Help Yourself Culture & the Future of Policing

I’ve been away from computers for a week so I’ve had no chance to comment on the London riots, which is probably a good thing because, as usual, most people seemed intent on publishing without really thinking first. So, with the benefit of some distance, what was it all about? Was it a politically inspired demonstration or just shopping with attitude?

There are no simple explanations in my view. It certainly seems that while the death of Mark Duggan was the spark, combustible material had been lying around for a while. Hence, when things kicked off it caught the imagination of certain people with nothing better to do (school holidays and warm weather helped) and when it appeared that people where getting away with things (literally) this prompted many others to join in. Social media had lots to do with this (and the resultant clean up), but there were obviously riots long before Twitter was around to fan the flames.

Interestingly, various happenings in central London were either under-reported or not reported at all, I suspect because the authorities worst fear was contagion across tourist hot spots or prime real estate. Hence, a group invading a Michelin started restaurant in Notting Hill (the Ledbury) to rob customers at knife point was not widely reported, certainly not on the TV news. The fact that the Prime Minister lives in the immediate vicinity is, I’m sure, purely coincidental.

My main observation, however, is that while what happened was connected to poverty and race this wasn’t the primary cause. If it were, then surely this type of thing would have been going on for ages and would have a long history stretching back half a century or more (OK, it does, but I’m sure you get my point). People were stealing Blackberries not bread remember. Poverty and unemployment were issues in the 1930s and 1950s, but people didn’t fire bomb local department stores to steal Nike trainers or 42-inch plasma TV equivalents.

In my view, it wasn’t entirely due to a lack of parental discipline either, although this was a contributory factor. The fact of the matter is that many adults nowadays are afraid of their kids and afraid of what might happen to them if they try to instill some respect. I’m not sure if locking a kid in their room for a day would be breach of the child’s human rights, but a smack is quite likely result in a call from social services who, more likely than not, will side with the child. Teachers face much the same problem and, as a result, many kids act with impunity.

The main cause of the riots, in my view, is what I’d call a help yourself ethos that permeates many aspects of life in Britain and many other Western cultures. This is the idea that anyone can be anything or get anything and that you can do more or less what you like so long as you don’t get caught. It is connected to greed, selfishness and a culture of self-entitlement and instant gratification, where people expect to get rich or famous without really trying.

It is a direct consequence of rampant individualism and materialism and can be seem everywhere from mainstream television (take MTV’s My Sweet Sixteen as a primetime example) to city greed (Southern Cross being the latest episode, but the actions of certain investment banks shouldn’t be forgotten). The short-term gains are always private, but the long-term consequences are usually spread throughout society.

As for the politicians give me a break. How, for instance, can opportunists like Hazel Blears MP be taken seriously when she comments that such actions are wrong. This is the woman, remember, who was at the centre of the recent MPs expenses scandal. So it’s OK for her to steal things, but not anyone else? Making up expenses is OK, but stealing a bottle of wine isn’t. She’s hardly alone either.

One final thing that seems to be connected is community, David Cameron’s so-called Big Society (BS for short). It was interesting that in areas with strong Turkish connections, for example, the local community instantly rose up and defended what they had built, whereas in other areas the estate agents’ much romanticised local ‘villages’ were instantly evaporated by the heat of the flames.

So, apart from pointing out truisms like there are no simple remedies, what have we learned from recent events? Here’s my thinking:

1. This isn’t the first time sand it won’t be the last.

2. It is not a uniquely British problem. Widening social inequality is a global issue and heaven knows what will happen when one side (or both) add guns into the mix. Note, for example, that spending on guns and ammunition in the US rose by 10% during the year to April 2011 and that Wal-Mart is re-introducing gun sales into some of its American stores.(Do they know something we don’t?).

3. If people do not feel safe or feel threatened they will take things into their own hands. This applies to both sides (see above).

4. This has next to nothing to do with government cuts and everything to do with opportunism mixed with a lack of respect for authority and a feeling that perpetrators will probably get away with it. Having said that, if you remove hope from people, either through poor education or a lack of employment, you will sow the seeds of rebellion and revolt. Given trends like automation and the power shift eastwards we are likely to see higher unemployment in Europe and the US, so I would expect to see more of this type of action and I suspect that Britain may need more, not less, prisons in the future.

5. You cannot fight flash mobs and fluid networks, especially ones that attack more than one target simultaneously, with rigid hierarchical command structures. Current discussions about policing seem to be about police numbers, but bigger isn’t always better. Small units can be highly effective, especially when they are connected with other small units. The police should re-organise themselves around a ‘hider-finder dynamic’ and act more as a ‘sensing organization.’ A bit more open-intelligence would be useful too.

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