Posted by: Martin Scherer | 28/03/2011

An American way of policing London riots

There were riots in London this weekend. A quarter of a million people, that is the size of medium town, set out on a family march against government cuts. State workers with their children and parents, artists and multicultural bands. A happy day out for all, showing their anger in very genteel British style.

These people don’t have an answer. They protest what they don’t want. Nuclear power, foxhunting, pollution, foreign wars and now government cuts of their well paid comfortable jobs. For them it is the government’s fault. Union leaders and socialist politicians stand on platforms telling protestors what they want to hear. That they shouldn’t tolerate it and if they vote socialist, they can put a stop to it. The trouble is it was a socialist government that got us into this mess.

Some feel very angry. They see evil corporations that they want to blame for taking manufacturing jobs over seas to people who will work for less, more efficiently and be grateful, and, for not paying more tax. Tax for the government to use to maintain the protestors well paid comfortable state jobs. This angry brigade is lead by the Socialist Workers who believe all wealth is theft, and a new UK organisation called UK UNCUT. They dress in black, cover their heads with balaclavas and hoods. They arm themselves with spray and can paint and set out for the high street shops of London. They use bricks, fireworks, smoke canisters, and kick windows of clothes shops, banks, and expensive restaurants. They act with impunity by some moral right as though venting their wrath at Catholic paedophile priests.

When the police arrive to form a human barrier, the angry brigade spit and throw ammonia, goading the police into any reaction so they can capture the police response on their hand held phone video to immediate twitter or Facebook to the world.

Now, I’m not great fan of British police. Do you remember the 1960’s Grosvenor Square riot against Vietnam outside the US Embassy? I was on my honeymoon, still dressed in my wedding suite, my new wife in her pretty little wedding suite. We had spent two days in bed and decide to go out for a pleasant evening through the streets of London.

We walked towards a green square. At the junction to my left, I saw a long row of white army or prison busses, with bars on windows. Before I could think what they were, some guy grabbed me but the lapels, lifted my off my feat and slammed me against the wall. Stunned and shocked I recognised my assailant to be a police officer. He grimaced at me looking at me as though I’d just murdered his colleague. Then I heard a voice,

“Put him down, he’s not one of those.”

And I fell to the floor.

The voice came from a police inspector, in one of those flat caps. He then, “Get out of here” and waved me away. I took my young pregnant wife’s hand and headed fast to the hotel room where I hit the cocktails cabinet of drinks I could not afford. Several hours later, I saw the news. We had wandered into Grosvenor Square.

Since those days, Health and Safety rules came into play. You cannot let a police officer face protestors unless the officer is dressed from head to foot in protective padding and helmets with visors, armed with batons, pepper spray, and now tazers, looking much like anonymous troopers of Star War’s evil empire. Maggie Thatcher drove the policed on chargers against the miners and Blair did much the same against globalisation protestors. Every news report cited police brutality. Very rarely did the news point the finger as the stone throwing, paint plastering, protestors.

This weekend, British policing was very different.

Along the main march, there were few police and they were smiling, picking up the doll some passing child had dropped. The police who first arrived at the riots wore nothing more than their florescent jackets and old-fashioned police helmets. Twittering away, the adrenaline pumped, angry brigade moved fast from one target to another. Late into the night, they started to congregate towards Trafalgar Square. Taking a leaf from Egyptian freedom fighters, these angry mobs were determined to have their square on the worlds’ TV news. It was then, as things got ugly, the police donned protective clothing. For once, the police were ahead of the game and managed to bock streets with thin yellow blue lines to keep groups apart. No horses charging with mounted black police wielding batons.

Why the change? Is it the change of government? We now have a liberal conservative coalition. Liberals are very keen on freedom of speech and the right to protest. But would a Government contravene Health and Safety Laws?

Is it the new democratic tool of Twitter and Facebook? The police in those lines were only vulnerable to being photographed because they did not wear the anonymity cover of helmet and visor. Something changed the policing long before they got on the streets to be photographed.

