Monday, August 15, 2011

Police Response To Rioting Doesn't Add Up

Former soldier turned artist John Mc Dermott was the Old Bailey's Head of Security for eight years. As the court of public opinion into why the riots happened grows wider, he remains bewildered by what has taken place.

For eight challenging years I was Head of Security at the Old Bailey in London. The Old Bailey - just so you know - usually hears only the most serious of criminal cases. These include numerous Operation Trident cases: 'black on black' gun crime, together with Operation Trafalgar cases dealing with gang related murders and other crimes, often involving knives. There were times when more than half the 18 crowded courts within the building were simultaneously hearing such cases, and during my period at the OB we must have heard hundreds of them. What I remember most was the enormous security effort that went in to ensure these cases were heard to conclusion and without disruption. But that’s not all that sticks in my mind.

Distinct in my memory are the many pre-trial security meetings with dedicated vocational community leaders and hugely experienced community police liaison officers, designed to make sure opposing groups were kept apart in and outside the court. These meetings were routine but effective. They also gave me an insight into the remarkable work being carried out by the many diverse community groups to ensure their boroughs, right down to housing estates, were kept relatively safe. This required open, clear and honest communication at every level. In fact, so good was their work, it became the expected norm.

When the news of the death of Mark Duggan came in I felt quite sure that voices from both the police and community leaders would be heard first and foremost, calming fears and reducing tension. This would take the form of the police making a preliminary statement, probably mentioning that the shooting occurred as part of an ongoing police operation, with police liaison officers closely assisting the victims family. Questions would have been answered, and more police would have been brought into the area in order to maintain calm and civil order. Again, this would be the norm. So I was genuinely shocked when the police remained stum. This was indeed very unusual. It was some time before any mention that an IPCC report would follow. Such detailed reports can take months – so why mention this at all at a time when straight forward, immediate answers could have been provided?

Later on, when the violence and looting ‘sparked off’ and spread like wild fire, it was even more unusual to see police initially ‘standing off’ when they had the resources available to easily nip things in the bud. This appears to be the main complaint coming from community leaders and residents in those areas first affected. So why did the police ‘stand off’? And why were there no immediate answers right at the very beginning after Mark Duggan was shot?

I can’t second guess why this didn't happen, but from my experience it seemed anomalous, in as much as nothing appeared to be as normal. It was as if years of hard won community and police relations were simply ‘switched off’. It doesn’t add up, and now we have to look at the devastating results.

Whole communities are in tatters with many hundreds of people, mostly youths, being banged up or tagged. Meanwhile, the coalition are considering greater public order policing powers and tactics. Some of these, when looked at closely, are really quite frightening if the so called 'LA model' is to be followed. It will mean giving police unprecedented powers of arrest and detention without the need to give a reason why. This will go country wide - not just in our major cities. Therefore, potentially, any group that goes out on the streets to lawfully protest could be swept off the street and incarcerated.

Personally, I don’t think any current police chief could possibly agree to this. Then again, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, (who posed grinning stupidly with a broom) has the power to dismiss his senior city police officers and promote who he thinks fit for the job. Just ask Sir Ian Blair, who almost certainly jumped before he was pushed in 2008.

Questions however, remain: Who instantly ‘switched off’ years of good community relations? And who is benefitting from this and why?

Perhaps my own answer is a fear that we are allowing a barely democratically elected coalition to incrementally turn the entire country into a police state. Never since the long painful days of Margaret Thatcher have I ever witnessed such a group of well connected, one sided politicians networking together with such absolute ruthlessness. They now seem to be the main beneficiaries of the ‘switch off’. They are treating millions of us up and down the country exactly the same way bankers treat their customers: just as digits on a balance sheet. In other words, I wouldn’t put it past them to deliberately set up such a sweet scenario for the upheaval of civil liberties. This story will no doubt go on.

In the meantime I feel desperately sorry for all those good London community police officers and dedicated community leaders who I got to know so well. How gutted they must be feeling right now. My best wishes go with them and all those who have now become unwitting victims of something that certainly need not have happened.
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