Leading article: The lessons to be drawn from mindless violence

Tuesday 09 August 2011 00:00

Immediately and inevitably in the aftermath of a riot attention turns to what lessons can be drawn from these acts of violence and theft. The spotlight has swung, as so often, to the police.

What sparked the unrest was the shooting of a 29-year-old man, Mark Duggan, in Tottenham by the Metropolitan Police's Operation Trident team. The police's handling of the aftermath of that incident looks to have been poor. Mr Duggan's family apparently had to wait 36 hours to see his body. And when members of the community staged a vigil outside Tottenham police station to demand answers about the circumstances of the shooting, officers seem to have failed to communicate with them.

There is a context of mistrust of the police here. After the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, the police allowed false reports that the Brazilian had been wearing a bulky coat and had run from officers to circulate without contradiction. And after the 2009 death of Ian Tomlinson, the police denied that the newspaper vendor had been pushed by an officer. It was only when a video emerged showing that this was the case that the police admitted the truth. Thankfully, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has decided to speed up its investigation into Mr Duggan's death and will make a public statement today. The pity is that the IPCC and the Met did not take these steps to provide the public with information earlier, when it might have helped to calm tensions.

The police have come in for criticism for their handling of the riots themselves. Some have argued that officers were slow to respond to the violence and that they ought to have done more to protect shops from looters. The police's pledge that they will use CCTV to track down thieves probably does sound deeply unsatisfactory to those who have seen their shops looted. Yet, in fairness to the police, they have a difficult balance to strike. If they take a zero tolerance approach they are accused of over-reacting, as occurred when they arrested UK Uncut protesters who had occupied Fortnum & Mason in March. And if they take a tactical decision to stand back, as they did to some extent at the weekend, they are castigated for being ineffectual.

One encouraging aspect of this affair is the manner in which the local community has responded. In the wake of the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985 there was a palpable sense of an entire housing estate that was alienated from the police and the local authorities. But the condemnation of the lawbreakers this time has been almost universal. Two MPs from north London, David Lammy and Diane Abbott, have both stressed the senseless nature of the violence.

Attempts to trace this outbreak of lawlessness to deprivation and the social marginalisation of Britain's inner-city youth need to be handled with care. A lack of economic opportunity and aspiration in our inner cities is unquestionably a problem that local and political leaders must address. But it is spurious to draw a connection between that disaffection and specific outbreaks of violence of the sort we have seen in recent days. The urge to draw lessons is understandable and appropriate. But, equally, we must beware drawing the wrong ones – especially before we know the full facts.

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