Amid the still-smoldering ashes of the past week’s riots, the British public is not only assessing the damage—it’s trying to figure out what sparked the conflagration in the first place. Where Prime Minister David Cameron has blamed a culture of entitlement and irresponsibility among British youth, the opposition Labour Party has targeted the government’s austerity measures, which have cut provisions for the poor.
What everyone seems to agree upon is that police forces simply weren’t up to the job. Home Secretary Theresa Mays opened an emergency session of Parliament on Thursday by telling her fellow MPs, “We need to appraise [the police response] honestly, bluntly, and learn the lessons where things have gone wrong.” Cameron was even more blunt, saying, “There were simply far too few police deployed on to our streets and the tactics they were using weren’t working.” The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has already voted to hold an inquiry into how security forces could have better curbed the rioting. The committee will no doubt find plenty of failings by the Home Office.
But they should also be wary of the many criticisms that have been launched on the basis of populism and cynicism—especially those coming from the United States. Already some pundits—Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly among them—have tried to argue that a facilitator of the anarchy was that the police weren’t deployed with firearms, and weren’t permitted to use lethal force to quash the riots. That is, simply put, a misguided policy recommendation, one that hearkens more to your typical tyrant’s guide to public security than a democracy’s conception of public order. Effective riot control does not—and will not ever—come out of the barrel of a gun.
The ability (and authority) to fire bullets—even rubber bullets—into crowds isn’t guaranteed to deter or stop rioting. Even in free societies like the United States and Canada, where police are usually armed, determined looters have always found ways to perpetrate mayhem. The use of lethal force by police in the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles did little to quell mob violence. Indeed, even though authorities shot and killed 10 rioters, it didn’t prevent another 43 people from losing their lives as a result of the riots. That’s a sizable difference when compared to the five people who died this week in the UK, where police have been severely restricted from engaging crowds with lethal force.
And even if it manages to deter violence in the short term, the use of lethal force by police can actually incite further rioting later on. As we’re seeing in places like Syria, shooting protestors might disperse a crowd, but it can also simply embolden the disgruntled to return in larger numbers the next day. And we shouldn’t forget that this week’s violence erupted after police shot and killed a 29-year old Londoner. The last thing British authorities needed would have been more officer-related shootings to fuel the flames of rioters.
A number of the other policy recommendations made in the wake of the rioting are equally troubling. One proposed measure, for example, would force cellular network blackouts during riots. Prime Minister Cameron has endorsed a similar idea before Parliament, suggesting that it might be imperative to restrict the use of instant messaging and social networking in times of turmoil. But blanket phone and internet access limits in specific geographic areas would prevent law-abiding citizens from issuing and receiving warnings and from contacting emergency services. Moreover, preemptively blocking social media might also prevent the government from discerning who incited rioting and violence in the first place, so that they can eventually be prosecuted. It would be prudent for the government to find ways to target and disable the cell phones and social network accounts of individual rioters, on a case-by-case basis, and only after it is clear they are using communication systems to incite rioting—though even here authorities will have to proceed in a manner that is not disrespectful of the significant civil liberty and censorship issues involved.
None of this is to say that the British police don’t require more forceful measures to prevent future fiascos. For starters, British politicians need to understand that the philosophy of “policing by consent” that they are fond of citing is an ideal, not an inviolable rule. In times of national emergency, authorities must not be reticent to use non-lethal means of law enforcement to re-establish public order. The use of tear gas and dog patrols are two such well-established measures that the police should have utilized this past week to curb vandalism and disperse crowds.
Another mistake was the failure to deploy water cannons. The Home Secretary was too hasty in ruling out the use of this effective tool of riot control: “The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon. The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities.” In hindsight, this was a significant failure in judgment—especially in light of the fact that the use of water cannons is authorized in Northern Ireland. Noting the underlying hypocrisy of the current policy, one member of Parliament observed, “I find it strange that we are willing to use these sort of measures against the Irish yet when Englishmen step out of line and behave in this atrocious and appalling way, we are happy to mollycoddle them.”
British society will have much to discuss as it tries to come to terms with why the riots happened and what more could have been done to limit their damage. Societal norms in the UK promote extreme caution in the exercise of police powers—as this week’s events taught us, too much caution. But the solution will not be to swing from one extreme to another. Martial tactics run the risk of being counter-productive and could even undermine confidence in the state. Instead, Britain’s political leaders must develop a security strategy that suppresses, rather than provokes, violence. And contrary to what some commentators contend, firearms and other lethal instruments of force won’t have much of a role to play in achieving that balance.
Louis Klarevas teaches international relations at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @Klarevas.