British Prime Minister David Cameron’s assertion that last week's rioting in England was "criminality pure and simple" is a description, not an explanation. Finding an explanation for the violence will not be easy; theories already range from the impact of high unemployment and cuts in public services—including police resources—to boredom and the "moral deficiency of the rioters".
It is clear that a serious public inquiry is needed to examine the causes of the unrest, how events unfolded, and the police response. The underlying causes are without doubt multi-faceted, influenced by public policy, social inequality and economic failure. But it must also be remembered that these events were triggered by the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in north London, a neighborhood that has seen years of simmering tensions between locals and police.
History should not be forgotten. The Broadwater Farm riot in Tottenham in 1985 began after Cynthia Jarrett, an African-Caribbean woman, died of a stroke during a police search of her home. The riot at the Broadwater Farm public housing estate erupted a week after riots in Brixton in South London that followed the shooting of a black woman during a police search. 2011 marks the 30 anniversary of the previous Brixton protests when in April 1981, anger over a massive stop-and-search operation called “Swamp 81” erupted into urban unrest that then spread to other large cities in England that had experienced similar policing tactics.
The unrest and looting last week in London and elsewhere were not characterized by race and, indeed, the policing of poor, white communities often generates similar discontent. Incidents such as the shooting of Duggan are a common catalyst for reactions that reflect the less visible but far more common encounters young people have with police in the shape of regular "stop-and-search" checks. While common, stop and search is deeply contentious and profoundly shapes peoples' attitudes towards the police, particularly among the young.
Since 2005, the UK police have massively increased their use of stop and search and in particular, exceptional stop and search powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (introduced to deal with football hooligans and the threat of serious violence) allows police to search anyone in a designated area without any specific grounds for suspicion. From 2005 to the latest figures on 2010, the use of Section 60 has risen more than 300 percent. It appears that in some areas, police use this power on an almost-permanent basis in response to low-level disorder. And these stops and searches tend to discriminate more than those stops under legislation that requires police to have reasonable suspicion for a stop. While the overall number of Section 60 stops increased by 300 percent, stops and searches of black people rose by more than 650 percent.
Young people feel targeted, embarrassed, humiliated by the experience of repeat stop and search encounters. Yet the use of Section 60 is not making young people safer. Only two out of every 100 searches conducted under this power lead to an arrest (fewer are charged and even fewer convicted) and only 0.5 percent of these arrests are for knife offenses—the most common rationale for the use of Section 60 today. (Knife crime has gone down across London, but both in areas where Section 60 is not used as well as where it is.)
In this context, recent UK government reforms that drastically cut back the monitoring of stop and search procedures appear appallingly short-sighted. Starting this year, police forces can choose whether or not to record stops that do not lead to searches—and most appear to have chosen not to. As a result, it will be harder to assess how effectively stop and search is being used—whether it is targeting the right places and people. It will he harder also to assess the validity of allegations of harassment and abuse. The government claims to be giving local communities a greater say in how they are policed, but at the same time it is removing the information needed for local accountability.
No one condones the opportunistic looting and violence of the last week. But we must not ignore real grievances. The same thinking and behavior that got us into the situation will not get us out. We need more, not less accountability. We need police tactics that enhance police legitimacy and build public trust. Knee-jerk reactions about increasing police powers and resources are misguided. Resources are not irrelevant; but more important, is whether they are used in a fair and effective manner. The police waste huge amounts of time and money stopping thousands of people for no good reason, with little result apart from alienating large sections of our society.
Thirty years ago, the Scarman inquiry into the Brixton disorder described it as "essentially an outburst of anger and resentment by young black people against the police" and emphasized the centrality of public 'consent' in securing legitimacy for policing. The Scarman report led to profound changes in laws governing policing in England and Wales through the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. A similar inquiry is needed now, one that must address not just what happened and why, but also broader issues of fairness, and how to rebuild fractured police-community relations.