On 30 November the Metropolitan Police published the second part of its interim report into the widespread rioting in August 2011. The report has found that numbers of police on the streets of London were insufficient to deal with the disorder, and those that were there did not arrive quickly enough. It acknowledges the possibility that pre-existing tension went unnoticed, and that intelligence gathering systems could not keep pace with the scale and speed of the riots.
However, news coverage has focused on two headline-grabbers: the announcement that the Met is considering buying three water cannons, and that more officers will be trained in the use of baton rounds (plastic bullets). Are we now liable to be pummelled and soaked by a trigger-happy Met? Probably not.
At an eye-watering £1.3m each, and never before used in mainland Britain, the water cannon should certainly raise eyebrows. But the report only states that training in baton rounds will be increased. They were in fact available for use during the summer’s riots, but were apparently not deployed due to the fast-moving nature of the rioting and, importantly, the availability of other tactical options.
Granted, the report acknowledges that: “This increase in capacity will enable the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] to make more agile use of this tactic in the future”, and that, “The MPS is also considering the establishment of this tactic as a spontaneous response, thereby making it more readily available across London at short notice”, but it also makes clear that, “…any tactical deployment must be a proportionate and necessary response to the incident and officers need to be able to account for their decision and subsequent actions.”
According to the CPS guidance on reasonable force:
“In assessing the reasonableness of the force used, two questions need to be asked:
- was the use of force justified in the circumstances (i.e. was there a need for any force at all)?; and
- was the force used excessive in the circumstances?
The following must be considered:
- the nature and degree of force used;
- the seriousness of the offence which is being prevented or in respect of which an arrest is being made;
- the nature and degree of any force used against an officer by a person resisting arrest.”
I argued in the summer that the police were right to apply restraint in reacting to the rioting, even if this was partly necessitated by a lack of resources. The use of plastic bullets then would only have aggravated the situation, and when they were made available during recent student protests, the Met made clear in a statement that they would only be used in the most “extreme” circumstances. Certainly the CPS guidelines suggest that police officers would need to be faced with a scale and degree of violence that has perhaps not been seen in London since the 1985 Brixton riots.
The fact that plastic bullets were available during the summer and were not used makes it slightly odd that a review into the riots would now advocate their increased availability, but these announcements may be partly designed to reassure the portion of the public who felt let down by the Met’s response. Thankfully, as long as the guidelines are followed and the country doesn‘t descend into Armageddon, we should, hopefully, have little to fear from these developments other than the cost of a robust umbrella.