The week of 6 August 2011 was an extraordinary one. The disorder that occurred was of a nature not previously witnessed and has prompted a wide range of views and opinions as to ‘what has gone wrong’ with our society. Whilst I was personally relieved that we saw no disorder in this Region we cannot be complacent as I know that colleagues in the Yorkshire & Humber forces worked hard with local communities to avoid any ‘copy cat’ disorder taking place. West Yorkshire Police in particular did extremely well to deal with the very specific challenges with which they were confronted that week.
For my part, I observed events from a national perspective. As well as being Chief Constable of Humberside I have national responsibilities in respect of policing and was thus in London overseeing the coordination of mutual aid between police forces and working alongside the President of ACPO Sir Hugh Orde who attended COBR to report to the Prime Minister on policing issues outside London, the acting Metropolitan Police Commissioners dealt with the latter.
The scale, the geographic spread and the nature of the disorder that we witnessed was unprecedented and I speak as one who has been involved in Public Order policing since 1977. The pressure on the Police Service was intense and we were ‘running hot’ for three days. On Wednesday 10 August a remarkable total of 390 Police Support Units were operational nationally, mostly within their own force areas but some 88 were on Mutual Aid which included 15 PSUs from Scottish forces who rallied to our assistance. Consequently, we had a little under 10,000 British Police officers deployed on public order duties – and the rest of the Service was still answering calls, responding to routine incidents and policing neighbourhoods and, let us remember, the vast majority of our communities remained unaffected by disorder.
But therein lies the rub. Whilst a small number of people tragically lost their lives and we heard heartbreaking stories from many more who lost their homes and livelihoods as a direct result of the disorder, no one can have been unaffected by the scenes we witnessed in the media and the press over those days of madness. As a member of the public said to me recently, ‘we witnesses anarchy and it’s a frightening sight. Nobody wants to go back there’. These emotions underpin the strength of the public reaction to the disorder, the renewed support for local police which many forces are now experiencing and the hard questions being asked as to ‘Whyâ€¦?’.
Whilst there has been much analysis and speculation over recent weeks as to what lay behind the disorder, personally I believe that a range of issues came together in a moment of time and in a manner no one had anticipated. Certainly, for the police there was no advanced intelligence to suggest that problems in London would spread quite so rapidly not only to some of our inner cities which had experienced disorder 30 years ago but also to places as far removed as Gloucester and Nottingham which had not.
As the week progressed, the police first held the line and then regained the initiative without recourse to the baton rounds and water cannon which feature so regularly on the Continent. Personally, I was enormously impressed by how the Service responded after the initial challenge and I’m proud of the courage and dedication displayed by our officers and staff. Parliament was recalled and there is no doubt that, as the week progressed, we witnessed an unusual but very welcome degree of cooperation and support from our partners in the Criminal Justice system. We really did see rapid and robust justice with offenders being arrested, charged, put before the Courts and sentenced in days. This undoubtedly contributed to taking the momentum out of the disorderâ€¦ but for the police and public it did raise the question as to why cases take so long to get to court in the normal course of events and why imprisonment is not used more effectively at an early stage for those who make the lives of the law-abiding a misery on a more routine basis.
As for the future, I return to a point I made at the beginning. We can all sense that things have changed but I think it too early to say what the long term effects of the shock and confusion of those few days of disorder will be. Certainly, there are many more questions to be asked about the elements already identified: a ‘me first’ consumer society; family break down; poor education; unemployment; gangs. For our part, I know that police are already looking hard at the lessons we have to learn and whether we need to adapt our style and tactics to reflect the new reality but let us remember that these were not anti-police riots and British Policing did not fail, it was indeed sorely tested but rose to the challenge.
There are, however, question for us all: for individuals when we look afresh at the question of our personal responsibilities to one another and the wider society; for family members in setting standards and taking responsibility for their conduct and behaviour; for communities in making an honest assessment of how we live together and make contributions with the wider good in mind. And inevitably, there are question for ‘the powers that be’ including the Government, local authorities and the police who exercise authority over communities and make choices on their behalf.
In my experience at such times simple solutions are often sought but rarely found. We must resist the temptation to point the finger merely at those being paraded before the courts and then seek to carry on as usual. Personally, I was both impressed and reassured by the manner in which local communities across the country reacted. The ‘broom army’ of local people volunteering to clean up was frequently larger than the small number of people who had caused the damage. Support for local police was remarkable as the pubic demonstrated their support for an effective but approachable presence in their communities. The Criminal Justice system looked anew at how it operates and the extent to which local communities had confidence in its ability to deal promptly and effectively with those who break the law.
I do not believe that the events herald further social breakdown albeit no one can afford to be complacent. Perhaps the disorder served as timely reminder that we do not live alone, rather we are all part of a wider community which is stronger when it has a sense of pride and identify and stands together. As for the disorder ‘nobody wants to go back thereâ€¦’
Tim Hollis is the Chief Constable of Humberside Police.