Many observers have been baffled by the performance of the Metropolitan Police during London’s recent riots, with officers seeming to stand by as homes were attacked and businesses destroyed. This was partly poor tactics, but it was also a function of a deeper malaise – a model of passive policing that has failed and must now be abandoned.
The Met’s acting head denied his commanders were ordered to “watch and wait”, rather than intervene, but it looked as if they had concerns that overrode the maintenance of order. Self-handicapping rules against baton rounds and tear gas were justified because their use would be seen as an “escalation” – a symbolic break with precedent, signalling that authorities had lost control. Why the symbolism of such weapons would be more troubling than footage of flaming buildings remains a mystery.
At a deeper level, however, the culprit is an out of date philosophy of reactive policing. Back in the 1970s many US forces, including the New York Police Department, abandoned beat policing and took to the car. The policy proved to be a disaster and has now been abandoned in almost every big American city. In the UK, however, beginning in the 1990s, the Met went in the opposite direction, seizing on closed-circuit television as the primary tool of law enforcement.
This seemed like a modern and glamorous new world of monitoring trouble spots with cameras and racing to crime scenes in cars. But among other problems it created a vacuum of authority in public space. Add in other cultural and legal factors and this vacuum can quickly be filled by violent young people with no respect for adults or the law. Their sense of impunity was proved correct last weekend, as gangs found that they could take over one high street after another.
This endemic overreliance on technology also deforms policing culture: officers lose any sense that their job is to deter crime by their presence alone, rather than just to react. This attitude was all too apparent after the riots when officers, and then the home secretary, seemed puzzled that the public was not satisfied with assurances that (thanks to CCTV) most of the looters would be caught.
Obsessed with such technology, the Met’s response to problems of police bureaucracy has also been a shambles. In New York in the 1990s, when police and unions complained about the weight of paperwork, the city hired thousands of civilian employees to perform office functions, allowing a dramatic increase in the numbers of police on the street. By contrast, the Met hired some 3,000 civilians, gave them six weeks’ training and put them out on the street in place of real police as “community support officers”.
These PCSOs are often all that passes for a police presence in British cities. London, meanwhile, has become one of the least-policed big cities in the developed world – a process that has seen the abandonment of two centuries of police wisdom, and arguably the abandonment of the public. Any hope of deterrence is lost when burglars know there is scant risk of bumping into a bobby on the beat. Worse, interactions between the public and police now tend to be rare, highly charged and prone to mutual misunderstanding. Police stations are unwelcoming fortresses, impossible to contact on an informal basis, as calls are funnelled through centralised call-centres.
Working in an office and monitoring screens are seen as more “professional” than trudging the streets. In recent decades Britain’s police have also begun to insist on being called “officers” in the American style. However, this promotion, along with the adoption of US-style tool belts dangling with nightsticks and pepper spray, has not been accompanied by an American-style drop in crime appreciable by the public.
American police forces long ago abandoned the passive approach. In its place came an updated version of the local model pioneered by Sir Robert Peel in the early 19th century, although one leavened with new theory and technology. Crime dropped and morale rose as officers felt they were more than clerks arriving at crime scenes. The only good thing to come out of this crisis would be if Britain followed suit.
The writer is a senior research fellow at Civitas, and a former adviser to New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani