After the riots, Home Secretary Theresa May proposed giving police broad new powers ‘to impose a general curfew in a particular area’. ‘In the fast-moving situation we have seen in the last week, we need to make sure the police have all the powers that are necessary.’
Other politicians have suggested new powers to force somebody to remove their face-covering, or new powers to shut down social media sites.
Curfews and communication shut-downs are the mark of authoritarian regimes and martial law. They are also completely unnecessary.
Virtually every area affected by rioting was already a ‘dispersal zone’ – including Tottenham, Croydon, and Walthamstow. In fact, London is peppered with dispersal zones.
This means that police in those areas have carte blanche powers to disperse groups of two of more people if they are behaving in an anti-social manner, or if the police officer suspects that they may be about to behave in an antisocial manner.
This power is more expansive than the old Riot Act (which could disperse 12 or more people who were ‘riotously assembled’, after the Act had been read to them).
But as it happens, the only powers police needed last week were the perfectly ordinary powers to apprehend looters and arsonists. The problem was not lack of powers but lack of basic law and order enforcement.
While dispersal zone powers were completely ineffective in dealing with disorder, they have been used to hassle everyone from street drinkers to beggars, to young people skateboarding or hanging around.
Whenever police are given open-ended powers, they use them in arbitrary and interfering ways. Powers of alcohol confiscation have been used, not just against drunken marauders, but against friends sharing a bottle of wine in the park.
More powers would only accentuate the police’s loss of focus on basic law and order – and encourage the trend towards intervention into everyday life, under the catch-all of ‘crime prevention’.
Laws against face-coverings affect everything from Halloween masks to burqas; powers to shut down social media would mainly penalise the innocent sitting at home; curfews would affect people coming out to defend their businesses, just as much as those attacking them.
The only power that was needed last week was the power of arrest for theft and criminal damage. The Home Secretary would do better to refocus on basic law and order enforcement, rather than dispense martial law powers like sweets.
Read our article ‘Policing the innocent, Ignoring the Riotous’