Often it is said that the police are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they go in hard they are criticised for infringing human rights but, if they stand back, they are accused of failing to protect property and the public.
Today, after out of control violence and looting over three nights, there are many more voices on the public protection side of that debate than there are on the human rights side. One question I will be asking senior police officers in an emergency session of the Home Affairs Select Committee on Thursday is whether fear of criticism held them back from taking more robust action earlier.
Here in Medway a group of 10-15 youths who came down from London by train last night, it appears to cause trouble, are now in custody. I understand that Medway magistrates have decided that they will deal with them tomorrow and I have every confidence that they will send out a clear message that violent affray will not be tolerated in our towns. Having served as one of a panel of five who appointed Ian Learmonth as our Chief Constable in Kent, I know very well that we have a no-nonsense Chief Constable in the traditional mould. Anyone considering causing any trouble in Kent should be in no doubt that they would be met with an extremely robust response.
It is crucial that the police know that politicians will stand behind them when they act robustly to maintain public order. If we fail to do so, or are too quick to criticise the police when a particular officer or operation oversteps the mark, then the police may in turn be too cautious about acting, and we will let down the public we seek to serve.
There appears to have been a trend for the police to sometimes stand back in the face of breaches of public order and to focus on gathering video evidence to support later prosecutions. This risks bringing the law into disrepute if the police look on as property is destroyed and the public are justifiably outraged. We also need to ensure that the priority we properly place on policing political demonstrations appropriately does not detract from police capability to deal with harder-edged public disorder.
The police must now be as tough as they need to be to re-establish order and politicians should give them every support required. This disorder is not caused by social deprivation, as Ken Livingstone disgracefully sought to suggest on Newsnight last night. Rather, as Shaun Bailey so rightly riposted, it follows too long a period in which we have taught youth everything about their rights, but next to nothing about their responsibilities.