Friday, August 12, 2011

Redbridge Response to the Riots

Since Monday evening things have calmed down in Romford and elsewhere. On Tuesday our businesses still closed earlier and I watched the owner of the camera shop downstairs packing his merchandise into his car to take it all home for the night. There were half a dozen police patrolling the car park and no sign of the looters. At around 11pm I went downstairs to thank them for their efforts and to offer them a mug of coffee.

Wednesday was even quieter with no sign of trouble. Last night was pretty much business as usual with pubs and clubs open and a large police presence which is not unusual here on busy nights. So is this the calm after the storm or the eye of the hurricane? A briefing at Ilford Town Hall summarised the current position.

In Redbridge the disorder on Monday was more serious. Around 200 rioters ran amock in the High Road after 5pm. Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Sue Williams, deployed her entire officer contingent - already depleted by the transfer of officers to riots in Inner London - including detectives, to clear the crowd and the street was taken back with only a few shops attacked.

Some of the rioters struck again in Ilford Lane, attacking two jewellers and it took time for police to chase them away. Like Romford, it appears that criminals were avoiding conflict with the police, instead seeking to capitalise on the situation by stealing electronics, jewellery and fashion items.

As at Thursday evening we were told there had been 950 arrests and we know that this number passed 1,000 overnight. 44 arrests had been made in connection with the Redbridge incidents and 63% of these were local people. 57% were unemployed but some were also in good jobs, indicating that this had nothing to do with 'poverty'. 95% of those arrested were male but surprisingly only 3 people were under 16. With arrests continuing these figures are merely a snapshot of a changing position, but Sue declared that the police were going to track down these criminals and arrest every one of them.

And audience made up largely of charities, business groups and neighbourhood watch coordinators had many questions and concerns, but all were keen to work together to come through this crisis. There was considerable support for the police and refreshingly little enthusiasm for excusing the behaviour of looters.

Sue Williams reassured us that there were no plans to reduce police numbers in the borough, beyond the redeployment of some sergeants in the safer neighbourhood team review. Redbridge Council was funding 13 additional officers in an agreement which was set to run for several years.

Concerns were expressed that sentences would not reflect the gravity of the situation, particularly for young offenders who - with some justification - see the courts as powerless when it come to imposing meaningful punishments. In one case a man caught with two stolen T shirts had been fined just £100 then told he wouldn't have to pay it because he had spent a day in custody - you get more than that for parking illegally! I guess we shall just have to wait and see the sentences imposed by the Crown Courts.

There were worries about how 'reasonable force' is defined if you defend your own property. This has been a vexed question for a very long time and the riots will reopen the debate. Because people live in town centres this is about more than defending goods, it's about defending homes and livelihoods as well. The law needs clearing up to give unambiguous support to residents and business owners who choose to fight back, not least because it will always take the police time to respond to a call.

There were also some positive proposals. Parents should be leafleted to make them aware of the importance of keeping children under control. Redbridge youth service were texting young people to warn them to stay indoors and most were taking notice. There were also calls to ban hoodies in the town centre.

Many people were surprised by the high quality of the CCTV images from Monday night. TfL have been using high definition CCTV pictures to prosecute criminals on the bus network for some time and like TfL the police are now publishing pictures of suspects. It is worth everyone taking a look and the link is . Anyone who identifies a suspect or has other useful information can call the police on 020 8345 4142 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

"This is Great, Bruv - You Can Just Take Anything You Want!"

Those were the words of a hooded youngster who sauntered with his half dozen friends down the alleyway next to my flat in Romford town centre at around 2:30 this morning. He went on to encourage another boy to steal something for his girlfriend.

Living in town, you come to recognise when trouble is building up during the day. Yesterday afternoon the first sign that all was not well was the arrival of groups of boys on bikes, many very young, riding like posses of outlaws through the crowded streets, performing stunts and buzzing shoppers.

As five o'clock approached, businesses and venues pulled the shutters down and the streets started to clear. There would be no eating out, going to see a film or clubbing. The owner of the camera shop downstairs told me that the looters were coming to Romford and advised me to stay inside.

Shadows lengthened and little groups of youths began to appear. The alleyway was quickly identified as a good place to hide out and half a dozen people collected, muttering and looking lost - obviously not from the area. One had his mobile phone out and was texting away. They were a mixed group, four black and two white, for unlike the eighties this is not about race. And they were expensively dressed, for this is not about poverty either.

A police car drew up and four officers in stab vests approached the youths, taking their details and filming them with a hand held video camera. The youths slouched away but the police remained, patrolling the large car park and approaching groups as they gathered. At one point several would be rioters collected around the bottle bank - a possible source of missiles. Later on the window of a clothes shop was attacked but the masked looters fled as a police car arrived, its blue lights flashing.

In Romford that was the pattern for the night. The looters sought to avoid contact with the police, retreating into the dark and waiting for another chance. Targets were carefully chosen - JD Sports and Debenhams were attacked. This wasn't any sort of protest, it was opportunistic theft and vandalism, the sort of thing that we sometimes see when a power failure turns the street lights out.

We got off lightly, but in Ilford there was much more damage and looting around the town centre and of course other parts of London suffered greatly. Steve O'Connell who represents Croydon emailed me to say "my town centre is ablaze", a tragedy for the small businesses and residents who lost their homes. The emergency services, particularly fire crews showed great bravery and dedication to duty. Dick Tracey reported attacks in Clapham where police successfully deployed armoured vehicles to break up a crowd. Andrew Boff was out in Hackney, watching as gangs effectively took over the Pembury Estate for several hours.

And what can we expect tonight? Who knows, for London is in uncharted territory. With police reinforced to more than double last night's numbers, and with some 400 looters arrested and off the streets the trouble should be easier to contain but people are demanding a tougher response. I have had requests for water cannon and tear gas to be deployed and I urge police to consider such options.

Perhaps a curfew would help to clear the streets of the 'riot tourists' who have been in evidence in some places, allowing the police to focus on the criminals. With all the businesses and venues closed there is little to leave home for anyway.

We also need to see some swift justice handed down to those who have been arrested, preferably in the next couple of days. Theft and disorder are serious crimes and some exemplary prison sentences will deter copycat incidents. Conspiracy is also a serious charge which could lead to the social networkers doing a stretch.

For the longer term, if planners are to continue encouraging residential development in town centres - and I believe that they should - then they also need to plan for the security of those residents. Destruction of commercial property is sometimes seen as acceptable because the insurers will pay, but mixed developments mean that homes and lives are now at stake.

And is it too much to hope that we will see less acceptance and even glorification of dumbed down, insolent 'street culture'?? There are too many examples - including advertising material promoted by the very sportswear and entertainment industries that have been targeted - but perhaps the most pervasive is that awful London 2012 logo that was designed to look like graffiti. Our city has many things to boast about but street culture is not one of them.

I have asked for an emergency meeting of the Conservative Assembly Members at City Hall, so that we can share our experiences, get briefed by the emergency services and debate ways to deal with this crisis and to make our city safer in future.