Reading the UK Riots: the Police View

There is an interesting article in today’s UK Guardian newspaper on a project called ‘Reading the Riots’ which involves interviewing rioters and police involved in last year’s riots in England. Here is the article summarizing the second phase of interviewing the police. I will try to find a summary of the interviews with rioters and post that.

Reading the Riots: reflections on interviewing police officers

Amid the scripted answers and silences, officers of all ranks opened up to offer graphic accounts of policing the riots

Police in Tottenham

Many police used war analogies to explain what they had seen during the riots. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

I remember my first interview with a member of the Met’s Territorial Support Group (TSG), the anti-riot police. The officer was intense, helpful and likable. He went to great lengths to describe what it had been like to serve on London’s frontline during a night of rioting: the decisions taken, the tactics employed, the scene as the night unfolded.

He said he wished he’d picked up a brick that night and lobbed it back at the crowd. “I was annoyed at myself afterwards, because I realised what I could have done, and could have justified, was picking up a brick myself and throwing it at those particular individuals. I was annoyed that I hadn’t, because I could have been fully justified in doing so.”

It has been a long journey since we started interviewing rioters for the first phase of Reading the Riots last autumn. The second phase took a small core team of researchers to London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham to interview police of all ranks about the English riots: 130 in-depth, face-to-face, digitally recorded interviews lasting between 45 minutes and several hours – just as with the rioters for phase one.

The timing was not the easiest. As we attempted to gain the trust of police in general and the Met in particular, the Leveson inquiry was on TV news channels in police stations, headquarters, training spaces and hotel rooms. Sometimes officers were suspicious of us. A few said they felt coerced by their management to talk. But amid the scripted answers and silences, many officers opened up to offer frank and graphic accounts of policing the riots (with Liverpool police proving particularly forthcoming).

In common with rioters we had spoken to, many officers used war analogies to explain what they had seen. Comparisons were made to films such as Black Hawk Down and 300. Some likened it to being in the blitz. Others said the chance to put training into practice generated feelings of buzz and excitement – terms not dissimilar to those used by rioters six months earlier.

Looking into the eyes of officers, anger and hurt were often visible. We heard about cuts, bruises and sprains often discovered and dealt with only after the event. A specialist public order officer said colleagues were going to work with injuries “because they wanted to be here … and you just get on with it”. There was shock at the extent of violence levelled at police, but some officers – particularly senior ones – said they understood they were the public face of the state, and that people were very angry with the state. “I’m not surprised at people getting disaffected with society,” said one senior commander.

These were interviews about extraordinary events, yet at times they revealed familiar stories: middle-aged professionals grappling with social media and the digital age; public sector workers worrying about their pensions; anger at cuts in services, especially their own. Descriptions of lack of water and food brought home the human practicalities of policing the riots on long, hot and exhausting shifts. A female officer – part of a small team of mostly community support officers with no riot kit or training, who successfully defended local shop owners against looters – admitted to feeling fear before going on duty and said: “My dad had to talk me into it.”

A young PC described the difficulty for female officers to go to the toilet while in one-piece riot suits. Another in her late 40s expressed pride at keeping up with younger officers as she ran around in full kit for five hours, gathering evidence on the frontline. A regional officer on mutual aid duty in London described a YouTube film in which he can be heard telling other officers where to run. His command – “To the alleyway!” – has been incorporated into the play of his young children, who imitate their dad at the riots.

Some were very eloquent in their descriptions. An experienced TSG officer in London compared the riot frontline to a moonscape, with rocks and boulders around him. He could duck missiles thrown overhead, he said, but the most dangerous were like a beamer bowled in cricket: “It would leave the hand and come straight towards your face.”

A minority of officers said they had since taken up counselling opportunities offered through work. Most took part in some kind of debrief soon after their shifts ended. Many said they hadn’t spoken at length or in depth about their experiences in the months since. They described back-to-back shifts over several weeks before the resumption of normal duty, and said they had buried the memories and emotions of the riot nights.

The Met insisted that press officers sat in on our interviews (the only force that did). They recorded them, took notes, and often interrupted as I or one of my colleagues made the point that we were most interested in hearing from the officers who had been on the frontline. Our final batch of interviews included some with Met officers who did not come through the press office, but instead volunteered to be interviewed anonymously.

My first interviews were with senior officers involved in putting together Operation Withern, the name given by the Met to its tactical response to the riots. They did their best to explain the command structures, tactics, units and divisions associated with policing the riots, but although this provided very useful context, we were also interested in the attitudes and decision-making of those who had to deal first-hand with the rioters.

Then, a breakthrough: a voice from the frontline, offered by a young PC. Courteous and thoughtful, he took me through his recollections of nearly being lost to the crowd in Tottenham. I had never before heard events described in such detail from a police point of view. He was respectful in recalling the death of Mark Duggan and the anger and protests it sparked. He said he could understand if people went out to loot for food and nappies, but could not compute the scale of looting for white goods, and the damage caused by people on their own doorsteps to their own communities.

Like some rioters I spoke to, he painted a vivid picture of the noise and chaos in the streets, recalling the chanting, helicopters and sirens. Unlike the rioters, his strongest memory was the repetitive sound of the emergency assist button on police radios, meaning an officer was in trouble: “It was one after the other … things were so extreme, it’s hard to get your head round.”

Many expressed relief that interviews were confidential and, Met aside, that a representative of their employer wasn’t present – making it easier when they wanted to moan about their workplace, whether over perceived poor strategies or inadequacies of kit. Officers could also admit to emotions such as rage or fear without worrying about possible reprisals.

One theme we heard across all forces was the belief that the public had misunderstood or been misled about police tactics. An officer who had effectively worked a 22-hour shift in Manchester and Salford described feeling cold with horror when he saw clips on TV of officers appearing to stand around. “It wasn’t reported correctly. Hand on heart, we never stood still for a minute,” he said.

Officers stressed that police had undertaken dispersal tactics that mirrored their training and public disorder planning. Not conducting arrests at the time of riot events was deliberate, they said, not a matter of standing back and doing nothing. Some, however, expressed frustration at what they saw as indecisive tactics by their senior command, as well as a general lack of police numbers and of riot-trained backup officers.

Interviewing police on location revealed some interesting details of place. Waiting to speak to officers from the tactical aid unit in Manchester, we spent a few days camping out in the staff canteen, which put a face to some of those behind the Nato helmets. Walking around a mockup of a street in Northern Ireland where they conduct disorder training, we wondered how policing the riots had compared to other episodes of unrest.

Most police officers outside London said the riots in their areas had been copycat incidents. Rioters were dismissed as “scum” by some and “just criminals” by others, but a few officers asked about the first phase of Reading the Riots – particularly at the end of interviews, after tapes had been turned off – and said they would be interested to meet and talk with those who were so violent towards them, to understand where that came from.

Many of the police interviewees mentioned austerity, particularly youth unemployment, and linked this to the high likelihood of further riots. Others reported that community-police relationships had improved in recent years. I believe we have learned much in phase two about the policing of the riots and police perceptions in general, but some key questions remain unanswered – such as the gap between the perspectives of the police and those rioters we interviewed in phase one, who spoke so passionately about stop-and-search and deaths in police custody.


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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