/ 9 December 2011

Future of UK police lies in the streets

Britain may face years of public disorder fuelled by the economic crisis, with police battling to keep control of the streets, a former Scotland Yard chief has warned.

John Stevens, who was commissioner of London’s Metropolitan police force from 2000 until 2005, made his warning at the launch of an independent commission into the future of policing in the United Kingdom, which has been set up by the opposition Labour Party as it tries to outflank the UK’s coalition government on law and order.

A senior police source said this week that Stevens’s warning was shared by most police chiefs and Scotland Yard. “We anticipate the potential for the increased demands of both peaceful protest and greater criminal disorder threats from a minority continuing into 2012. Our resourcing levels and tactics will reflect lessons learned from 2011.”

Stevens said the way that outbreaks of public disorder were policed would be a key issue, given police failings when England was hit earlier this year by some of the worst riots in memory.

“In the next 18 months or two to three years, one of the main issues will be public order or, rather, public disorder,” he said.

Asked what could be the causes of the disorder, Stevens said: “Looking ahead into the crystal ball, I think you can see there is disquiet on the streets. I’m really concerned about youth unemployment and unemployment generally. I’m really concerned about signs of increasing crime. My gut feeling and beyond is that it’s going to be a very difficult 18 months [to] two years. I hope that I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.”

Stevens said he hoped any disorder would not be on the scale of the riots of this year, but warned that “the police will have to be match fit on this issue”.

A government source said ministers rejected Stevens’s analysis, saying there was nothing to indicate there would be renewed disorder. It was also not inevitable that rising unemployment would lead to trouble. The government view was that the cause of the summer riots was “not about deprivation or distrust of the police, it’s about getting free stuff”, the source added. Tough sentences would act as a deterrent and the police were now better able to quell trouble.

But Stevens’s warnings carry weight not just because of his tenure as Britain’s top police officer but also because he has been courted by and advised both Labour and the Conservatives. The inquiry will report by 2013. —