In the new age of rioting—where flash mobs assemble with the benefit of social media—London police struggled, at best, to quell the rising violence, which is still spreading across the U.K. But what did London do wrong? How could officials have better planned to subdue the riots?
Paul Wertheimer, founder of the international Crowd Management Strategies in Los Angeles, has developed safety standards and legislation in the United States, the United Kingdom, Denmark, South Africa and more, including helping to form the British government’s 1999 Event Safety Guide. He admits it can be easy to critique from a distance, but was still surprised with the initial slow response and later tactics. Wertheimer took a look at the London situation, and shared his thoughts with TIME.
What is London doing wrong to have this drag on?
The slow response, and likely expectation that the initial rioting would dissipate on its own proved wrong approaches. This was likely based on faulty street-level intelligence and a failure to fully appreciate the organizational skills of and the speed in which today’s young malcontents move. London authorities are not the first to face this challenge and they won’t be the last. It is a prospect both despots and democracies will face.
(PHOTOS: Riots Spread Throughout England)
What should London be doing to stop the surge?
A forceful showing of police (or military) is needed and being put in place now. A continued effort must be made to garner public support and voluntary cooperation. The public must be kept fully informed of developments to quell rumors and instill confidence in community institutions. I think a curfew is needed and military assistance at some level as the situation appears beyond the resources of local law enforcement and fire services. The rioting needs to be quelled least more malcontents, opportunists and criminals or terrorists join in. Each day, as well, comes the chance of a major human calamity.
Does the spread of rioting to different cities change the response?
The spread of the London riots is not only debilitating to the public, but also problematic as far as law enforcement and other public safety services. There should be no hesitation in soliciting the help of military services, if necessary. Organizers had no problem doing that during Woodstock ’69. There is no shame in asking for assistance on behalf of the public good.
(VIDEO: London Riot Chaos)
What is the key to quickly quelling riots?
For government leaders and public safety agencies: good street level intelligence and well-trained law enforcement and fire officials. A quick and overwhelming—but not necessarily aggressive—show of force by authorities at the beginning of trouble is often key at de-escalating a situation. Also needed is effective communication from public leaders outlining steps to be taken to restore normalcy, fair and reasonable use of force, isolation of most aggressive rioters and support and cooperation of the general public and private institutions.
Is a show of sheer numbers the top strategy at the height of a riot?
Yes, sheer force can, and is, intimidating. But, today’s mobs around the world have shown they can withstand the blows and grow stronger. So, for this reason, overwhelming show of force is best displayed at the start of potential problems. But, this strategy is often a political, not law enforcement, decision. Politics and public image concerns of politicians are another element of a riot that public safety agencies must deal with.
What is the greatest challenge to police in a riot?
Police face the daunting challenge of de-escalating agitated or violent crowds and to do so effectively, police must be seen as somewhat neutral or sympathetic to the crowd and well trained and equipped. This unfortunately is seldom the case today. And provocateurs that move freely within crowds can destabilize the best efforts of police and less violent segments of a crowd or mob. Fires are the responsibility of fire departments, who themselves too often need police protection.
What needs to happen after the fact?
In the aftermath, those who are found to have acted criminally must be punished to the full and fair extent of the law. At the same time, a special commission to dissect this incident, its causes and prevention must be established. I think it is imperative that a representative number of young people from all walks of British life be included on the commission.
What does this mean for the 2012 Olympics?
The Olympics are not in jeopardy. Rather than a divisive event, the Olympics will be a unifying British moment. More to your point of concern: What is to be done with “the largest festival celebration of its kind in Europe,” London’s famous Notting Hill Carnival (Aug. 28-29) later this month? A show of force and good will tactically dispersed should do the trick.