Police 'need riot tactic rules', watchdog says

Line of police officers in riot gear walking past a burning car in Hackney on August 8 2011 in London Some 299 officers were injured during the five nights of violence in England

Police should be given clear rules about when they can use water cannon and plastic bullets against rioters, a watchdog has said.

But officers could lawfully have shot arsonists in some cases during the summer rioting in England, the Inspectorate of Constabulary said.

Water cannon and plastic bullets could have been used in a "number of real scenarios", its report suggested.

MPs have said such tactics would have been "indiscriminate and dangerous".

Legal advice in the inspectorate's review of the August riots indicates that firearms can "potentially" be deployed where arson poses a threat to life, or of serious injury.

This could be justified given the "immediacy of the risk and the gravity of the consequences", said the report, which calls for a new framework for policing public disorder.

'Public support'

It suggested water cannon and plastic bullets could be considered to deal with rioters throwing missiles and petrol bombs, to stop "violent attacks on the public" and arson attacks, and also where fire and ambulance crews were under threat.

A survey of 2,000 people carried out in September had indicated public support for such measures, the report said.


After Jean Charles de Menezes was mistakenly shot dead by police in July 2005, full details emerged of a policy that had been secretly drawn up to deal with suspected suicide bombers.

There was uproar that the plans, which involved shooting suspects in the head, hadn't been publicly discussed.

It's with this in mind that the Inspectorate of Constabulary is calling for a "mature debate" about what tactics should be available to police during riots and when they could be used.

The inspectorate wants clear rules of engagement on the use of plastic bullets, water cannon and firearms - clear to the police and clear to the public.

It's a delicate area, but the inspectorate is trying to be realistic. If there's mass disorder again, and police can't respond in huge numbers, other tactics should be considered to restore order and prevent loss of life.

It recognised water cannon as an "effective means of dispersal" which incur fewer injuries to the public in static and slow-moving scenarios but conceded they cost more than £1m each and needed to be deployed in pairs to be effective.

The report said that while current guidance already allowed the use of force, commanders were prevented from using some of the more forceful tactics due to a lack of training and resources.

Police also needed to outnumber rioters by between three and five to one if they are to effectively move forward, make arrests and disperse groups, the review said.

Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Denis O'Connor said it was necessary to raise "awkward issues" through the report.

Army role?

"Some new rules of engagement are necessary so the police can protect the public in confidence," he said.

He said the best option was to get officers on the streets as soon as possible but that a "proper debate" about tactics was needed to decide how to protect the public in the intervening period.

The inspectorate also revealed that discussions had taken place about support the military could provide in any future disorder, suggesting the Army could help in "logistical roles".

Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said: "The challenge remains for operational police commanders to make critical decisions within volatile and fast-moving situations."

"When disorder occurs, the available tactics must include the necessary hard edge to resolve situations quickly and effectively."

Sir Denis O'Connor: "We have to hope for the best but prepare for the worst"

Sophie Farthing, from civil rights campaign group Liberty, said some of the tactics would represent "a very serious step" and it was important not to "sweep up the innocent with the guilty" when using devices like water cannon.

"There's certainly a lot for the police force... and the Home Office to consider before they start escalating for greater use of police powers of this kind," she said.

Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, said: "Endorsing the use of live ammunition is an approval of the tactics of war on London's streets and implementing such recommendations would be madness."

'Insufficient numbers'

The review is the latest in a number of reports into the riots and its causes.

Baton round use in Northern Ireland

Various forms of baton round - first rubber, then plastic bullets - have been fired to control and counter civil unrest in Northern Ireland.

Soldiers used them from 1970 but the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) did not fire any until 1981 - the year of the Hunger Strikes.

According to police statistics and the RUC George Cross Foundation, 16 deaths have allegedly been caused by baton rounds. Eight were children.

Of those 16 deaths, six have been attributed to the police and 10 to the Army.

The RUC and Army fired 125,492 baton rounds between 1970 and 2001, when the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was created.

The attenuated energy projectile (AEP) replaced the previous plastic bullet, which was seen as more dangerous, in 2005. No deaths have since been attributed to the weapon. However, their use remains politically contentious.

Last summer the PSNI discharged 338 AEP rounds in dealing with rioting in Northern Ireland, according to the Policing Board.

The weapon was used to control civil unrest in Belfast, Portadown, Ballyclare and Carrickfergus.

On Monday, a Commons Home Affairs Committee report said the policing operation to tackle the summer riots across England was flawed.

The Policing Large Scale Disorder: Lessons from the disturbances of August 2011 said insufficient numbers of officers were initially deployed and police public disorder training was inadequate.

The perception that in some areas police had lost control of the streets was the most important reason disorder spread, it said, adding that flooding the streets with officers was what ultimately quelled the disorder.

But committee chairman Keith Vaz MP said he did not feel water cannon would have helped police in the riots and may have caused "even greater disorders".

The Metropolitan Police said it had outlined what it was doing to improve.

This month, a study by the London School of Economics and the Guardian newspaper found that 85% of 270 respondents cited anger at policing practices as a key factor behind the summer's unrest in English cities.

Meanwhile, the government-backed Riots, Communities and Victims Panel published its interim report, which found no single cause but that in many areas there was "an overriding sense of despair that people could destroy their own communities".

