Police expect a repeat of the riots that spread across England last summer and are concerned about whether they will have the resources to cope with more unrest on that scale, according to the findings of the most in-depth research conducted into the disorder.
Officers interviewed as part of the study said further disorder was likely, with many citing worsening social and economic conditions as the potential cause. There is considerable concern among police that their ability to deal with any future riots may be affected by the scale of the budget cuts currently affecting forces.
This blunt assessment of the country’s preparedness for disorder comes from interviews with 130 police officers of all ranks who took part in the second part of Reading the Riots, a joint study by the Guardian and London School of Economics.
The interviews, which are mostly anonymous accounts of the riots in five English cities, give an unprecedented insight into what thousands of officers – both on the frontline and in control rooms – experienced during the most serious bout of civil disorder in a generation.
The study comes at a time when the police service is engaged in a bitter dispute with the home secretary, Theresa May, over proposed budget cuts and her controversial appointment of a new chief inspector of constabulary, Tom Winsor.
On Monday parliament will receive a report from the current chief inspector on the impact of policing cuts on forces across England and Wales. Meanwhile, police are preparing for this month’s Olympic Games, the biggest peacetime policing operation in modern British history.
In a typical answer to the question “will rioting happen again?”, one superintendent from Greater Manchester police said he expected more disorder within the year.
“I think if you have bad economic times, hot weather, some sort of an event that sets it off … my answer is: yes, it could,” he said. “Because I don’t think anything has changed between now and last August, and the only thing that’s different is people have thought: riots are fun.
“We arrested 300 people [in Salford and Manchester] and we sent a powerful message, but a lot of people on the periphery got away with it. Probably, if I was them, I’d have thought: yeah, I’d do it again, and probably get away with it next time.”
Police forces gave unprecedented access to their staff for Reading the Riots, which is the largest academic study into the causes and consequences of England’s summer of disorder. The first part of the study, published in December, was based on confidential interviews with 270 rioters.
The second part, sponsored by the Open Society Foundations, is being published this week, and includes interviews with victims so-called vigilantes and lawyers who dealt with the aftermath in the courts, and research into why full-scale rioting did not spread to cities such as Leeds and Bristol.
The research provides vivid testimony about the bravery of police, the dangers they faced and the frustrations involved in their battle to regain control of the streets.
Police reject much of the criticism of the tactics they used last August, but acknowledge that forces were stretched to the limit by the scale and speed of the riots and looting, and in places were totally overwhelmed.
Senior officers, in particular in the Metropolitan police, accept they struggled to deploy sufficient numbers of officers to contain the violence during all four days of rioting in London.
Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, urged the government to take “urgent stock” of the Reading the Riots study, saying he believed police would struggle to cope with further disorder if budget cuts went ahead.
The findings, based on interviews with officers from eight forces deployed in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Salford, also reveal:
• A system of mutual aid between forces, which should have enabled the Met to draw on urgent assistance from surrounding forces, failed to bolster the available resources at a critical time in the capital. The Met did not activate a national alarm system to call for more resources until the third day of riots. Once officers from other forces arrived, they were restricted by poor communication with central command.
• Forces across England did not know how to respond to social media networks, particularly encrypted BlackBerry messaging, which enabled rioters and looters to organise and at times outmanoeuvre police. Control rooms were swamped with intelligence from the internet and unable to sort rumour from fact, leading to mistakes when deploying resources.
• Police believe their general strategy in August, which focused on the protection of life and the use of the minimum force necessary to disperse crowds, was the correct approach, and almost certainly reduced the overall number of injuries and deaths. They also believe that their decision to rely on CCTV evidence as the basis for later arrests has been vindicated by the prosecution of more than 3,000 individuals for riot-related offences.
• Officers accept the Met was too slow in mobilising sufficient numbers of police in London and should have attempted to prevent looting more quickly. Police in Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool, who had greater time to prepare and were faced with less extensive disorder, were able to deploy proportionately greater numbers of officers.
• Police were largely content with their equipment and training, and do not believe they need further powers to tackle rioters. One of the most common complaints from frontline officers was lack of food and water. Radio communication systems were said by many police to have been overwhelmed by the amount of communications.
• Police of all ranks were shocked by the extent and nature of violence directed toward the police, as well as the speed with which it escalated. Police generally believed that in the event of further riots, making sure there were greater numbers of officers on the ground would be far more important – and effective – than introducing new water cannon or using plastic bullets.
The findings are likely to raise further questions over government plans to impose cuts on police forces so soon after thousands of officers risked their lives to bring order to the streets. Police of all ranks said they were astonished no colleagues were killed.
Nearly all of the officers interviewed described the riots as the greatest physical and psychological challenge of their careers. Most remain deeply proud of the heroism shown by their colleagues.
The feeling among police that future riots are likely, or even imminent, will concern government ministers, who resisted calls for a full public inquiry into the disturbances.
McKeever said: “This comprehensive analysis demonstrates what we have been telling the government for two years now; that a 20% budget cut to policing will have a negative impact on public safety and that police numbers really do matter.
“Officers interviewed rightly identify and voice concern that, should the same circumstances occur again, the police service would struggle to cope and contain the situation with the loss of police officers numbers we are experiencing as a direct result of the cuts – over 5,000 last year alone. The government must take urgent stock of this; the safety and security of the public must be their number one priority.”
The Met said that since the riots they had adapted their tactics, trained a further 1,750 public order officers, procured new technology for monitoring social media and implemented a “mobilisation plan” to better deploy officers.
The force said it had taken on board recommendations from a range of inquiries and reviews, including its own. “The [Met] has always acknowledged that there were lessons to be learned from what were unprecedented scenes of violence last summer.”