Metropolitan police got riot tactics wrong, says new commissioner

Published Tuesday, 11 October 2011
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Bernard Hogan-Howe says Scotland Yard failed to get enough officers in place quickly enough during summer disturbances

The new head of the Metropolitan police has criticised the tactics adopted by Scotland Yard during the August riots, saying they failed to get enough officers in place quickly enough.

Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe told MPs that the Yard was now reviewing its use of intelligence, resources and tactics to ensure it has a more flexible response in the event of any repetition of the summer riots.

Hogan-Howe, who was appearing before the Commons home affairs committee, said he was "not really" a zero-tolerance policemen but he did believe in "big win days of action", during which a major effort was made to target particular crimes, such as uninsured drivers.

He also that warned while he was open-minded on whether Scotland Yard should lose its leading national role in counter-terrorism operations after next year's Olympics, he could see few benefits in disturbing a system that worked well. Hogan-Howe suggested that if the Met lost some of its national roles, then the involvement of the home secretary in the running of the force should be scaled back.

He also told the MPs that more than 30 separate investigations were underway into aspects of the phone-hacking scandal. He confirmed the Met had launched an inquiry to find the missing diary of the former commissioner Lord Stevens, which could establish his contacts with News International in the period between 2000 and 2005.

Hogan-Howe said that, as of last week, 2,952 suspects had been arrested in London in connection with August's violence and disorder, of whom 1,774 had been charged.

He said the Met had been left on the back foot by the riots as it had neither the intelligence on what would happen next or the numbers of officers on the streets to cope.

When he was asked if the Met's tactics had been wrong – and those used by his former force, Merseyside, which immediately flooded the streets with officers were right – he said: "I am not disagreeing with that. I don't think anything I've said today is inconsistent with that. But the great benefit, of course, that they had was that they had 24 hours' notice.

"It does seem to me that on the Saturday there was a riot, people were angry, and there was a response against the police and that led to serious disorder. Then the press carried that, those images, and on the Saturday and Monday people believed they could get away with it and continued to do it. We have to respond very rigorously at the beginning to stop it getting out of control."

The message was reinforced by the former US senior police officer Bill Bratton, who told the MPs that his experience in Los Angeles and New York taught him it was important not to cede territory to rioters and always to have sufficient forces on hand.

But he warned against a policy of authorities arresting their way out of gang trouble and rioting, saying the unofficial Los Angeles police department motto of "hook 'em and book 'em" did not work. Bratton also clarified his role in Britain, saying he was not David Cameron's new "gang tsar" but was acting only as a consultant to a Home Office conference on gangs later this month.

The MPs also heard from Professor Tim Newburn, of the London School of Economics, and Paul Lewis, of the Guardian, who described their joint Reporting the Riots project, which aims to interview hundreds of those who took part in the riots and in the communities directly affected by the riots. Newburn told the MPs there was a much broader range of people involved than suggested by those who focused on the statistic that 73% of those before the courts on riot charges had previous convictions.

"There were far more than 27% of the people on the streets who did not have previous convictions," he said, adding that August's riots appeared to be markedly different from the 1980s disturbances that had not seen such widespread looting.

Hogan-Howe acknowledged the Met was wrong to cite the Official Secrets Act when it tried to force the Guardian to reveal the sources of hacking stories. "I think it was [a mistake]," he said. "We got a lot of feedback that it was the wrong decision, so we changed, we stopped what we were doing and changed our decision, to be rewarded by headlines the following day that we had had a screeching U-turn."

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2011
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