The British police announced on Monday that they had arrested more than 160 people in two successive nights of rioting and looting, mainly in poorer parts of the capital, and about 35 police officers had been injured in unrest that recalled earlier spasms of violence sparked by deep social problems.
At the same time a senior Metropolitan Police commander has admitted that too few officers were deployed as rioting erupted this weekend but denied there had been a “flat-footed” response.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Steve Kavanagh said the outbreak of disorder that followed a peaceful protest on Saturday in Tottenham, north London, could not have been expected.
But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that lessons could be learned about how the violence spread rapidly with the help of social media.
Mr Kavanagh said initial “frustration” in the community over lack of information about the shooting by police of Mark Duggan in Tottenham had spilled over into “greed and criminality”.
Mr Kavanagh pointed out that three times as many officers were on duty on Sunday night as rioting and looting spread across the capital. He told in his interview with Today: “I am not aware of any warnings that there was going to be this type of disorder.”
Mr Kavanagh admitted that there had been some “very very worrying cases of violence towards officers” and that he was “very proud” of them. He said the level of violence would not be tolerated and those responsible for looting would be dealt with.
The violence erupted late Saturday after a small anti-police demonstration in Tottenham, north London, spiraled into looting and violence — the latest episode in what has turned out to be a season of unrest in Britain, with multiple demonstrations escalating into violence in recent months.
The episode in Tottenham began peacefully on Saturday when small numbers of residents gathered outside a police station to protest the killing of a local man, Mark Duggan, in a shooting by police officers last week. Scotland Yard has said that Mr. Duggan, who was riding in a taxi at the time of the shooting, was the subject of a “pre-planned operation” by officers.
The police officers involved in the shooting have been quoted in newspapers as saying that they had come under fire, which slightly wounded one of the officers, before they began to shoot.
Then, across London, skirmishes broke out again on Sunday between groups of young people and large numbers of riot police officers drawn from forces around the city.
Sunday night’s clashes, which the police called “copycat violence” seemed less dramatic but more widespread than Saturday’s.
Asked if police had been too slow to respond to the spread of violence via social media such as Twitter, Mr Kavanagh said: “We weren’t flat-footed on either occasion.”
He admitted that too few officers were on duty on Saturday and said they had to prioritise the protection of fire crews.
But Mr Kavanagh said: “The Metropolitan Police did not let people take over the streets of London. We experienced a very rapid increase in the levels of violence.
“Social media and other methods have been used to organise these levels of greed and criminality and we need to adapt and learn from what we are experiencing.”
In Enfield, a usually calm suburb, shop windows were smashed and debris lay in the street. In nearby Edmonton, groups of young people gathered near damaged storefronts.
There were reports of looting and attacks on police in Brixton, south London, long regarded as a flashpoint for violence. In Tottenham itself, roads were closed, a helicopter hovered overhead and squads of police vans swooped in to make arrests in side streets.
A local man, who said he was a bus driver but did not want to give his name for fear of reprisal, warned that unless endemic youth unemployment in Tottenham was curbed, “this will happen again. These kids don’t care. They don’t have to pay for this damage, we do. Working people do. What do they have to lose?”
The police said, in a statement, that there “was no indication that the protest would deteriorate into the levels of criminal and violent disorder that we saw.” The force’s priority had been to preserve life, the statement said, though the looting was “regrettable.” It said a major inquiry had been started to find and arrest those responsible for the violence. [via The New Tork Times and The Telegraph]