08.12.11, 10:09 AM #1
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Would U.S. police have done better in London?
For three nights this week riots struck London, Birmingham and other British cities, closing businesses, destroying landmarks and creating fear and panic among residents. An economy already on the edge lost millions of pounds of opportunities. Confidence in government in general and the police specifically was crushed as officers were seen standing by while looters took what they pleased.
While the police soon recovered and a semblance of calm was restored by Thursday, many in Britain and in much of the West are already asking what might be learned and what might have been done differently.
While many agree that they reacted slowly, the London Metropolitan Police -- more commonly known as New Scotland Yard -- were in a difficult position.
As the rioting began, shorthanded police focused on clearing and holding conflict areas rather than spreading themselves more thinly in efforts to arrest individual looters and rioters.
It was a sensible tactic at the time, but the teens and young adults rampaging through the streets turned to social media in an effort to stay ahead of police movements and out of the areas under police control.
In effect, with text messages and Twitter, the rioters were able to out maneuver the slower moving groups of police. As nonstop television coverage showed people looting with abandon, other youths decided that it was safe to join in, and the unrest spread quickly over several days.
Only with a massive deployment of officers and the wholesale shuttering of some of the communities in conflict was quiet restored. Almost at once complaints of police passivity began to fly.
In reviewing the response of the London Police, some observers have suggested that the U.S. experience may be helpful. In fact, the reverse may be true.
Since the 1999 WTO demonstrations in Seattle -- often called the Battle for Seattle -- the lessons learned about crowd control in America have been mixed. Unlike London, the Seattle Police in 1999 largely knew that trouble was coming since each preceding gathering of the World Trade Organization had brought out demonstrators and self-described anarchists intent on sending a message.
To confront them, Seattle's officers were armed with water cannons, flat edged batons, gloves with metal bearings sewn into them, rubber bullets and a vast supply of OC spray, a chemical agent that causes burning pain in the eyes and a severe loss of breath. As Seattle's Mayor Paul Schell was quoted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "We've given them RoboCop material."
Despite their preparation, the estimated 75,000 protesters quickly overwhelmed police -- who reacted slowly at first since organizers had promised that peaceful marchers would control any troublemakers. However, once the large crowds had blocked WTO representatives from their meetings and much of Seattle's downtown had become paralyzed, pockets of vandalism began and the confrontations quickly turned violent.
In the end, the confrontation left behind images of Seattle Police pursuing unarmed protesters only to gas and beat them once they were caught. The resulting conflict not only promoted the protesters' cause, but damaged the city's image, led to the resignation of the police chief and likely contributed to the defeat of the city's mayor in his bid for re-election two years later.
In the decade that followed, police and demonstrators in the United States have generally followed the Seattle model in subsequent encounters. For their part protesters considered the outcome a major success. The benefits to the police, however, are less obvious.
In London the police appear to have learned those lessons well and avoided similar mistakes.
If anything, my only criticism would be that it took three days for them to fully deploy. Three outside factors may go far to explain that, however:
• The police were largely caught off guard. In Seattle -- and most other conflicts in the United States -- the police knew the event was coming and had time to mobilize. In London, the events were largely spontaneous.
• Unlike in Seattle, the top officials of the Metropolitan Police had resigned three weeks prior to the riots. It can't be known if police deployment and response times would have been quicker if the chain of command had remained intact.
• Some hesitation among police may have occurred as a result of their more aggressive response during the 2009 G-20. In that instance, a protester died after being struck by a police baton. The announcement two months ago that the officer involved in the 2009 incident was to stand trial for manslaughter may well have had a chilling impact.
More important may be the lessons just learned in London where the police have seen (as those before them in Cairo and other Arab Spring cities already knew) that determined demonstrators armed with social media have logistical advantages over slower moving police.
Further, while some in the British Parliament called for the deployment of military units to quell the unrest, given the western response to the role of the militaries involved in confronting the Arab Spring, too forceful a response to Internal conflict might have had far greater negative impact than it would have only a decade ago.
And finally, we in the United States should recognize that the youth unemployment and other conditions that led to the conflicts in London exist here, as well. In our case, potential rioters are far better armed than are those in the U.K. so we would be well advised to pay attention and learn the lessons from London.
http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/08/1...html?hpt=hp_t2"Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.” -- Gen. George S. Patton
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