Opinion: Lessons learned the hard way will have to be re-learned following the riots in Tottenham

As a young research assistant I was in Northern Ireland on the day of the June 1987 General Election, campaigning for the re-election of my boss the Rev Martin Smyth, Ulster Unionist MP for South Belfast and head of the Orange Order.

Elections in Northern Ireland were always conducted in a way mindful of possible violence or terrorist attack, and an RUC patrol intercepted a car in the vicinity of a school being used as a polling station. The IRA occupants of the car were found to be armed and an explosive device was also found. Mr Smyth was in the vicinity. The polling station was closed until the device could be made safe.

Fortunately there were no deaths or injuries as a consequence of this incident, but it was the rumours that began to circulate – to the effect that an attempt on the life of a Unionist MP had taken place, and that he might have been killed or injured. The media began to draw speculative conclusions, and as a result tensions rose significantly even before the
polls had closed.

It was imperative that the message went out establishing the facts as to what happened, and that this elected representative was unharmed, that the democratic process would continue. Otherwise there would have been considerable reactive violence from groups with an interest in prolonging sectarian violence and disorder.

As a Councillor in Haringey, and for 5 years,the Lib Dem Group’s Spokesperson on Policing, my experience in Northern Ireland was always uppermost in my mind when speaking to the Police or the local Police Consultative Group. The increasing ‘militarisation’ of the police was an issue I raised on several occasions. We were fortunate in having several Borough Commanders who valued factual information disseminated as quickly as possible, dialogue with the public, and a willingness
to take criticism.

What we have now is a Met Police that failed to see the danger of the rumour mill following a violent death at Police hands. Both the Tottenham riots of 1985 and subsequent disturbances followed the deaths of individuals where the Police were blamed. The Met also failed to use the existing framework of consultation, family liaison and community contact – one wonders what they actually expected a grieving family to do?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote on this site that stop and search and the tainted reputation of the police were issues we as Lib Dems should address in the elections for Police Commissioners – regrettably in London we are stuck with the impotent MPA – this means where there are Police Commissioner elections we must have credible candidates and a strong campaign supported with resources from all levels of the party.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Paul McKeown 10th Aug '11 - 12:57pm

    1. “The increasing ‘militarisation’ of the police”

    2. “What we have now is a Met Police that failed to see the danger of the rumour mill following a violent death at Police hands. [… snip…] The Met also failed to use the existing framework of consultation, family liaison and community contact – one wonders what they actually expected a grieving family to do?”

    3. “stop and search and the tainted reputation of the police”

    Three very salient points. Agree with everything you have written here.

  • Thanks Paul, Police officers themselves are uneasy with the blurring of their role, which I would add really began to change under the authoritarian Blair Government and culminated in the De Menezes shooting. Labour litterally ASBO’d the youth population of our cities and imposed blanket bans on any group of youths standing on a street corner, however harmless. In my own Ward I had a group of benign skateboarders who were threatened with arrest, and for 4 years tried to get them a proper place to practice – to no avail, even colleagues in my own group sabotaged a scheme which would have cost just £25000. A firm police response to the riots IS necessary now, but Theresa May is out of touch and the coalition lacks a political dimension, it’s up to us as Libdems to provide one.

  • Paul McKeown 10th Aug '11 - 2:46pm

    Actually, I was pleased to hear Theresa May say that the UK has always been policed by consent. In many ways she has been a breath of fresh air since a long succession of Home Secretaries since Michael Howard solely focussed on playing to the tabloid gallery. John Reid sounded like Boss Hogg with a hard on. Can’t say that I have agreed with everything that the Home Office has decided since TM has taken over – the continued detention of children whilst awaiting deportation after failed asylum claims makes me angry, for example – but she has demonstrated some awareness of the requirement for a balanced approach. The boot up the arse is an important tool in the policing and justice arsenal, but it is a blunt tool, far from the only one, and can be applied inappropriately.

    I am a little concerned about all the loose talk in the media about water cannon and baton rounds. Like yourself, I come from Northern Ireland, and am aware that in some extreme situations they may have utility, but truth be told, they are rather dangerous weapons. Used inappropriately they both can kill or maim, something that the chunterjocks on the airwaves seem to be unaware of or have forgotten in their excitement. My feelings on the subject were confirmed yesterday when I saw Sir Hugh Orde say on the television that the tactical circumstances that he had seen in the current riots were completely wrong for their deployment. If anyone should know, he would. Obviously they are something which have to be considered, but I would hope that any senior officer who felt that their deployment was necessary, would give Sir Hugh, or a serving senior officer with the PSNI, or indeed in the army, a phone call to check. Experience is hard earned. My personal view is that their deployment should only be considered in a truly extreme situation when the only real alternative was the use of sharp ammunition. And from what I have seen the current situation is short of that.

    I agree very strongly with your point that better communication about the death of Mark Duggan would probably have stopped a protest turning into a riot. There is a perception that investigations regarding deaths at the hands of the police are intended to exonerate rather than uncover the truth. That perception was probably correct twenty or thirty years ago, but is probably less correct today. Certainly we can now see that the officer who struck Ian Tomlinson has been charged with manslaughter, something which would certainly never have happened a few decades ago. It took several years and a determined campaign for justice to get that far, though. The current riots were sparked off by the death of Mark Duggan, who carried a fire arm at the time of his shooting, but the fire arm had not been discharged. An early statement admitting an unfortunate mistake had been made and would be properly investigated might conceivably have forestalled the current mess. Of course, the police have a very difficult job to do, which for the most part they do well, and they are sometimes asked to carry out almost tasks which are almost impossible without unfortunate consequences. For that reason, successive governments have felt the need to support the police come what may. However, in the long run, that can lead to police complacency and to the loss of consent from some “front line” communities, contrary to Theresa May’s statement of philosophy. Honesty and transparency is a better policy – for the police themselves and for public confidence.

    Naturally, as you also say, there are social factors which need addressed. Closure of youth clubs and the like certainly cannot help. I would also suggest that the longstanding drugs policy inevitably has lead to a criminal black economy supplied by an sub-culture of inner city gangs.

  • I endorse everything you say Paul, it is ironic that the Met sold it’s water-cannon to the PSNI. You also highlight the difficulties the police face, unfortunately a further legacy of the “hard man” Reid and Blunkett years was that the police were fed a rich diet of new draconian laws, and lost sight of the basics like protecting life and property . Liberals understand the need for firm measures to protect the rule of law, however we must be prepared to stand up to the police if we believe they are being excessive. An example was the blatant lobbying by Sir Ian Blair and other senior police officers to bully MPs into voting for 90-day detention in the Terrorism Act. A review of the Act, ordered by Theresa May has found that of 100,000 stops under Section 44 none led to a charge under terrorism legislation.

  • Ron Aitken makes the right points. It is significant that Haringey Council has just trashed 8 of its 13 remaining Youth Schemes, blaming the “cuts”. What does it expect Youth to do in Haringey, but riot? It provides no alternatives, but prefers instead to protect all union jobs, along with its obscene £2 miilion yearly spend on “PR”..

    Sadly the Met. Police Authority is no better, and has cut almost all support for Haringey’s Police and Community Consultative Group -in particular the active youth programme it was proposing last year. Mr Malthouse says he will phase out such groups across London, despite the fact that they now provide the only truly neutral forum in which racially-sensitive issues – such as the Joy Gardner and Roger Sylvester deaths in police custody, and now Mr Duggan -can be discussed..

    Why is it that our politicians think our youth are only worth spending money on once they are standing in a dock at the start of a life of crime??

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