Hardline policing may provoke civil unrest, government warned

Political leaders taking a draconian line on how police should respond to unrest lifts risk fanning the flames of disorder as the coronavirus lockdown lifts, the government was warned on Friday.

After days of tension between police officers and the public culminated in 22 officers being injured in a confrontation with residents attending an outdoor party in Brixton on Wednesday, the home secretary met with Met chief Cressida Dick to demand a “full explanation” of the circumstances of the incident.

Her intervention was seen as a sign of hardening determination in the government to respond sternly to disorder. Over the past two weeks there have been two illegal raves in greater Manchester, street parties in London broken up by police amid isolated pockets of violence, and tens of thousands of people at beaches on the south coast, leading Bournemouth council to declare a “major incident”.

Tim Newburn, professor of Criminology and Social Policy at the LSE who led the Reading The Riots collaboration with the Guardian following unrest in 2011, said political leaders “talking about crackdowns and firm policing” was “really fantastically unhelpful.”

“It tells young people that theres likely to be conflict so be ready for it, but it also restricts the freedom of the police to act,” he said. Taking the Colston statue incident as an example, he said: “If you say a particular kind of behaviour will be met with the full force of the law it puts operational commanders in a very difficult position.

“What is needed at the moment is clear and firm messaging about the rules around the pandemic, but allowing police to exercise their judgement in difficult circumstances. Thats been lost.”

Police chiefs previously accused Priti Patel of “absolutely disgraceful” interference after she demanded a crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters and rebuked Bristol chief constable Andy Marsh for not intervening to stop demonstrators pulling down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston.

On Friday Boris Johnson criticised beachgoers in Bournemouth and elsewhere for “taking too many liberties”, and said “it is crucial that people understand that on 4 July we get this right, we do this in a balanced way”. Earlier in the week, Johnson urged people to get out and “enjoy themselves” on 4 July, claiming that “the bustle is starting to come back”.

Police chiefs have cancelled leave and reinforced public order units amid nervousness over the prospects of disorder when lockdown officially lifts on 4 July – but with some restrictions remaining in place.

David Jamieson, police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, described the upcoming summer holidays as a “ticking time bomb” in inner-city areas and cautioned: “We are not going to be able to arrest our way out of this unrest.

“There is a real sense that there is calamity on its way, especially when the furlough scheme comes to an end, and youve got lots of young, low-paid workers whose jobs have disappeared,” he said. “There will be considerable unrest.”

One chief constable told the Guardian that police would not be turned into “paramilitaries” by the government.

“Force is there as a last resort. We are part of the community, not paramilitaries,” the chief constable said. “Sustained use of force is a problem. Look at the impact of the miners strike. The police became paramilitaries. Once that happens, a lot of trust can go.”

Conservative backbenchers have complained that officers have become “a laughing stock” and “effectively abandoned [the public] to mob rule”.

On Thursday evening three men were stabbed in Bournemouth and taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Vikki Slade, the Lib Dem leader of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council, said that security guards had now been recruited to patrol the area.

“I think people were fed up with being at home, they are angry, they are feeling put upon, there was an ugly mood,” she said. “It didnt feel like the lovely holiday environment.”

Fears that tensions could increase were echoed by Baroness Beverley Hughes, Greater Manchesters Deputy Mayor for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Fire, and Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

On Thursday this week Hughes said that Greater Manchester police disrupted 39 large gatherings in the area.

“I do think some of the rhetoric [from the government] is not helpful,” she said, “and also think the government really should have been much stronger in retaining a safety message.”

Burnham added: “I hope we are not talking about a summer of unrest but it is a unique moment with a lot of tensions circulating around at the same time. We will not tolerate attacks on the police officers and public servants.”

Newburn said that the conditions that could lead to further unrest were in place after a period in which the Black Lives Matter protests have coincided with national lockdown and apparent inconsistency in lockdown rules.

He said that in 2011, “young people felt very much that their lives were being very heavily constrained and surveilled and policed, and they saw more privileged people getting away with all sorts. It was a morally divided world. And we see that with Covid, that social and racial injustice doubles down – that its the poorest with least choices who are the ones people make negative moral judgements about or criminalise.”

Cautioning that it was too early to predict widespread disorder, he said: “The broad conditions are there. You have a lot of young people still occupying the same kind of conditions they did ten years ago, feeling badly treated and unrepresented.”

“Add into that the confusions of Covid, and I think we have now reached the confusion stage. From beaches to raves to parties, were seeing stuff happening which potentially brings the police into confrontation with young people. If that brings about a situation in which the policing and the public order situation is badly handled, that can lead into something really very dangerous.”