Britain’s top cops have become extraordinary drama queens in the past couple of days, and all because the country’s political leaders said what was obvious to everyone – namely, that the police lost control of urban streets for several nights and changed their tactics far too late in combating the recent riots.
And now they are all in a fit because David Cameron is turning to US super-cop Bill Bratton for advice on how to confront street gangs. Admittedly, Bratton could be a bit more diplomatic in his comments to British newspapers – he is engaged in a certain amount of grandstanding.
But a little humility from Britain’s senior police officers wouldn’t go amiss.
Alas, that’s not what they’re offering. Four Chief Constables now have attacked openly Prime Minister David Cameron. And it is hard not to hear those very British sounds of complacency. Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, argued that moves like calling in Bratton had “really come across as almost people disrespecting what we have already achieved in this country.” Disrespecting? He sounds like a gangsta!
Hearing that remark and it is hard not to be sympathetic to Bratton’s suggestion that there is a “parochial” element to the British police’s dislike of seeing counsel being sought from overseas.
I am sure there have been police achievements but last week’s riots and the police response to them was not one of the Peelers’ finest moments. I am pretty sure that will be the view of homeowners, tenants, shopkeepers who were caught up in the flash riots and pleaded to no avail for police assistance.
According to Fahy there is a risk that the rhetoric coming from the British Government over the riots is losing the confidence of police chiefs. What the police should understand is that they are losing the confidence of the public, which wasn’t high as they confronted the disorder. Met Police incompetence was very much on show in the previous weeks over the handling of probes into tabloid phone hacking. And there was a distinct whiff of corruption at Scotland Yard thrown up by the hacking scandal.
Clearly, the police are particularly offended at the idea that police tactics changed because of government intervention. I suppose they feel that this reflects poorly on their professionalism. Both the prime minister and Home Secretary Theresa May have indicated that they were the ones who read the riot act, so to speak, to the cops.
May insists that it was the politicians who drove the change in tactics from softly-softly to a much more muscular approach. “The Prime Minister and I were very clear about two things: we wanted to see a presence on the streets; we also wanted to see a tough arrest policy. That has been followed through,” she said.
Obviously, the politicians have a vested interest in presenting themselves as having been very much on the ball. They after all reacted far too slowly to the disorder, too, and Cameron, May, and London Mayor Boris Johnson should have returned from their vacations much sooner.
An abiding memory of the early (and it wasn’t that early) political reaction to the riots was the hesitant and inadequate press conference of a clearly nervous Lynne Featherstone, a junior Home Office minister, 16 hours after the Tottenham riot had started.
Even so, the timeline would suggest that it was the politicians who caused the change in police tactics, which remained softly-softly for the first three nights of the rioting. The tenor, tempo and pro-activeness of the police only really started on the Tuesday after ministers and officials met under the auspices of the national security Cobra Committee.
Quite rightly, May has made it abundantly clear where authority lies. “Ministers must ensure the police know what the public expect of them,” she said over the weekend.
Of course, if it is true that the police shifted their tactics at the behest of their political masters, then it reflects not just poorly on the police — they should have realized earlier they had to make changes — but on the tardiness on the part of the holidaying politicians.