Thursday, 11 August 2011
Press Release on recent UK disorder
The Press Dept at LondonMetropolitan University recently asked me to write something for a Press release that they put out about the recent riots across England. Below is the full version of the edited account that they put out;
30 years worth of research by psychologists into a variety of public order situations, ranging from the inner city riots to disorder England football fans, to the recent tuition fees protests, have found that riots always happen in a social context. If one does not consider this social context, then how such situations occur and develop can not be fully understood. Therefore, events such as the shooting of Mark Duggan by Police in Tottenham can certainly be seen as the trigger that sparked off the initial disturbances, but wider social problems (such as young people's sense of alienation from mainstream society, and the economic context of youth unemployment and public spending cuts) can also help explain the rapid spread of disorder to other disaffected communities nationwide.
Furthermore, descriptions of rioters as 'mindless thugs' and 'feral rats' are deeply emotive terms that are not supported by empirical research and can only cloud rational debate and further alienate the very people who need to re-connect with society if such disorder is to be prevented in future. To an outside observer, trashing and looting shops may seem like 'mindless' behaviours, but to young unemployed people, taking goods that they can not normally afford may seem like quite meaningful behaviour. Even apparently nihilistic behaviours such as trashing local charity shops may seem acceptable to those who feel no sense of connection with their local community. This is not in any way an attempt to excuse such behaviours (many of which were by definition, criminal acts), but definitions of 'rational' and 'irrational' behaviours are very much in the eye of the beholder.
Demands by politicians and the public to give the Police greater powers and/or weaponry to deal with the disorder merely reflect a misunderstanding of the issues involved in public order policing. Such tactics don't tend to be popular with the Police and are most likely to be counter-productive. Use of distance weaponry (such as plastic bullets and water cannon) only tend to be effective in dispersing large static crowds, and would be largely ineffective against small groups of looters that tend to disperse anyway when the Police arrive. Evidence from Northern Ireland has also shown that such tactics usually escalate public order situations and make further confrontations likely. Furthermore, they would increase the disconnection between the Police and local community and take them further away from what they profess to be their preferred mode of policing- by consent not coercion. In the Independent today (11/8/2011) Sir Hugh Orde, who is tipped to become the next Commissioner of the Met, and has been Chief Constable of the PSNI (the only UK Police force with experience of using such tactics) has rejected the current clamour for such tactics to be used; http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/sir-hugh-orde-water-cannon-make-for-good-headlines-ndash-and-bad-policing-2335676.html
The disorder currently sweeping cities in England clearly presents a major problem that needs to be tackled. However, there also needs to be a sensible and neutral debate into its underlying causes. To call for such a debate does not mean one is seeking to excuse what happened. But to pursue a line that what has happened is pure criminality is a simplistic interpretation that prevents such a debate happening, meaning that such disorder could happen again if the root causes are not addressed. We all need to work together as a society to bring communities back together after the wounds inflicted by the recent disorder, and knee-jerk emotional reactions will only prevent such a process happening.