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

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…

14 thoughts on “Riot strategy, or ‘why calls for tougher cops are missing the point’

  1. Bravo! I've been trying to explain to anyone who'll listen why baton rounds and water cannon work pretty well on a fixed battleground like the Garvaghy Road in marching season* but are fuck all use against less than a hundred people who showed up in J Random High Street a minute or two ago and who will fuck off somewhere else at the first sight of a copper.

    *on which note, this is never not excellent: – I miss the Portadown News.

  2. The problem with water cannons is that they pre-suppose a big, static crowd. Also, the PSNI have the only ones in the UK and they have about a dozen, so the chance of one being in the right place to affect anything is minimal.

  3. [JB edit: this comment is so bafflingly mad that I'm going to run it, despite AAAGH. Anyone know if it's random trolling, or whether someone with an approximately similar name has just been done for noncery? If the latter, I suppose I should barricade my doors and acquire a crossbow to keep out former NOTW readers…]

    [JB edit 2: it's been suggested here and elsewhere that certain right-wing arsemonkeys who enjoy smearing their opponents as paedophiles may be responsible. Maturity FTW]

    Wow, I don't understand how they allow you to use the internet now. A person like you should be barred from anything that could let you get in touch with a child. I'm shaking right now imagining [edit: name deleted for Google summary reasons] is just going on with his life, writing random things while he's destroyed the lives of 2 young boys forever. Shame on you shame on you. Shame on you for running away without facing the law. You are a coward and a paedophilia.

  4. IP address is a German anonymising proxy, so sounds like a troll rather than a misguided loony. I did call Harry Cole Guido's catamite on Twitter a couple of weeks ago – are they in that particular Gang Of Smear?

  5. Although it should be pointed out that rapid response armoured fire engines (aka a water cannon) are very handy for putting out fires in situations where the fire brigade are naturally concerned for their safety and are hesitant about deploying.
    You could also put a marker in the water to make it obvious who'd been doused in the riot negating somewhat the 'face mask and hoddie' disguise.
    (The Smart Water tagging system that is already widely used could be easily re-purposed for this

    Or we could just equip all the riot police with one of these :-)

    On a side note I'm thinking of getting one of these for my bicycle to exact revenge on the lemming like London pedestrians who constantly wander off pavements in front of me on my way to work…

    And yes I do stop at red lights and zebra crossings so there.

  6. John, good piece generally but I think you've got this wrong-

    "For example, the mass of reinforcements 30 seconds into this looters-push-back-cops video has to be pre-arranged, not random."

    What you're watching there is hand-to-hand battle tactics as old as mankind; the type that were normal before rapid firing guns changed everything. The defending army (police) have a shield line. The attacking army send forward their skirmishers- the guys in the white trainers. Skirmishers are generally your young, aggressive, expendable guys. They use missiles to break the enemy shield line; then the mass of the army that were hanging back charges as the defending army routs.

    These tactics are effectively instinctual. Man has been using them since prehistory. Since long before blackberrys :)

  7. @Ian B

    I agree that these tactics are old, but that does not necessarily mean that the use of them is instinctive. It may be that someone in the re-enforcing group just spotted an opportunity and initiated the charge, but it could have been pre-planned. Difficult to be sure. There does appear to have been some organization behind the riots as there are reports of vans being used to drop looters off in target areas prior to the disturbance erupting there. It may be that an organized element was whipping up outside interest in order to have a diversionary element to distract from the more systematic looters

  8. "Richard Mannington Bowes, 68, died three days after being attacked as he tried to stamp out a fire in Ealing, west London, on 8 August."

    Three days thats August 11th

  9. This is better post then your previous one. I came here from twitter sharing well i am your blog follower on twitter, This is amazing blog just want to tell you please continue your sharing with us. In this post i just want to say that #4 point is more powerfull then others. Thank

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.