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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Rioters benefit from the "Simon Harwood problem"

I once took some students to see "Question Time" being recorded. During a conversation on knife crime and how to stop it the panel were wittering on about youth clubs and the like when one of my students put his hand up. David Dimbleby pointed to him and the boy - who lives on a troubled estate in West London - said "people commit crimes because they think they can get away with it. If you make laws and enforce them properly so no-one can get away with a crime they'll stop". It was the end of the debate on that issue because no-one could argue with him.

If you look at the pictures on the TV and in the newspapers you will see gangs of youths rampaging through the streets of London looting shops, setting cars and buildings alight and attacking the police. Someone watching from another country would stare in wonderment at what looks like a lawless society in which police are powerless to intervene when crimes are being committed. They would be wrong, the police DO have the power, but are scared to use it. At an institutional level they are scared of accusations of over-reaction, racism and brutality, but it's much more important at an individual level, in which the "Simon Harwood problem" seems to have taken over the mindset of many of the extremely brave men and women who are our only legitimate form of protection against these thugs.

For those of you who are wondering who Simon Harwood is, he is the police officer who has been charged with the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests. Tomlinson was attempting to get home from his work when he was struck from behind by PC Harwood, an action which allegedly led directly to his death. Video of PC Harwood's behaviour during the hours leading up to that action show a man not entirely in control of himself, getting involved in a variety of scuffles with protesters when his actual job was to stay with his vehicle. The inquest which returned a verdict of unlawful killing on PC Harwood has led to him being personally charged with manslaughter.

But let's take a step back. On that day in April 2009 we saw a phenomenon we are now used to. The majority of people came to protest but a violent minority came to riot. Being a police officer on those occasions is very difficult as first you have to distinguish between protester and rioter and then you have to deal with the rioters, many of whom are intent on violence and have hidden their identity. PC Harwood got it horribly wrong with Ian Tomlinson, but in the course of his duty that day it is quite understandable that he, as a human being, had become increasingly wound up as the day went on. He went far too far and was stripped of his duties.

Now, imagine you are a police officer on the lines these past few nights (and probably the next few nights). You are under extreme stress and provocation. You know that you are confronting young men intent on violence who are hiding their identity. You know that you are not allowed to hide your identity and that the moment you actually take action to stop this rioting there will be people there who will film you and report you and question you and in some cases charge you. You have a family and a mortgage and a life which all could be ended by what you do and how you act.

You can stand, riot shield up, protecting yourself, possibly cordoning off vital areas, but resulting in you being screamed at for "not doing anything to stop the rioters". Or you can advance on the rioters, arrest them, basically do what you have to do, in which case you may feel there is a chance you could yourself be hauled before the courts, personally tried and convicted.

The Times says this morning that "today's rioters appear both cynically aware of police wariness and adept at exploiting it". Which goes back to the story at the start of this piece, and what my student said - ""people commit crimes because they think they can get away with it. If you make laws and enforce them properly so no-one can get away with a crime they'll stop."

These boys think they can get away with it. Yes, some of it is a reaction to poverty. Some of it is saying "well, people have got rich by taking from society and giving nothing back so this is our way of doing it." Some of it is a reaction to issues with the way the police do their job.

But when the police feel they can't do their job, and quite a few experienced policemen have suggested that is going through their heads right now, you get what we are seeing.

And by the way, those who bemoan the paucity of met police intelligence about London's youth gangs should ponder this - there are 60 (SIXTY) met police officers working right now on the phone hacking case.

Priorities, London. Priorities.

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