Tim Hollis: A glimpse of anarchy reminds us of importance of a strong community

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THE week of August 6, 2011, was an extraordinary one. The disorder was of a nature not previously witnessed and has prompted a wide debate about “what has gone wrong” with our society.

While I was relieved that we saw no violence in this region, we cannot be complacent. For my part, I observed events from a national perspective.

As well as being Chief Constable of Humberside, I have national responsibilities in respect of policing and was in London overseeing the co-ordination of mutual aid between police forces and working alongside Sir Hugh Orde who heads the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The scale, the geographic spread and the nature of the disorder was unprecedented, and I speak as one who has been involved in public order policing since 1977.

The pressure on the police service was intense. On Wednesday, August 10, a remarkable total of 390 police support units were operational nationally. Consequently, we had a little under 10,000 British police officers deployed on public order duties – and the rest of the service was still answering calls, responding to routine incidents and policing neighbourhoods and, let us remember, the vast majority of our communities remained unaffected by disorder.

But therein lies the rub. While a small number of people tragically lost their lives and we heard heartbreaking stories from many more who lost their homes and livelihoods, no-one could have been unaffected by those days of madness.

As a member of the public said to me: “We witnessed anarchy and it’s a frightening sight. Nobody wants to go back there.”

These emotions underpin the strength of the public reaction to the disorder, the renewed support for local police and the hard questions being asked as to “Why…?”

Personally I believe that a range of issues came together in a manner no-one had anticipated.

From a police perspective, there was no advanced intelligence to suggest that problems in London would spread quite so rapidly, but also to places as far removed as Gloucester and Nottingham.

As the week progressed, the police first held the line and then regained the initiative without recourse to the baton rounds and water cannon which feature so regularly on the Continent.

Personally, I was enormously impressed by the courage and dedication displayed by our officers and staff. Parliament was recalled and, as the week progressed, we witnessed an unusual but very welcome degree of co-operation and support from our partners in the criminal justice system.

We really did see rapid and robust justice with offenders being arrested, charged, put before the courts and sentenced in days.

This undoubtedly contributed to taking the momentum out of the disorder – but for the police and public it did raise the question as to why cases take so long to get to court in the normal course of events and why imprisonment is not used more effectively at an early stage for those who make the lives of the law-abiding a misery on a more routine basis.

As to the future, I return to a point I made at the beginning. We can all sense that things have changed. Certainly, there are many more questions to be asked about the elements already identified – a “me first” consumer society; family breakdown; poor education; unemployment; gangs and so on.

For our part, I know that police are already looking hard at whether we need to adapt our style and tactics to reflect the new reality, but let us remember that these were not anti-police riots and British policing did not fail.

There are, however, questions for us all: for individuals when we look afresh at the question of our personal responsibilities to one another and the wider society; for family members in setting standards and taking responsibility for their conduct and behaviour; for communities in making an honest assessment of how we live together and make contributions with the wider good in mind. In my experience, simple solutions are often sought but rarely found.

Personally, I was both impressed and reassured by the manner in which local communities across the country reacted. The “broom army” of local people volunteering to clean up was frequently larger than the small number of people who had caused the damage.

Support for local police was remarkable as the public demonstrated their support for an effective but approachable presence in their communities.

The criminal justice system looked anew at how it operates and the extent to which local communities had confidence in its ability to deal promptly and effectively with those who break the law.

I do not believe that the events herald further social breakdown, but no-one can afford to be complacent. Perhaps the disorder served as timely reminder that we do not live alone, rather we are all part of a wider community which is stronger when it has a sense of pride and identity and stands together. As for the disorder: “nobody wants to go back there”.

Tim Hollis is the Chief Constable of Humberside Police.