The police have long been vulnerable to camera’s. The paparazzi hang about like crickets clicking cameras. Once at Notting Hill Carnival, a fight broke out between two black guys. The crowd soon parted, to reveal the fight and around it half a dozen TV cameras. As the audience goaded the fighter onto bloodier blows, I stood and watched waiting for the police to arrive.

Before the police arrived, the camera and sound technicians suddenly grabbed their gear and ran away. The two black guys stopped, and stared at each other, then ran after the TV crews shouting, “Where’s my money?” The TV crews had paid to start a fight, but now the TV crews were running to a real full street fight. Or was it.

Why was it different this weekend?

Has it got anything to do with the new Governments intention to make all police chiefs stand for election? For the British that is a very strange American idea. The British do not elect their police chiefs. That’s a bit like electing your teacher, headmaster, or opening a vote in the family to see who is going to be daddy next week. If people are allowed to elect the police, someone who enforces the rules, then won’t you get someone prepared to bend the rules to the elected? In all white areas, a stiff inflexible retired major. In black areas, a Rasta smoking black guy?

Strangely, it seems to work in the US despite all the news coverage of white police kicking black men on the floor. Driving down US 41 a few years ago, I watched a white police officer pull over a beat-up 70’s gas-guzzler, driven by a black guy. I slowed down to watch. Maybe the black guy might need a witness. The officer was impeccable in his manner, gave the black guy a warning, and let him go. The black guy was impeccable, none of the shirty attitude and anti-police accusations I had anticipated from US TV.

At festivals, Americans police stand at street corners with guns on their hips. Maybe it’s my English accent but before I speak they smile, ‘Can I help you?’. Before I get a word in someone else wants to talk to theses friendly officers. It’s not like that in the UK. It may have been one day. Police on the streets of the UK are so rare, they are largely ostracised. The old Street bobby went decades ago. Ask a London police officer for directions and they haven’t got a clue where they are. The reason is that to prevent police corruption, officers are moved around before they can make contact with anyone let alone criminals. I am fed up with the police not bothering to turn up to crimes I report and, when they do, telling me it was my fault because I did not put bars on the windows and install CCTV. Recently two police officers were reprimanded because they said they were too busy when called to attend to a guy who had just knifed another in the street. I’m fed up with a police force that appears to spend most of its time catching speeding motorists, illegal parking, or writing reports.

A few weeks ago, I was surprised by the sight of a policeman walking up the road. Even more surprised when he started chatting as though I was some kind of friend. I felt distinctly uncomfortable wondering what I had done wrong. He wished me good morning and walked on.

Is it possible, police chiefs are saying to themselves, “If I want to get elected I’d better engage with the public who will elect me.”

Politicians have long since lost any authority over the police. Politicians are too scared the police will investigate them for diddling their expenses, or wandering around parks for a sexual pick-up. The police keep large dossiers on politicians. When the police picked up a former cabinet minister for importuning in a public park, it was revealed the police had a dossier of such activity going back over ten years. Going to vote for increased police pay and resources? No, well I’ve got this dossier…The cost of British policing has steadily increased whilst the public complain the service has deteriorated.

At a public meeting in the US, I recently watched a police chief. A predominantly white town but he was black. He clearly knew his job. He knew the criminals and did not mince words. He called a spade a spade and was determined to catch them. In very diplomatic terms, he told the gathered public if they wanted the latest crime wave conquered, they would have to help.

The anonymous voting public have no reason to fear some police officer will turn on them. Not so crazy this American way of doing things. I got a feeling British policing is going to change for the better.

Maybe we should elect head teachers and hospital administrators. That is a thought.



  1. It is amazing the different techiques different countries use. I have encountered police I wouldn’t call for help, but the majority of the times, they are polite and informative when needing directions. I am often leary of the police here in the USA because you never now from on encounter to the next whether the police will think I am a pain or they want to help me. Perhaps policing crowds is their only forte.

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