Police officers could open fire on arsonists targeting shops and offices during future riots if there were a risk of someone getting killed in nearby homes, a review of police tactics used during the August disturbances has found.
Inspectors concluded that police commanders "must be equipped to respond with extraordinary measures" when life was threatened after an investigation found that officers held back from tackling rioters because of concerns they could be breaking the law.
Water cannon could also be used to drive back missile-throwing protesters and plastic bullets fired to protect ambulance and firefighters, according to legal advice prepared for the report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.
The two tactics have never before been used in mainland public-order policing. The finding comes after MPs on the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee said yesterday that it would have been inappropriate and dangerous to use water cannon and baton rounds because it could have inflamed the situation further.
Sir Denis O'Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, highlighted the case of Monika Konczyk, a Polish woman who was forced to jump out of a building in Croydon torched by rioters. "Some new rules of engagement are necessary so the police can protect the public in confidence," he said.
The report found that the police were not prepared for the fast-moving riots sparked by the shooting by police of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, on 4 August. The report found authorities had failed to challenge rumours that Mr Duggan had been "executed" by police until rioting was well under way.
It said that some forces ran out of round shields, needed by officers to push back rioters, and there were cases of substandard equipment including vehicles not fitted with steel grilles and reinforced glass. It also found that it was impossible to make arrests in some circumstances because there were too few officers on the streets. The report called for clear rules of engagement for officers to tackle rioters but also maintain the support of the public.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, questioned the effect of using firearms during riots. "How on earth would bullets have quelled this summer's riots? Didn't the widespread disorder all begin in Tottenham with a fatal police shooting?"
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