London Riots: Who's in Charge Here?

No more vacation for mayor, prime minister; 16,000 cops hit the streets.

ByABC News
August 9, 2011, 1:23 PM

Aug. 9, 2011 — -- After three nights and days of rioting and looting London finally is mobilizing a massive police response and a largely mute official London has begun to speak, and reach out in an effort to curb violence.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has publicly stated that 16,000 officers will be deployed tonight, and senior police official say that if more officers are needed there are 19,000 to 20,000 to draw from. According to law enforcement sources, the Metropolitan Police -- popularly known as Scotland Yard -- has called up at least 600 experienced officers from its special operations commands, including its counter-terror unit, to get the maximum number of officers with civil disorder training onto the streets.

When the rioting started, however, following the fatal shooting of an alleged drug dealer Thursday, Britain's ruling class was sitting by the pool. Mayor Johnson was on vacation. Prime Minister David Cameron was on vacation. Home Secretary Theresa May, the senior official in charge of policing, was also "on holiday." Scotland Yard, meanwhile, is currently leaderless following the resignation of senior officials over the cellphone hacking scandal.

PHOTOS of the London riots.

In short, policy experts in Britain tell ABC News, there was no senior political voice or senior police voice to implement an aggressive strategy, much less offer an official response or even give an explanation for the rioting to the public. Scotland Yard did not hold a press briefing until yesterday, on the third day of rioting that started in the North London neighborhood of Tottenham and has now spread to cities far from London.

"The first person who should have come back, Boris Johnson, didn't fly back from Vancouver until yesterday. Prime Minister David Cameron's plane did not touch down until this morning," one analyst told ABC. "Home Secretary Theresa May, the first to return, gave a less than convincing public performance."

Now that official London is back, Boris Johnson and senior police officials have begun engaging the media and the communities most affected. British law enforcement has received permission to investigate BlackBerry Messenger messages and text messages, which have been used by rioters to organize looting.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh, who oversees Territorial Policing at Scotland Yard, said at a press briefing that the force was thinking about the use of plastic bullets but that the Metropolitan Police were "not going to throw 180 years of policing with the community away."

"The use of any tactics will be considered carefully," said Kavanagh. "That does not mean we are scared of using any tactic."

As part of an admittedly belated aggressive response police also have dedicated a website to images of the rioting culled from Closes Circuit Television Cameras (CCTV).

"It would have been wise on reflection if, immediately after the shooting, the police had been a little bit more receptive to community concerns and allowed some forum," noted Blair Gibbs, the head of Crime and Justice at the think tank Policy Project. "The police have to do that kind of direct engagement with people and have them vent their anger."

Police commanders told ABC that at this juncture they expect enough officers to flood the city that, barring some unforeseen violence, they will begin to curb the unrest. "We have seriously considered every tactical option available to us," said Kavanagh. "We will consider every option we have to keep you safe."

As they hit the streets more than 450 officers monitoring CCTV have been augmented by additional personnel to begin pouring over footage of the lawlessness in an effort to identify perpetrators of the violence and looting, sources said.

"I think it has now gone beyond any community concern over any police shooting," said Gibbs. "The widespread nature suggests we are simply into copycat violence by unsocialized men … getting away with lawlessness that they would otherwise not embark on. The scale of the rioting now is not reflecting any widespread poverty. It is criminality on a mass scale."

Sources in London tell ABC that a rumored curfew is highly unlikely to occur as it would cut to the core of the British sense of civil liberties, and the use of any army forces would only be as a last resort. Significantly, since the Ulster disturbances during the Irish "Troubles," the army has not trained any significant number of soldiers in managing civil disorder, and most of the troops who had such training were long ago mustered out.

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Scotland Yard's commissioner and his top deputy resigned because of the cellphone hacking scandal that galvanized world attention. When the London tabloids hacked into the voice mail of a dead young woman in an effort to write their stories and learn more about her abduction – even deleting messages—the Met police performed a tepid investigation, leaving trash bags of potential evidence of widespread hacking unopened for about four years.

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