Brixton kept cool in the long, hot summer

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

When police in Brixton recently launched overt and covert operations to rid the inner London borough of its alleged drug dealers, the public took to the streets - to applaud.

Officers had feared high profile arrests could lead to unrest, but they had learnt hard lessons from the riots of the early Eighties and from a decade of strengthening police-community relations - primarily that they needed the people on their side first.

Using undercover tactics and a media campaign to reassure the public that the aim was to remove a blight from the area, Brixton police have made more than 50 arrests and recovered 40 firearms.

The Brixton success has proved that far from feeling hamstrung by hot, tense summers, officers with a carefully thought-out strategy can police sensitive and socially deprived areas very effectively.

Writing in the Metropolitan Journal, Scotland Yard's monthly, Detective Inspector Andy Garner says that the force is not complacent about its achievements, but adds. "The public now know that we can make a difference and we see this as crucial in the longer term process of regenerating of this part of the inner city."

While police may provide the final trigger for a riot - before the trouble in Leeds they had been blamed for sparking unrest in Luton and Bradford - they are rarely the root cause.

Criminologists, sociologists and those who have headed inquiries into inner-city strife identify a complex cocktail of factors, awaiting that critical trigger - deprivation, high unemployment, disaffected youth with no stake in society, no social or leisure activities, and hot summers, when people spend more time outdoors but do not have the money to take even a short break from their home surroundings.

According to Adam Edwards, of the Centre for the Study of Public Order, police often provide the symbol of authority on which people vent their anger - perhaps at the end of week in which they have found themselves on the losing end at the benefit office, the employment office, the housing office.

"It is not principally an issue of policing - you need to look at the earlier triggers - perhaps the closing of a leisure centre or a change in population, an influx of young people," he said.

Police now have a series of these indicators to monitor tension and to help develop policy and tactics. The lessons from Brixton are clear. It has the common factors that feed civil unrest - but policing with the approval of the community ensured that police action did not provide the crucial spark.

If all else fails, however, police forces have learnt many lessons from the last two decades of inner-city unrest. The image of the hapless officer reaching for a dustbin lid to shield himself from missiles has long faded. They now have the equipment and the training to seal off areas and quell riots within hours.