Northern Ireland lessons for British policing

I could comprehend when the peaceful protest against the lethal shooting by a policeman of a black youth in Tottenham turned violent — a local community’s frustration at a disconnect with policing in the area. The first comparison that came to my mind were the 2005 Paris riots.

But within 24 hours I was disabused of that, as groups of youths set upon other parts of London and beyond, utilising SMS texting on Blackberries (Facebook and Twitter being far too public).

A PSNI friend, who has firsthand policing experience in the Tottenham area, explained to me that over there the basic tactic in dealing with such riot situations is a large display of force. With the turnout of 16,000 police officers in London, that appears to work in a single location. But then it’s obvious that you can’t have such a show of security in every part of London and beyond. And the rioters know this.

More damning is the apparent lack of a Plan B.

As others have pointed out, there is a sense of familiarity among us in Northern Ireland about the current situation.

And should the police in England use water cannon and baton rounds (plastic bullets)? Or even call out the British Army to patrol the streets?

All of these are legitimate tactical options that cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Let’s consider each in turn.

The most severe action would be to call out the British Army. Soliders are trained for combat. Even in a peacekeeping role, soliders are at the ready for a combat situation. I don’t think a lethal combat situation, and in an urban environment, is something that anyone would want to see, in London or ever again in Northern Ireland.

Plastic bullets, in theory, can be deployed responsibly, as officers are professionally trained to do. But as we know, all it would take is for one misfire — death or serious injury — to conjure up all the negative publicity associated with their previous use in Northern Ireland.

Though I remain to be convinced why water cannon could not be used.

Some argue that water cannon would not be appropriate — vehicles are too large, not mobile enough, perpetrators can escape down side streets, more suited to defend interface territory.

But as the rioters seem to target preferred fashion and electronic shops, why not deploy them along main, high streets, just for this purpose?

After dealing with the immediate security situation as effectively as possible, MPs and authorities need to reflect and appreciate the role that investment in community cohesion programmes have, as well as a positive, zero-tolerance policy.

That is, occasionally in America there is spontaneous rioting in inner urban areas, curiously frequently after a local city’s victory or defeat in a major sporting event. Whenever this happens there are the predictable statements by politicians and local community representatives about the disconnect with policing as well as the gap in wealth and life opportunities.

But Charles Laurence makes a distinction between a mass riot and “wilding”. He makes an interesting comparison with the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial, when the police lost control of South Central, as individuals saw opportunities for looting.

And we in Northern Ireland are familiar with our own “recreational rioting”.

Community cohesion programmes in themselves aren’t going to prevent wanton criminality. But they should provide a useful, constant connect with local communities and representatives, so that both sides are kept well informed of the situation on the ground, at all times — when policing can back off and when they must intervene — not in an all or nothing position, which we are witnessing now, but in a constant dialogue and flux.

This needs to be combined with a positive, zero-tolerance policy, akin to “no broken windows” approach in New York and other American cities, which means that the more that the police and the local community are proactively demonstrating that there are no no-go areas, then the easier it is for both parties to deal with criminality where it does occur.

I believe that this indeed is the ever improving situation in Northern Ireland, earned through recent hard years of policing reform and local accountability.

Here, for UK Home Secretary, Teresa May, to make a false comparison that British policing “is different” than that in Northern Ireland because the former is based on community consensus, is plainly ignorant. Someone please educate her on the Patten Commission and the fundamental transition of the RUC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

And the obvious inability for police to put in place a preponderance of force in every affected English city, demonstrates that its consensus model needs a serious review.

It behoves British policing to take a more enlightened view of the experiences and practices of policing in Northern Ireland in these matters.

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