This essay examined the role and behaviour of the police in the 2011 English riots, which occurred from August 6 to 10. The main objective of the essay is to understand to what extent the 2011 riots might have been aggravated by the behaviour of the police. The analysis revealed that the role and behaviour of the police in the riots has two dimensions:
- Police’s treatment of certain groups were viewed as harsh and discriminatory, especially the stop and search practice, which resulted in anger and resentment from some members of the community;
- Police response was inefficient in handling the rioting and looting, which resulted in the incident lasting for five days and causing extensive damage.
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The 2011 English riots occurred from August 6 to 10, as thousands of people took to the streets in several London boroughs and cities and towns across England. This resulted in looting, arson, robbery, violence, and injuries. Scores of police officers were deployed in order to regain peace and stability in the affected areas. The incident garnered much media publicity, as well as public concern and scrutiny (Guardian 2011; Joyce & Wallis 2011).
This event has been viewed from various perspectives. Government authorities and several mass media outlets have referred to the incident as ‘riots’ and equated the actions of participants to criminal behaviour. On the other hand, sympathisers have described them as a protest, revolution, and rebellion against inequality and the state’s inefficiencies (Joyce & Wallis 2011; Smith 2011; Finchet-Maddock 2011; Democracy Now 2011; White 2011; Peralta 2011).
There are many assumptions, theories and speculations on what caused the 2011 English riots. The media, government authorities, and academic community have posed several possible reasons as the main drivers behind the incident. Some of the common explanations are: anger with police; weak police response; high rates of youth unemployment and poor job prospects; poverty; social and economic inequality; racism and racial profiling; social exclusion; rank opportunism; welfare dependence; austerity measures or spending cuts which removed many support mechanisms; poor parenting; commercialism; and social media (BBC News 2011a; The Guardian 2011; Taylor, Rogers & Lewis 2011; Travis 2011; The Week Editorial Staff 2011; Euronews 2011; Riddell 2011).
This paper aims to understand the riots from the context of the role and behaviour of the police before and during the event. As such, this essay will attempt to discuss to what extent the 2011 riots might have been aggravated by the behaviour of the police. This paper will provide an objective and critical analysis of the subject by using information from various sources, such as news articles, opinions, and academic reports. The analysis will also be viewed from different angles (i.e. from the perspectives of the public, media, government authorities, and the police). This is to ensure a fair and balanced analysis of the subject.
Background Information on the 2011 English Riots
The 2011 English riots were believed to have been triggered by a protest march in Tottenham, which was organised by the relatives and friends of Mark Duggan (who was shot and killed by a police officer on August 4, 2011). According to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), Duggan was killed during a planned arrest as part of Operation Trident (Bolesworth et al 2011; Laville et al 2011). The Trident is a Metropolitan Police Service unit, which investigates gun crime within the Afro-Caribbean communities in London.
There were contradictory media reports regarding the shooting of Mark Duggan and this is believed to have played a big role in creating conflict between the police and sympathizers of Duggan. Initial reports indicate that Duggan had fired on the police; however, his family and friends insisted that he was unarmed. The IPCC later acknowledged that Duggan had not fired a gun and admitted that they may have misled journalists into believing that shots had been exchanged (The Australian 2011; Press TV 2011; Vasagar 2011).
Duggan’s death generated a lot of media publicity and raised public outrage in the Tottenham community. On August 6, the relatives, friends, and other supporters of Duggan, held a protest rally to demand justice and police explanation for his death (Press TV 2011; Bolesworth et al 2011). The protest for Mark Duggan was initially peaceful but later turned violent as participants in the march remained dissatisfied with the response that they received from police (Smith 2011; Bolesworth et al 2011; Laville et al 2011).
Shortly after the protest, the first incident of rioting and looting were reported in Tottenham. This was later followed by more rioting and looting at Tottenham Hale retail park. What started as a small, local protest spiralled out of control as people, especially the youth, took advantage of the situation when they realised that the police could not be everywhere at once and could not address all the cases, especially if it was done on a great scale. With the use of mobile phones and social media networks, word got around quickly and many masked, young people were quick to cash in on the chaos (Euronews 2011; Smith 2011).
As news spread and rumours about the Tottenham riots abounded, other districts in London were affected by extensive looting, arson, robbery, and violence. Riots were also reported in Birmingham, Bristol, Gloucester, Gillingham, Nottingham, Leicester, parts of West Midlands and Greater Manchester, and Merseyside in north-west England. The incidents occurred mostly at night as rioters and looters took advantage of the cover of darkness to go about their plans (BBC News 2011b; The Guardian 2011; Riddell 2011).
Examining the Role and Behaviour of the Police before and during the riots
Various analysts and experts have pointed out that the police’s handling (or mishandling) of the Mark Duggan case had incited feelings of anger and injustice from the community, especially from blacks and youths from impoverished areas, because it was seen as another example of excessive police brutality. The community already had feelings of resentment towards the police and the death of Mark Duggan only ‘incensed the already raw community’ (Finchet-Maddock 2011, p.55).
The shooting of Mark Duggan was not an isolated case. There have been accounts of police violence and harassment and deaths of suspected felons under police custody. Moreover, the treatment of police, particularly its singling out of specific areas and individuals for monitoring and stop and search practices, was identified as a key reason for the suspicion and resentment of some sectors of society (especially among blacks and minority ethnic groups) against the police. This is believed to be one of the motivating factors for the riots (Riddell 2011).
