London Riots: The Inside View

On 5th August 2011, London witnessed the beginning of one of the most memorable, shocking and unexpected weeks in recent history.

Exactly one year ago this week, thousands took to the streets in an explosion of rioting, looting and violence that sparked copycat episodes up and down the country. The very first outbreaks took place after the shooting of Tottenham resident Mark Duggan by police under controversial circumstances. As the week went on and more and more people got involved, questions began to be raised about how fair the police had really been in dealing both with young people and ethnic minorities.

ON THE ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF THE RIOTS, ONTHEBEAT ASKS: WHAT HAVE THE POLICE LEARNT SINCE THEN?

James Toy is the longest serving PCSO on Clerkenwell Safer Neighbourhoods Team, who spends a large part of his time working with young people and tackling anti-social behaviour. As James worked during the riots himself, he is in a unique position to tell OnTheBeat what it was like and what impact they have had- both on him and the communities he serves.

“It was a scary and worrying time for everyone” he remembers. “In Islington we were surrounded on all sides by major centres of disorder in Harringey, Hackney and Camden and just seemed to be waiting for something to kick-off”.

“Our default position of patrolling the streets on our own was suspended after lone officers were being attacked in certain parts of the capital. I remember many police officers doing shifts of 20 hours or more with just a couple of hours rest before starting another. Many officers didn’t see their own beds or their families throughout a large chunk of the disorder.”

WHAT IF THE RIOTS HAPPENED AGAIN?

Since last August, the Met has revised its public order strategy. The changes include:

– A further 1,750 public order officers have been trained.

– A tested mobilisation plan to deploy offices more effectively has been implemented.

– Appropriate technology to monitor social media as an intelligence tool has been procured and the MPS continue to work with the Home Office in this area of policing

– A total of 2,900 offenders involved in the riots have been prosecuted and the process is still ongoing

However, what really shone through for James was the way the officers handled these kinds of circumstances. “As a part of the Met, I felt proud of the overwhelming bravery of the officers who were policing the disorder. You might suspect that after being told you are surrounded by rioting and disorder and there have been incidents of officers being attacked, you’d ‘have your back up’ so-to-speak. I saw none of that and officers were continuing with their duties in a way that I’m sure Londoners and the Commissioner would be proud of.

One thing I’ll always take with me is what one resident said to me and my colleague, and that was “can’t it always be like this?” referring to the large amount of officers out patrolling the streets. She said she felt so much safer and it’s fantastic to see the police out in force like that. We were constantly getting told from members of the public to carry on and keep up the good work. It was particularly nice to feel the appreciation of the community you’re helping to serve.”

There are indeed some exceptional stories of commitment and solidarity that came out of the riots, but it is difficult to ignore claims of disillusionment with the police and with society as a whole that were touted as the whole reason for the disorder ever taking place.

James doesn’t buy into that so easily, however. “The majority of those involved with the large scale public disorder last year were nothing but opportunistic criminals” he says. “They took the advantage of the terrible situation to engage in criminal activity, not because they were angry or disillusioned with a particular group but because of a lack of morals and respect for themselves and the community they are a part of.

“Of course there were allegations that the bad relationship between the police and, in particular, young black men was a cause for much of the animosity last August, much of it surrounding the police’s use of stop and search powers. This may have been some of the cause but something which my team and myself, as well as the Metropolitan Police Service as a whole are improving. I’ve had a number of sessions with some ‘disillusioned’ youths talking about their issues with the police, which being a PCSO puts me in a better position to do, so hopefully we can improve relationships across the board.”

So have they learnt anything in the year that has passed?

James is certain that they have. “The MPS wants to convey confidence and reassurance to the public that we will do everything we can to stop anything like those events from ever happening again. We have learnt from what happened, and we have strengthened our ability to prevent them in the future.”

So what has actually been done? “There have been a number of changes throughout the Met- perhaps most significantly, the use of stop and search powers for police officers has become more intelligence led, so hopefully that will go some way to improving relations.”

You might think that the trail of destruction caused by the riots would have a negative impact on the communities it affected the most. However, James disagrees. “It seems to have strengthened the relationships in the community. We are often invited to local events and projects and since last year there seems to be a lot more involvement from all different members of the community.”

“There is still work to be done though, but with the fantastic support that the police receive in Islington from our partners at the council and other services, hopefully it is a goal we can achieve.”

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