Battersea riots: what can we learn?

Wandsworth Council commissioned an independent review of the disorder in the borough in early August, which is mainly about the riots at Clapham Junction on Monday 8th August.  Clapham Junction, of course, is located in Battersea, and not Clapham, which is a couple of miles away and in a another borough.  This report, by Neil Kinghan, was published this week.  What can we learn?

The most valuable part of the report is its clear description of how events unfolded.  It is amazing how quickly garbled stories gain currency, especially since our media aren’t particularly fastidious about factual accuracy.  The trouble (at Clapham Junction) started at 8pm, after some earlier incidents in the nearby estates.  After about half and hour the local police team was withdrawn, and they did not return until after 10.30pm.  The police heavy mob, in their armoured cars, did not arrive until after midnight, when the trouble was pretty much over.  The fire at the Party Shop, which was the most spectacular and dangerous part of the episode, happened after an explosion shortly after midnight, and was not part of the main “rioting”.

Who were the looters (a better description than rioters, I think)?  The only hard facts come from the 150 or so that have been arrested.  The total number of looters was estimated to have reached a maximum of 450, though more people than this must have been involved as people came and went.  Of those arrested, half lived in Wandsworth (nearly half of those in Battersea), 24% were under 18, 66% were black, 29% white – and 88% were already known to the police (i.e. they’d filed their DNA).  How representative are these?  It’s difficult to know.  Most of the arrests were not made at the scene, but through follow up, using things such as CCTV footage and car numberplate reports.  These may well be biased towards the more organised elements.

The looting itself seems to have been motivated by the idea of grabbing something for nothing.  The sequence of events across London may have started with anger over the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, but by Monday any political angle was at most vague.  It seems to have been led by organised gangs, using social media to focus on one area and overwhelm the local forces there.  A lot of opportunists joined in, probably including people who just turned up to see what was going on.  There was little actual violence directed towards people.

There’s not much much more I want to say about this aspect.  Our society has a criminal fringe; given the opportunity many others will indulge in looting and theft.  There’s nothing new in this.  Serious though the issue may be, the moral panic is overdone.

The most important public policy issue to arise is the performance of the police.  This was a quite straightforward public order issue, and they let us down.  At borough level it is easy to overdo the criticism.  The social media had forewarned them that there might be trouble through the afternoon – to such an extent that the police convened a meeting with the council at 5pm.  Although Clapham Junction figured in this chatter as a likely trouble spot, it was far from the only place, and the meeting decided that the information was not firm enough to do anything with.  The obvious solution, to create a mobile reserve of officers to react quickly to events, was surely not within the Borough’s resources.  And the issue applied right across London and within the ken of the higher echelons of the force.  The decision to abandon the scene at about 8.30pm was surely correct, with only 8 properly equipped and trained men on the spot, as the looters were building up in hundreds.

The failure occurred higher up, and outside the remit of Mr Kinghan’s report.  Senior officers at the Metropolitan Police knew that trouble was probable.  They could have mobilised enough mobile reserves to respond much more quickly than they did (local police called for help almost as soon as the trouble started).  There has been some bleating that there were not officers properly trained.  This has been rejected by Lib Dem Mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, a former senior officer at the Met – and indeed sufficient numbers did turn up in sufficient numbers – eventually.  And they could have asked for reinforcements earlier in the day from neighbouring forces – as indeed they did on the following day.

The report makes a number of recommendations, mostly worthy enough, but many along the tired old bureaucratic lines of “we should improve our planning and coordination”.  But the real issue is leadership.  No amount planning and procedure can compensate for that.  The Met’s leaders were busy enough wining and dining journalists and and attending to their PR.  But we employ them to fight crime and they have repeatedly been found wanting.  Not showing decisive leadership themselves, and not allowing their juniors to use their own common sense initiative.

The Met has a new Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe.  He has his work cut out, but he’s made a promising start.  Here’s hoping.

Letting the dust settle

Now, in London, is not good moment to be a thinking liberal.  The recent riots consume everybody’s attention, but there is too much anger and panic around to say anything sensible.  But nobody will listen if you want to talk about something else.

The anger is not in itself unhealthy, or bad – indifference would be much worse.  It may well have helped to stop the violence, which has thankfully calmed very rapidly.  But little of lasting value comes from it.  Mostly we get calls for extra punishment, police powers and so on.  There is a lot of harking back to mythical earlier times when people had stronger moral values beaten into them, and so on.  And we get the usual tripe about too much human rights favouring criminals rather than victims.  Unfortunately our Prime Minister seems to share many of these beliefs.

But as the anger settles we will be left to confront a number of questions, which do not have ready answers.  Why did so many people think it was OK to go rampaging like this?  How could they be so heedless of the consequences of their actions?  Is this new?  Is it getting better or worse?  How do we promote responsibility?  More facts will help us answer these questions – and we have little more than an accumulation of anecdotes at the moment.

The most rational debate for now is about policing.  The police weren’t ready for the trouble and did not handle it well.  And they are facing significant cuts in funding.  Personally I suspect the problem is weak police management, especially in the Met.  I think this has been evident for a long time.  They adopt inflexible tactical methods which they seem unable to adapt to the needs of the moment; common sense gets lost.  Their solution is always more men, more money and more powers.  Unfortunately they will be unable to deliver cuts without reducing operational effectiveness, even if there are opportunities to make them much more efficient – and it would be very surprising if such opportunities did not exist.

Another aspect of this episode has been a massive closing of ranks by the majority of society.  Here in Battersea (scene of the Clapham Junction riots, not, incidentally in Clapham itself, as almost universally mis-reported) masses of people turned up to help the clean-up – and the hoardings on the shops are covered in supportive graffiti (where these are bare wood; where painted they are left properly pristine!).

Supportive graffiti at TK Maxx in Clapham Junction, Battersea

This reaction seems to bridge class, race and age group.

Who can say where all this will lead?