A study conducted by the Guardian and the London School of Economics found that based on interviews with 270 rioters, the riots were triggered by ‘widespread anger and frustration at the way police engage with communities’ (Lewis et al 2011, p.1). Interviews with rioters revealed their deep-rooted antipathy and distrust towards the police. Analysts pointed out that this distrust and hostility towards the police were one of the key drivers for the riots. The study also showed that although the rioters identified various political grievances, the focal point of their complaints was their feeling of injustice, especially in terms of police treatment. They specifically mentioned their intense frustration at the way members of their communities are subjected to ‘stop and search’ by the police. This finding was echoed in a government report conducted by an independent panel, wherein stop and search was identified as one of the motivational factors for black and Asian rioters. Many of the participants also admitted that they felt like they were clearly engaging in anti-police riots. They identified policing as the most significant cause of the riots. This was incited by the anger they felt regarding the police shooting of Mark Duggan. However, the independent government panel report contradicted this finding as it concluded that there was ‘no single cause for the riots’ (Lewis et al 2011, p.1).
According to Smith (2011), the rioting was primarily aimed at taking control of certain areas from the police, usually for a short period of time. This was seen as a way of ‘sticking two fingers up to authority’ or payback against the police (sec.2). Smith’s study also identified inappropriate policing as one of the drivers behind the riots. Specifically, the author explored two types of policing: (a) Long-term policing practices, and (b) Police reaction to events.
Long-term policing practices refer to the use of ‘stop and search’ and ‘stop and account’ in some communities, especially in impoverished areas. These practices also seem to be related to racial stereotyping and discrimination, especially for blacks and Asians, and have caused significant resentment among certain groups of young people (Riddell 2011; Lewis et al 2011; Smith 2011)). The riots were then seen by many participants as an opportunity to get back at the police. Smith (2011) postulates that ‘more than anything payback appears to have been, or probably, the key motivating factor in terms of the rioting element of the disturbances’ (sec 5).
Another dimension of policing is the police’s response during the riots. The police’s mishandling of the situation regarding the shooting of Mark Duggan and their failure to provide sufficient response to the subsequent incidences of riots, looting, and violence have contributed to the escalation and worsening of events. There were not enough police on the streets, especially on the second night of disturbances, and the media’s depiction of police retreating or standing by while looting and rioting took place are believed to have empowered more people to join in or duplicate the activities in other areas. The absence of police officers to intervene in the wide-scale looting and violence led to a breakdown of order and enabled the incident to last for five days (Smith 2011; Riddell 2011; Euronews 2011).
From the point of view of the police, their inability to scale up their responses to the riots was due to a combination of two essential factors. First is that they were trying not to inflame the situation by exercising caution and extreme restraint when dealing with protesters and rioters. This was due to the criticisms they received from their previous handling of student demonstrations. Secondly, the police argued that it takes time to muster enough forces, increase their response, and modify it based on developments. It is worth noting that the tactical response of the police had to be significantly altered as the protests turned into rioting and looting (Smith 2011). As such, the police had to stretch its resources and change their tactics as the incident worsened.
Looking back, a faster, more reactive, and stronger police intervention could have reduced the scale of rioting and looting (Smith 2011). However, it cannot be assured that such a response could have effectively resolved the incident. The situation prior to the riots was already very fragile due years of pent up frustration against the police. A tougher police intervention could end up being counter-productive. Although it may help to curb the rioting and looting, it does not guarantee long-term peace and stability.
It can be argued that the stricter treatment of the police in certain areas and towards some groups is due to the high incidence of crime in these communities. In fact, the stop and search practice was implemented to lessen gun crimes and selling of drugs. However, over the years, this has created a backlash among the members of these communities because they feel discriminated by the police. As such, the police are placed in a dilemma: how do they enforce law and order in communities with high crime rates without imposing stricter treatment and practices?
In a sense, the escalation of the English riots can be attributed to this moral dilemma. The police’s harsh treatment towards certain sectors of the community had led to resentment and anger, which exploded in the wake of Mark Duggan’s shooting. As the police tried to exercise restraint during the subsequent rioting and looting – lest they be accused of more police brutality – the disturbances only increased as people thought that the police was incapable of stopping them. The police erred and was harshly criticized for their treatment of some members of the community. However, they were criticized even more when they failed to promptly stop the rioting, looting, and violence. Whichever action they took, they ended up bearing a significant portion of the blame for the 2011 English riots.
This paper aimed to analyze the role and behaviour of the police in the 2011 English riots, specifically to understand to what extent the riots may have been aggravated by the behaviour of the police. Results of the analysis show that the police’s behaviour prior to and during the riots had a significant impact on the situation.
Prior to the riots, the police’s harsh treatment towards some groups (especially blacks and other ethnic minorities) had already resulted in anger, frustration, resentment, and sense of injustice which was felt by some members of the community, particularly in impoverished areas. The police shooting of Mark Duggan brought these feelings to the fore and incited certain sectors to join the rioting. The situation later escalated to looting, arson, robbery and violence as participants realized that they can take advantage of the situation and payback at the police.
Police response during the initial days of rioting was insufficient and only caused more people to be empowered to join or copy the disturbance. As such, the police’s failure to promptly address the situation further worsened the situation.
In conclusion, the police’s behaviour before and during the riots combined to aggravate the riots. This is supported by the fact that many studies and investigations conducted about the 2011 English riots pointed out that inappropriate policing was one of the key drivers behind the incident.
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