London riots push British leaders to approve harsher police tactics [VIDEO]

The British public is asking why it took so long for the government to authorize the use of weapons like rubber bullets against rioters. But it is unclear how effective they will be in quelling the riots.

Paul Ellis/Reuters
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (r.) meets with senior officers from the police, fire and ambulance services during a meeting at Wolverhampton Civic Center in central England August 10. The British government has now authorized the use of water cannons and plastic and rubber bullets in quelling the London riots.

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The fact that it took British police days to quell rioting and looting in London's streets – and that it continues elsewhere – has many British asking why the police are so reluctant to turn to more aggressive tactics.

While police brought much of London under control overnight Tuesday, residents wondered what took them so long, the Monitor reported today.

“It’s good to see so many police on the streets, but where were they last night when everything was going off?" lawyer Samantha Jones, who lives in [Clapham Junction, in South London]. "People were definitely fearful last night about what happened and frightened. This area is normally really buzzy this time of night, but not tonight. I don’t know whether they’re still scared or intimidated by all the police but people seem to just want to go home … like me.”

The British government has now authorized the use of water cannons and plastic and rubber bullets in quelling the riots (the latter of which has have never been officially used by police on the British mainland), but the permission comes several days after riots and looting turned parts of London into a smoldering husk – too late, according to many London residents.

Normal crowd control methods failed, Telegraph opinion editor Daniel Knowles writes, but no one seems to know what to do next.

One of the first questions that the Government has to answer is how do the police deal with riots like these? It seems quite clear that policing has, to some extent, failed. Overwhelmed by the numbers and speed of looters, officers seem to have given up on protecting property. Minimising violence is a good aim, but I think near enough every law abiding citizen is sickened at watching these children – and they do mostly seem to be teenagers – pillaging property like neanderthals.

According to Telegraph editorial writer Robert Colvile, the riots are shifting public opinion toward a more hardline approach to criminal justice.

Forget Ken Clarke and rehabilitation – the public are in hanging mood (to the extent that 33 per cent of those polled by YouGov want to see the police breaking out live ammunition). The papers, too, are baying for blood. The very lack of political motivation behind the riots, and the naked greed on display, means that sympathy is in very short supply.

As of midday Wednesday, more than 3,100 people had "liked" the Facebook page "London Riots – Bring in the rubber bullets."

In a separate article, The Telegraph reports that the latest polls indicate that 65 percent of the public supports the use of rubber bullets and 90 percent believe water cannons should be used. Seventy-seven percent said they would like to see the army deployed in the streets and 82 percent want night curfews. Extreme measures – the use of tasers and tear gas – were supported by more than 70 percent of those polled.

The use of rubber and plastic bullets is a big deal, if it happens – British police are normally unarmed, according to Bloomberg. When dealing with angry crowds, British police usually aim to contain them until they dissipate. The most common tactic is something called "kettling," in which police surround the crowd to prevent it from growing or moving and gradually allow members of the crowd to leave.

The tactic, used successfully during last year's student protests, was ineffective this time around. The crowds were too large and fast.

Guardian columnist Duncan Campbell took a look at the Met's options for confronting rioters. Many observers have cited the use of water cannons and rubber and plastic bullets in Northern Ireland as proof that they are a good option on the mainland, but Mr. Campbell questions whether the Met should be emulating the controversial tactics used in Northern Ireland.

Again, this is used in Northern Ireland and credited with dispersing crowds without fatalities. The Met's deputy assistant commissioner, Steve Kavanagh, has said that baton rounds – plastic bullets – could now be used: "If we need to, we will do so." But shots to the head from close range can kill. Again, as with water cannon, the police would struggle to get officers trained in the use of them to the scenes of violence. One problem is that both water cannon and plastic bullets might merely heighten the levels of excitement for the committed rioter and looter. And is Northern Ireland really an example of how to keep the peace?

The key question for those who discourage harsher tactics is one of proportion. "Imagine the reaction if a police officer shot a baton round at an unarmed teenager who had stolen designer gear under his arms... or sausage rolls?" a BBC reporter asks.

There is no comparison between the situation in Northern Ireland and the riots currently sweeping London and other cities in Britain, Sir Hugh Orde, the former chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and now president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, told the Guardian.

"I do not think it would be sensible in any way shape or form to deploy water cannon or baton rounds in London. Baton rounds are very serious bits of equipment. I would only deploy them in life-threatening situations. What is happening in London is not an insurgency that is going to topple the country. There are 8 million people in London and it is a tiny proportion doing this. They are gangs of looters and criminals and although it is concerning it has to be kept in proportion," Sir Orde said.

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