We have learned from InsideCroydon's post of 2 September that a tiny complement of between 60 to 100 officers were on the streets of Croydon on 8/8. Many of these brave officers had no specific riot training and lacked heavy duty protective body armour. There were some remarkable stories of courage that night – PC Andy Hewlett being especially noteworthy.
However, our admiration of the bravery of “the few” is mixed with amazement at the tiny number of officers who were mobilised. The small numbers are all the more amazing given InsideCroydon’s revelations that the police were forewarned – as evidenced by police warnings to traders early that morning that Croydon was at risk.
I’m continually referring back to Andrew Pelling’s InsideCroydon post of 11 August. One of the taboo subjects that Andrew analyses in this outstanding post is Croydon’s north/south divide. Andrew observes that virtually all of the ruling Conservative councillors represent wards in the borough’s leafy suburban south. Although the great majority of Croydon’s councillors work hard and have good intentions, it has to be admitted that the borough’s north and south are like “chalk and cheese”. Andrew expresses his concern that the southern ward councillors may have little sense of what northerners think and feel.
Those who attend any public meeting tend to be good citizens with a strong sense of community. The vibes from this meeting that the police are so disliked is therefore disturbing. It suggests that there are areas of the borough where the police are failing to win “hearts and minds”. Admittedly, there are sections of the community who are unlikely to ever like the police – especially young men under the age of 21. But it is real cause for concern when the police are actively disliked – especially by a wider cross section of the community.
There seems to be real resistance to establishing an independent local inquiry on the specific policing failures in Croydon on 8/8. The objections seem to centre on an inquiry being like “picking at a scab” – it will do more harm than good. But even if an inquiry raises many uncomfortable questions, it does provide a good starting point for assessing how we can prevent a repetition – given the limited resources available. Also, as a matter of justice for those traders and residents in fringe Croydon who were burnt out and/or looted on 8/8, it is only fair that there should be a forensic analysis of why they were left unprotected. One of the most basic provisions of a civilised society is the protection of life and property. On 8/8, the residents and traders at Reeves Corner and London Road were failed on this most basic of rights.
The one perception that is being backed up by the statistics is the major role of gangs in the riots. One fifth of those charged are known gang members. The role of gangs in the London riots is discussed in an outstanding InsideCroydon post on 6 September. A post on this blog on 11 August discusses Croydon’s gangs at length. If anything, the gangs’ role in the riots is understated by the raw statistics. Many gang members were well disguised and organised during the riots – so their detection rate is likely to be lower than for the opportunists. Also, one of the most notable features of the riots is the extent to which twitter, facebook and mobile text messages were used to whip up trouble. Although the social media incitements to riot seem to have taken on a life of their own, there is a real suspicion that the gangs may have been the initial spark on the social media - so as they could take advantage of the ensuing mayhem.
On 8/8 in Croydon, there is much anecdotal evidence that many of the rioters were gangs who travelled in from other parts of south London. However, we need to gather and analyse the data so as we fully understand who was involved in 8/8 and exactly how the rioters operated. It is a sad fact that we can no longer linger under the illusion that the British state is like “the cow that is fed in heaven and milked on earth”. In this age of austerity, we need to have accurate underlying information so as to make good decisions – especially given the funding constraints. For example, if a careful analysis of those charged/involved in 8/8 indicates that most were locals, then that would suggest funds should be channelled into local job creation programmes. However, if most of the rioters were gang members (and opportunists) from outside Croydon, then that would suggest very different spending priorities. The overriding need is to compile good information and analyse it in a rigorous way. If we are to “pick at the scab” of 8/8, then the best way by far of proceeding is by way of an independent local inquiry that has access to comprehensive and reliable information.
One of the great problems for local democracy is that councillors are always pointing out how national policies constrain their freedom of action. But national policy – even when the need is pressing – can take an age to reform. In this context, the option of doing nothing at the local Croydon level seems a very poor choice indeed. In the short term, Croydon badly needs to understand the immediate lessons from 8/8 – no matter how uncomfortable this investigation proves. Longer term, Croydon’s politicians and police need to develop an effective strategy for tackling the borough’s gang crime. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our police need to engage with the many disaffected Croydonians who hold them in such low esteem.