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Riot strategy, or ‘why calls for tougher cops are missing the point’

August 11, 2011 14 comments

I’m not going to do a hand-wringing riots piece. We’ve seen a million of them, whether from a cartoonish ‘make them less poor’ point of view, an authoritarian ‘hell in a handbasket, we’re doomed’ point of view, or a bigoted ‘rivers of blood’ point of view. It’s dull.

However, following on from Jamie’s post about how the riots went down in Manchester, and a question on Tim’s blog about Liverpool and Manchester cops making more arrests more rapidly than London cops, I do have a few thoughts on police tactics.

First up, the police did an excellent job at preventing loss of life and serious injury. Obviously, the deaths in Birmingham are terribly sad – and if the initial eyewitness statements prove to be correct, about as cowardly and evil as it gets. But the fact that in London, nobody was killed and few bystanders were seriously hurt is amazing, and not what anyone would have expected from news footage on Sunday/Monday. “People not being killed” is more important than “Currys not being robbed”.

But while the police did well on that basic front, the disorder in London lasted longer than the public could reasonably be expected to tolerate – hence the myriad of calls throughout the week to send in the Army, and/or to use water-cannons, rubber bullets and CS gas. The problem is that none of these would actually have helped. In short, policing in London on Sunday/Monday didn’t fail due to lack of force, or due to political correctness preventing officers from beating thugs up (plenty of beating up of thugs was done). Rather, it was due to a lack of understanding of what was going on – and, to some extent, a lack of absolute manpower.

The looters this time round flashmobbed. Digressionally, this is why BlackBerry Messaging is important to how the riots worked, not just an irrelevant detail like Twitter and Facebook. For example, the mass of reinforcements 30 seconds into this looters-push-back-cops video has to be pre-arranged, not random. Throughout London, mobs turned up at a co-ordinated time, looted, ran away, and regrouped. That isn’t how riots have historically happened: normally, the mob is trying to claim a specific territory, and the authorities are trying to stop them. Like a traditional war, with a front line.

These riots are the difference between WWII and Vietnam: the insurgents didn’t have a front line, but tried to appear, attack and disappear – and the authorities just didn’t know how to handle the new kind of conflict. Adding water cannons and CS gas into the mix wouldn’t have done anything to stop the looters, and I’m sceptical that rubber bullets would have achieved much. Live automatic weaponry would’ve done the job, but if you think that’s an acceptable solution to teenagers robbing shops, then you’re a dangerous lunatic who shouldn’t be allowed out in public.

The only alternative to mass slaughter is to adopt standard counterinsurgency measures. You learn the looters’ tactics, how they’re organised, you disrupt and intercept their communications, you try and infiltrate their groups, you arrest known looters when they’re at home in bed rather than out looting – and you use all the above measures to ensure that looters can’t get to their targets, and that if they do get to a target, then they can’t escape again.

In London, once the cops worked this all this out and managed to mobilise extra troops, the rioting stopped almost immediately (presumably because the looters either got arrested fairly rapidly, or worked out that they would get arrested if they didn’t stop). When the looting began in Manchester and Liverpool, the police had the benefit of a three-day London case study to work into their own plans, so it’s no massive surprise that they were able to end everything in a night.

Politically speaking, the wider mob of angry non-looting citizenry needs to be placated – so completely useless draconian measures seem likely to be introduced. If they are, they’re certain to be used when more-or-less peaceful demonstrations like UKuncut get rowdy, because those are the crowd dynamics in which CS gas and water cannons ‘work’ (if you class quelling the violent thugs slightly more rapidly, while also injuring far more non-violent protestors than would otherwise be the case, as ‘working’). So that’s a bit depressing for those of us who support the right to political protests.

But the good news (at least, for people who don’t like their house being on fire) is that the things the authorities have clearly learned over the last few days make it unlikely that the perceived total breakdown of law and order seen in London will be repeated. At least, not until the next new kind of rioting strategy emerges…