Just a thought.
Reading about the looting in Birmingham I was struck by this:
Hundreds of youths gathered in the city's main retail area close to the Bullring shopping mall, which closed its doors early in anticipation of violence.
Surely the point at which crowds "gather" is the point at which the cops should tell them to get lost or be arrested? Rather than when they start to actually start helping themselves to phones and flatscreen TVs?
This isn't a question for the police. Presumably if they did such a thing groups like Liberty would be all over them like a rash.
The Riot Act, whose long title was "An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters", fell out of use and was abolished in the 1970s. (A mistaken social policy? From the 70s? Who knew?)
It let the police disperse groups of 12 or more people. If the group did not disperse after the act was read, lethal force could legally be used against the crowd.
Now I am absolutely not arguing that the police should use lethal force against today's looters. And I am no expert on the law about riots. The Public Order Act 1986, which governs the law on riots, has the advantage that nobody has to read out anything to rioters. But this seems to me to be to be a disadvantage too. Surely rioters should be warned that they are putting themselves outside the law, and will have to face the consequences?
The police do seem to be constrained by a mix of politics and today's legalistic culture. The Inspector Gadget blog gives a nice summary.
Quite a lot of this legalistic culture is justified. I don't want policing to look like Life on Mars.
But it is unfair and stupid to try and bring this kind of legalism to the policing of a dangerous riot which threatens lives (for the same sorts of reasons why we should keep lawyers off the battlefield). Looters should know, after some kind of public declaration, that the balance of the law is then different for them, and that the police will have greater discretion and legal protection during the course of a riot.
This rash of looting has also shown the power of social media. There's no reason why official warning should not be given to potential rioters online, before they even show up. Riot act 2.0 anyone?
I don't know. We held a discussion on the rise of street extremism at the start of the year, with a group of security experts. There are a lot of different things that could be done to make the police's job here a little less impossible.
To repeat, I am no lawyer. But it does seem to me that the police are being expected to do an almost impossible job of controlling riots while placating civil rights groups. We should cut them some slack.