A sweeping review of British police powers in the face of increasing urban violence seems certain following a new series of riots in major cities. Political demands for the review became irresistible after street disorders in London and Liverpool left at least 200 police injured and caused millions of pounds worth of damage.
Home Secretary William Whitelaw was confronted with the unpalatable fact that British police, as currently organized and equipped, cannot contain street violence when it occurs suddenly and is the result of planned attempts to get the better of the forces of law and order.
Mr. Whitelaw has ordered an urgent study of ways to improve police ability to cope with racially tinged violence. A shocked Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher threw her full support behind the home secretary as the government mounted a study of five days of street disorders in which mobs hurling petrol bombs and bricks appeared at times to have taken over entire city neighborhoods.
Politicians supporting police attempts to anticipate and contain future outbreaks said events in the London district of Southhall and in Liverpool's Toxteth area pinpointed two major problems:
* Racial strains in British cities are more complex than previously believed. The Southall riots started when white skinheads moved into the district and apparently began whipping up communal tension. The Toxteth violence occurred after black youths challenged police units who were trying to carry out normal law enforcement duties.
* Policemen assigned to riot duties are inadequately equipped. A police federation spokesman, Conservative member of Parliament Eldon Griffiths, said the time had come to supplement the fragile plastic shields officers currently use when facing rioters.
Mr. Griffiths asked that police be equipped with body armor and, in some cases, guns to be able to handle violent situations. Mr. Whitelaw told Parliament July 6 that better protective helmets and fire-resistant clothing would soon be made available to police.
In the Liverpool rioting, on two successive evenings, youths used Molotov cocktails to try to prevent police from advancing into areas where violence and looting were rife.
At one point police were forced to use riot gas, the first time it has ever been used in Britain. A police spokesman said it was the only alternative to letting part of the Toxteth district being turned into a no-go area.
The latest disorders in London and Liverpool follow four separate major outbreaks in the capital this year and extensive rioting 14 months ago in the St. Paul's district of Bristol.
The developing pattern is one of increasing violence, mostly racial in its origins, but taking on subtly different forms from place to place.
At the same time, however, many witnesses have noted that economic conditions lie at the root of most of the troubles.
Significantly, both white and black rioters tend to come from parts of the community where unemployment is at unusually high levels.
A London MP declared: "It doesn't matter if the troublemakers are white or black. If they are out of work, they have reason to be frustrated. Frustration is our chief problem."
The Southall riots appear to have started when white skinheads, carrying right-wing pamphlets, arrived in the area by bus to attend a rock concert. Soon the white youths were exchanging blows with Asian immigrants, who later claimed that police should have anticipated the violence.
In Southall the police found themselves in the middle of racially motivated rioting but without the right kind of equipment to deal with the trouble.
The Liverpool disturbances, according to police, were the result of a planned attempt by left-wing black groups to precipitate urban violence.
For home Secretary Whitelaw the developing sequence of events in Briston, Brixton, Southall, and Toxteth means that, far from dealing with a localized problem, he faces violence of an increasingly generalized nature.