should draw up a plan for dealing with disaffected young people, having the courage to reverse previous decisions. These must include restoring funding for the young and poor, especially but not exclusively for black kids. These include EMA, increasing funding for training and finding suitable jobs, dealing with the crimminal elements who exploit the complaints of youth, and restoring respect for the police — starting at the top.


  • Kevin Colwill 9th Aug '11 - 4:48pm

    Events have sadly overtaken this tread. I cannot pass comment on the policing of London but I’d like to make a wider point.

    Of course criminals need to be punished but using fear to impose order and force to protect property takes us only so far.

    If I were 17; if I sat down and rationally analysed that I could never obtain the material possessions that have come to define a person’s worth within our society, if I felt I had no stake in my community, if I looked at small local businesses and saw something way beyond my aspirations – what would I do? I might not riot, I might not loot but I might not find it in myself to condemn those that did.

  • Stuart Mitchell 9th Aug '11 - 8:46pm

    “if I looked at small local businesses and saw something way beyond my aspirations – what would I do? I might not riot, I might not loot but I might not find it in myself to condemn those that did.”

    Approximately 100% of those youths out looting trainers and mobile phones will already own perfectly good trainers and mobile phones. When was the last time you actually met a teenager?

  • Kevin Colwill 10th Aug '11 - 1:24am

    @ Stuart Mitchell…I regret my point was not clear. It was not about aspiring to own the products looted but about seeing the ownership of the businesses themselves as something beyond legitimate aspiration.
    Much has been made of small, community businesses being hit along with larger chains. My point is that where aspirations are so low that building up a small business is deeded impossible the distinction between sizes of business becomes irrelevant…owning any business makes you “rich”.

    My point was also a personal one…if I were, what would I do. I suspect the majority of teenagers would behave far better than I would in their situation.

  • I think the rioters stole stuff simply because they could. They didn’t care about the consequences for society at large, they only cared about themselves and perhaps their circle of family and friends.

    Unfortunately, this attitude of screw society, screw the community, screw the country coz it’s all about ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’ has pretty much been encouraged in this country for the last 30 years or so from the top down.

    It manifests itself in very different ways in our diverse country.

    In the banking system we see managers of failed nationalised banks paying themselves huge unmerited bonuses at the expense of the tax payer simply because they can.

    In our parliament we saw our politicians inventing a set of rules designed to allow them to abuse the expenses system to claim for plasma TV’s and tens of thousands of pounds for ‘renting’ the spare room of family members, and using these monies for speculating on the property market and then dodging the tax on the profits. MPs certainly wouldn’t steal a plasma screen TV in a riot, not when they could just simply walk into John Lewis, order it to be delivered to their home, and stick in an expense claim for it.

    In the police force we hear claims of police selling confidential details about the royal family to gutter press hacks simply because they could and thought that they could get away with it.

    As for the media we hear claims of editors ordering that private investigators hack private citizens phones, simply because they can and think they can get away with it.

    We hear of celebrities and the super rich dodging the taxes the rest of us have to pay at a time when services for the very poorest are being cut, simply because they can.

    And in the underclass what do we see. Wide spread stealing and looting, again simply because don’t care about society and because they can.

    Something has gone very wrong with this country. But to think this corruption is confined to one section of society is wrong. And I think we all need to look within…

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