UK Riots: Fear was such that even police were ordered not to go out alone
David Davies is an MP and a part-time policeman. Out on riot duty last week, he recalls the horrific reality that police were ordered not to go out alone in uniform.
Last Wednesday, leaving behind my wife and three children, I exited the flat in Hungary where we had been staying with her family and headed back to London for the emergency debate in Parliament called for the following morning.
It was right that Parliament had been recalled. It was my duty to be there. But first I had another commitment. I headed for a police station in London.
I became a Special Constable about five years ago. I was interested in government policing policy and saw an opportunity to get practical experience by joining the British Transport Police as a volunteer. At about the same time, I was appointed to the Home Affairs Committee which scrutinises the Home Secretary. The first hand experience of working as a police officer was invaluable for me as an MP and I believe it more than justified the time commitment.
Contrary to what is portrayed on the TV, I don’t spend the time careering from one emergency to another. Some officers might, but for me a typical evening would consist of a walking patrol in and around stations and trains in central London. The excitement usually extends no further than drunks and drug addicts, shoplifters, fare evaders and the homeless, along with tourists, usually American, who come up wanting to take your photo – like any politician I am always happy to oblige!
This Wednesday was no normal night. I usually patrol alone talking to the shopkeepers and railway staff on the “patch”. Obviously, if there is a problem I can radio for assistance and in an urgent situation press an orange, emergency button. Doing so will summon every officer from every force in London in the vicinity. I have only pressed it once – by accident whilst having a cup of tea in a station. At least I know it works!
That night we were under strict instructions not to go out alone in uniform. Sensible perhaps, but it’s a terrible indictment of how things are, when a British police officer cannot walk around the capital city without at least one other officer at their side.
I was going out with one of the highly trained public order units who go wherever they are needed. We deployed to a station near Waterloo. “Help yourself to tea and coffee it’s all free tonight” said the sergeant. A banal enough statement as I write it, but knowing the zelous way that stations guard their beverages from visiting officers, it was another sign that something big was afoot.
We were ordered to drive around getting out at different stations to patrol, but to keep close to the van.
The call came while I was helping to evict an aggressive beggar in Waterloo. We jumped into the van and set off at high speed.
It is hard to know what is going on in the back of a crowded police van heading to an incident. You are sitting in a dark metal box which swerves unnervingly from side to side. You hold on to anything you can get a grip of and try to listen to the radio traffic above the wailing of the siren and the cursing of the driver as other cars, oblivious to the noise and flashing lights, suddenly pull into your path. Fingers constantly check and recheck personal equipment especially spray, handcuffs and asp.
Speeding along we pass a group of youths, perhaps 50. They have covered their faces with scarves and are standing menacingly around on the pavement spilling onto the road. Somebody radios the information through, we are told to press on south.
Suddenly the van brakes and swings sharply around the roundabout. It feels like it is going to tip over. More orders had come through. We are heading back to Lewisham.
Minutes later we are there. The Met (Metropolitan Police) have beaten us to it and taken command. While they surround the gang we pull into the railway station and wait.
In a real life policing situation things don’t happen in an orderly fashion as they would on the TV. We waited for hours. Hours can be a long time to stand anywhere. We chatted.
Then suddenly there would be angry shouting from the gang. Nobody seemed quite sure what was happening, adding to the uneasy feeling.
Several times it seemed that things were about to “kick off”. We deployed in a line across the entrance to the station to prevent an attempt by the group to get in and cause mayhem. Some Met police officers, kitted out in riot gear, went forwards while others waited with us. A voice in my head told me I could have stayed at home.
The atmosphere was tense. Members of the public, of all backgrounds, were constantly coming up and asking us if it was safe to get home. A bus driver, seeing the police line, pulled over. “Was it safe?”. “Yes if you go that way” was the reply. He hesitated and set off. His caution was understandable. Two days earlier one of the officers I was with had been on the scene while a large group stopped a bus and pelted it with bricks; a terrifying ordeal for the passengers who were trapped onboard.
During one of the waits four or five armoured police vehicles -- the Jenkels -- drove past slowly in a convoy. Was this really London or had we been parachuted into some sinister third world dictatorship?
I chatted with some Met officers, one of whom, like me was a Special. A drama teacher by day he joined after seeing bullying on his estate. He told me officers in Lewisham had been sleeping rough on the floors of the station rather than going home in order to ensure that they got on top of the situation.
By about one o clock things had gone quiet. Two drunk and angry men walked up and started getting abusive. Could they be that stupid? There were around 50 of the Met’s and the British Transport Police’s finest standing around, many in full riot gear. They were given five seconds to depart or be arrested. They departed.
Outnumbered, the crowd had dispersed. Orders came to stand down. We headed back to our station for more free coffee.
My last meal had been a sandwich on the plane so arriving back at the station I popped across the road for a kebab. After paying, the Turkish owner handed over a coke with the meal. I thanked him but refused. It is against the rules to accept gifts. But he really insisted, coming out from behind the counter, pushing the drink into my hand and refusing the extra money I tried to proffer.
I had been on holiday for the main part of the rioting, and had spent the evening standing around in the rear of a riot that didn’t quite happen. But here was a man trying to thank me for things I hadn’t done by giving me a can of coke which I didn’t actually want. I felt guilty.
Not long afterwards we were told we could go home. Things were under control again.
I spent the next day listening as various MPs seemed to put some of the blame on the police and demanded “robust” action. Yet over the last six years I have heard those same MPs criticise the police when they have used force to clear demonstrators or “kettled” them in. The cry in the past has always been “there is too much police brutality” now the cry seems to be “there is not enough police brutality”.
One officer I spoke with that night summed up the feeling many of them have. “It’s all very well for MPs to tell us to be “robust” – but will they come into court with us if we get charged because a violent protestor is injured being struck by a baton?”
These officers, in the frontline of keeping our streets safe deserve a clear answer to that question.
As I drove home a day later some apologists were already beginning to put the “blame” for the violence on poverty. I leave the last word to another police officer with 30 years’ experience who once said he had “never arrested anyone who didn’t have a bigger television then me”.
David Davies, Conservative, is the Member of Parliament for Monmouth
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