Policing the mobs
The police stand accused of allowing mayhem to go unchecked
Aug 13th 2011 | from the print edition
Trying to catch up
AFTER five days of spreading Saturnalian anarchy on the streets of English cities, the disgust and anger felt for the rioters was accompanied by growing dismay at the failure of the police to get on top of the violent thuggery in some places. In violated towns and cities, there was angry incomprehension at the apparent willingness of armoured police to stand back while shops were pillaged and torched by marauding youths.
A poll conducted by YouGov for the Sun newspaper reflected the widespread belief that the police had got their tactics wrong. Of those questioned, 90% favoured the use of water cannon; 78% tear gas; 72% Tasers (an electroshock weapon); 65% plastic bullets; 33% even wanted the police to use live ammunition against the looters. And 77% wanted the army to be deployed.
The criticism of the police is understandable, but is it justified? Most experts doubt whether the use of traditional riot-control weapons would have made much difference this week. Although water cannon and tear gas can be effective in getting a large mob to disperse from a particular area, or in allowing the police to “buy distance” or hold ground, they are indiscriminate and fairly clumsy. Tasers are not a public-order weapon—they cannot be fired into crowds—but a non-lethal method of individual incapacitation.