Chairman Darra Singh said the inspectorate had addressed some of the panel's key recommendations.

"It is very positive that... steps are being taken to help prevent future disorder on the scale seen in August this year," he said.

Violence broke out in Tottenham, north London, on 6 August, two days after the fatal shooting by police of 29-year-old Mark Duggan. Unrest spread across London and to other cities, including Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol over the following days.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 675.

    The “anger” with the Police stemmed from the fact that the rioters were criminals with absolutely no respect for authority or the rule of law

    Maybe. But the anger with the police also stemmed from them killing an unarmed man then refusing to see, let alone talk to his family. More courtesy and the riots may not have triggered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 674.

    The rioters in England had nothing to say. Just arson, looting, fear and mob-rule.

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    659.Pagoda Suu

    OK. But in a war-torn street with people trying to escape from burning buildings how can police be sure they aren't harming the innocent?

    How can you compare riots and criminal activity with refugees in war? The two aren't even comparable. The army are capable of identifying innocents and insurgents in Iraq, the same way the police can identify who is a criminal and not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 672.

    We are all stupid and wasting our time discussing this problem in vain. Our dictator regime brought highly skilled an American citizen to investigate and sort our the problem for us. Just sit back and relax. Everything is going to be all right our dictators are solving the problem. Westminster dictatorship club no longer trust and beleive people of this country. They went foreign. Zuahahhahahah.

  • rate this

    Comment number 671.

    Earlier today I listened with great interest about the use of rubber bullets and water cannon to constrain the civil unrest in Northern Ireland. 17 people under the age of 18 have been killed by rubber bullets. So it went , Riot followed by death, followed by funural, followed by riot. More riots anyone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 670.

    In Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia we condemn the regimes for shooting at protesters but its legitimate in the UK apparently under some 'circumstances'. ....

    I take it that 8557 is not your I.Q. then,Kevin?

  • rate this

    Comment number 669.

    Of course what we really need is a crusade against crime, criminals and all the other malcontents plagueing society.

    Mind you the Bahrainis certainly know how to keep their citizens in order. Might be an idea tro send a couple of plods out there on a cultural exchange!

  • rate this

    Comment number 668.

    'If you see an uninvited CSPO on our college campus at SOAS or elsewhere, poison their Cappucino's, puncture the tyres on their bikes, poke them in the back, and make it clear- You are not welcome here, this is private land, and I am in debt for being here, you are a traitor and you do not support my Community of the Free!' - Gordon McIntosh, (2011)

  • rate this

    Comment number 667.

    I'm pretty sure that shooting people during riots driven by anger at the police would have led to all out war on the streets. Sometimes reaction to riots has to be about not escalating the violence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 666.

    It's getting a bit like orwells 1984 except we watch Big Brother instead of the other way round. Camera's everywhere and all communications monitored. This, a step in the preparation of the indifferent mass of people to accept an armed force on our streets. "Ignorance is strength". Have no doubt, the police will become your enemy under when the established order is threatened with change. Wake up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 665.

    Water cannon and rubber bullets are worthless against rioters, but work extremely well against crowds of protesters, so let not be coy about why these weapons are really being requested (and by political extremists, NOT by the police.) More police and dogs are the solution to control such (actually very small in number) groups of rioters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 664.


    Err, I think William Allen White's riots have more to do with sneaking out of the dorm window at 2:00am for hot buttered crumpets and poetry and skinny dipping that smashing up a shop front on Deansgate for a pair of nikes and an XBox.

  • rate this

    Comment number 663.

    In Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia we condemn the regimes for shooting at protesters but its legitimate in the UK apparently under some 'circumstances'. What a terrible day for this country when the police supported by the current Conservative Government think that this is how we should deal with things. It makes Mrs Thatcher look liberal even she wouldn't have supported this nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 662.

    658. Very easily said from far off Suffolk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 661.

    The camp outside St. Paul's is a protest. No need for the water cannon. The RIOTS were, well, riots - violent, destructive, apolitical and opportunistic - and so the rioters deserved the water cannon. It's not rocket science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 660.

    If Police had the right to use live ammunition why the hell was it not used ??
    Looting is a Marshal offence..
    As for the P.S. Blackmail riots Water Cannon and Truncheon would have been a fair and measured response.
    So now its in the open when will heads roll for not giving the order ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 659.

    If law enforcement means criminals get hurt or maimed by use of legalised force then good because it means the police are protecting the law abiding public and providing an effective deterant

    OK. But in a war-torn street with people trying to escape from burning buildings how can police be sure they aren't harming the innocent?

  • rate this

    Comment number 658.

    I feel much more fearful of some of the extreme right wing views on here from the kangaroo court hang em high brigade, than a bucketful of rioters.

  • rate this

    Comment number 657.

    I dont see why the police shouldn't use plastic bullets or water cannons in England, I'm from Belfast and when the Police use them here it works well, calms things down but doesn't get rid of the crownds straight away, you need to show them whos in charge, but then again it's England we are talking about

  • rate this

    Comment number 656.

    “If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all the youthful vim and vigor, then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come on college campuses, the better world for tomorrow.”
    - William Allen White


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