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London rioting prompts calls for tougher policing

By Tim Lister, CNN
  • British politicians, pundits and citizens urge police to step up methods to quell rioting
  • Use of rubber or plastic bullets, water cannon and tear gas are among the suggestions
  • British police officers don't carry firearms except in exceptional cases
  • London's Metropolitan Police may be ready to use plastic bullets for the first time

(CNN) -- Three nights of violence in London have provoked a furious debate in Britain about police readiness and riot control methods, with ordinary citizens, newspapers and politicians calling for the use of rubber or plastic bullets, water cannon and tear gas.

While tear gas and water cannon are frequently used in Europe, such riot control methods are unknown in mainland Britain. Nor do police officers carry firearms except in exceptional cases, usually related to terrorism cases and combating armed gangs. Their normal arsenal in the face of public disturbances amounts to batons and riot shields.

The top-selling tabloid newspaper The Sun asked Tuesday: "Where are the water cannon and tear gas when yobs are burning cars and ransacking stores? Both would be justified. Both would already have been used elsewhere."

Extra police patrol London's streets

The Home Office, which has responsibility for policing in England and Wales, has ruled out bringing in water cannon, which are used in Northern Ireland. A spokesman said: "Water cannons are not approved for use on the mainland. A range of measures is available to the police to tackle disorder and we do not believe that water cannon are needed."

In any case there are none available. They would have to be brought over from Northern Ireland.

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Last year, after student protests turned violent, there were similar calls for the use of water cannons. But Home Secretary Theresa May said then: "I don't think anybody wants to see water cannon used on the streets of Britain because we have a different attitude to the culture of policing here. We police by consent and it depends on that trust between the police and the public."

Patrick Mercer, a Conservative member of Parliament, disagrees. Mercer told The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday: "I find it strange that we are willing to use these sort of measures against the Irish yet when Englishmen step out of line and behave in this atrocious and appalling way, we are happy to mollycoddle them. ... If the police want cannon, then they should be allowed to use them."

Such calls are likely to be made by many MPs when Parliament is recalled to discuss the rioting.

But should the situation worsen, the Metropolitan Police, which has responsibility for policing London, is ready to consider using plastic bullets for the first time to quell rioting. Some police units are trained to use plastic bullets, also known as baton rounds, and they have been used before against armed suspects -- but not in situations of public disorder. Stephen Kavanagh, the Met's deputy assistant commissioner, said Tuesday they were "one of the tactics" being considered.

Many bloggers and columnists have erupted with rage at the apparent helplessness of the Metropolitan Police in recent days, and on the streets local people have told reporters they felt abandoned in the face of anarchy. "London is turning into a zoo," said one resident of Clapham in south London on Tuesday.

On the blog conservativehome, Tim Montgomerie wrote: "The police have no tools for riot control. ... They don't need water cannon -- it won't work on such mobile crowds -- but they do need rubber bullets and tear gas."

He and others are calling for the deployment of the army, which would be an unprecedented step in peacetime Britain. In the conservative weekly magazine, The Spectator, Peter Hoskin argued for using the army in a supporting role.

"Although that would break through all sorts of symbolic barriers ... it might also give the Met the bulk and mobility they need," Hoskin wrote.

Some on the left are also calling for extraordinary measures. Diane Abbott, whose district includes the trouble spot of Hackney in east London, demanded the imposition of a curfew, telling the Evening Standard newspaper: "These young people, who seem to have no stake in society, are trashing their own communities. We cannot continue to have increasing numbers of looters on the streets night after night."

And the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, a left-wing member of the Labour Party, said the police should be allowed to start using water cannon to disperse rioters.

"The issue of water cannon would be very useful given the level of arson we are seeing here," he said.

Britain does not have a centralized and specialized riot force -- unlike France, where the CRS, or Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, is regularly deployed to deal with public disorder. Members of the CRS, organized more along military lines than as a civilian police force, are housed in barracks and know little of the areas where they are deployed. Their tactics include using snatch squads to identify and arrest those regarded as ringleaders, and they frequently use tear gas and pepper spray.

Civil liberties advocates have often accused the CRS of an over-aggressive approach and racial discrimination. As Britain's home secretary was resisting the deployment of water cannon last year, the CRS was using tear gas and rubber bullets against youths in Paris and Lyon protesting against budget cuts.

There is also plenty of argument about whether the police in London have been cowed by criticism over past tactics, such as the methods used to contain protesters at the Group of 20 summit. When the last serious disturbances took place in Britain more than 20 years ago, the police were criticized for provoking trouble by swamping tense areas with high minority populations -- places such as Brixton in south London. A judicial inquiry into the Brixton riots also criticized the police for "disproportionate and indiscriminate" use of powers to stop and search suspects.

In the aftermath of that unrest, police forces across England tried to rebuild relationships with local communities. Tim Godwin, the acting commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, wrote in an article Tuesday: "We regularly consult the community on 'critical incidents' that can lead to tension. Over the past decade we have put neighborhood policing teams into every ward in London."

Godwin also appeared to acknowledge that the police had limited options and had been surprised by the sudden flare-up of violence across the capital.

"Once violence and widespread criminal damage started, could we have done more to stop it spreading?" he asked in the Evening Standard. "We had no option but to direct officers to areas where buildings were ablaze. Officers used their shields and bodies to protect fire crews."

On Tuesday night, police will rely on numbers, deploying 16,000 officers across London over a 24-hour period. All leave has been canceled, and part-time volunteer police officers have been called up. But the demands for "more robust" policing in the face of the worst disorder in a generation are unlikely to fade.

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