England riots: Police feared for their lives

media captionCh Insp Ade Adelekan: "I pray to god I never see anything like it again"

An in-depth study into the experiences of police officers caught up in last summer's riots reveals that they were woefully outnumbered, leaving many in fear of their lives.

In London they were so stretched that some volunteer police without riot training or gear joined the front line.

But radio problems meant riot police from other areas were held back and not deployed to deal with the violence.

Some 130 officers police took part in the LSE-Guardian newspaper study.

The BBC's Newsnight programme has had exclusive access to the results of the study, Reading the Riots.

It involved interviews, most of them conducted anonymously, with officers of every rank who were deployed during the unrest in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Salford and Liverpool.

Their accounts reveal that:

  • Officers on the front line, who were often outnumbered and under-equipped, feared that they would be killed. Senior officers were astonished that no police died during the unrest
  • Officers of all ranks were shocked and surprised by the extent and nature of violence directed at them, as well as the speed with which it escalated, with many describing it as the greatest physical and psychological challenge of their careers
  • There were particular problems in London, where the system of "mutual aid" between forces failed to bolster the available resources at a critical time, with the Metropolitan Police not activating the national alarm system to call for more resources until the third and final day of the riots
  • Numbers were so stretched in London that volunteer special constables and British Transport Police with no riot equipment or training were used on the front line
  • Once officers from other forces did arrive, many were not allowed to deploy to the front line because their radio systems were not compatible with those used by the Metropolitan Police, preventing them from being deployed to outbreaks of violence
  • Many officers from all ranks expect a repeat of the riots and are concerned that they may not have the resources to cope with future unrest on such a scale.

'Rioters with machetes'

The riots broke out in Tottenham, north London, on 6 August, two days after the fatal shooting by police of 29-year-old Mark Duggan, and subsequently spread to other parts of the capital and other English cities.

Four consecutive nights of looting and arson left five people dead and led to more than 4,000 suspects being arrested.

image captionThe Metropolitan Police did not employ the national call for assistance until the final day

In the aftermath of the violence police were accused of standing back, allowing rioters to think they could act with impunity, and thereby encouraging further unrest in other areas.

But officers interviewed for the study said their tactics were misunderstood and that in the face of severe danger they were concentrating on what mattered most - safety.

In Tottenham the outnumbered and under-equipped police on the ground when the violence broke out had to face a barrage of bricks, Molotov cocktails and other weapons for two hours before back-up arrived.

"We did everything that we possibly could with the resources that we had to try and protect life as well as property, but at some point I had to make the difficult decision it was life - it was always going to be life above property," Chief Inspector Ade Adelekan, who was in charge on the ground, told BBC Newsnight.

Officers interviewed in the study reported seeing rioters armed with machetes and said that they were convinced that given the chance the rioters would kill them.

Inspector Andre Ramsey, who led the police who reinforced the Tottenham officers, said his biggest fear had been of having a police officer separated from his or her colleagues, "and if that had happened, I have absolutely no doubt that there could have been loss of life".

Riot police held back

The senior officers interviewed for the study, in particular in the Metropolitan Police, accept they struggled to deploy sufficient numbers of officers to contain the violence during all three days of rioting in London.

Chief Superintendent Adrian Roberts, who was the Met's silver commander during the riots and conducted the forces' review of their response, admitted to Newsnight that whether there were enough police to deal with incidents "almost became a lottery as to what time the disorder started and in what particular borough".

However, when asked about the claims that problems with radio systems left officers from other forces languishing in car parks rather than being deployed to the front line, Ch Supt Roberts said this was not a problem he was aware of.

"In fact the feedback that we'd had was that our airwave, which is the national system that we use, actually works very well and it was one of the things that did work very well for us."

Ch Supt Roberts added that the Metropolitan Police did not have much experience of bringing in officers from outside, and that there were lessons to be learned, "but I can assure that if I'd have known that cops were sitting in car parks they would have been deployed pretty quickly".

The officers in the study who said they were held back because of the radio problems said that were extremely frustrated by the experience.

"We're all sat in the van, we're taking phone calls from our loved ones, watching it all live on television - Croydon's on fire, the police are under attack in Hackney, and we're sat in a car park for the simple reason that we can't get onto the radio channel that they're operating on.

"In this day and age, I just think that's laughable," one said.

Police Minister Nick Herbert told BBC Radio 5 liveBreakfast that the report confirmed that the issues during the riots had been about deployment rather than the total number of police officers.

"There was learning - and this is what the independent inspectorate said - about how quickly officers were made available, and how quickly they were brought up, and that learning has been taken on board," he said.

Mr Herbert added that the report was "a reminder, firstly, of the considerable courage that police officers showed in helping to regain order on the streets, and secondly the great public support that they rightly had in doing so".

Watch Newsnight's full report on the findings of the LSE-Guardian Reading the Riots report on Monday 2 July at 22:30 BST on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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