The price of cutback policing

The only surprising thing about the Brixton "riot" was that it didn't kick off earlier in the afternoon on 7 August. Coppers policing the free festival on Coldharbour Lane accosted teenagers near the town hall and engaged them in "friendly chats" about what they should be doing with their time. The crack dealers whose turf it is stood six paces away, watching. The youngsters made a show of keeping cool but they were angry and restless.

Just shy of midnight, about 15 kids, boys and girls, none older than 18, emerged from the side road leading to the recreation centre where they'd been waiting. The boys were hoodied up, dressed in uniform black or blue. It was four strides to the junction with Atlantic Road but they ambled. Then, a lone boy in grey threw himself at the Smith's shopfront and tried to smash the door with his foot, becoming enraged as the plastic-coated glass sprang back. Five mates urged him on. One wandered off to find something heavy. The girls fell back.

The choice of targets was obvious: places selling trainers, cosmetics and mobile phones, places where they'd suffered some perceived slight. There was not a policeman in sight.

A boy in black ripped part of the frame off the bus shelter. Now he had his ice pick; perfect for doing the windows of H&M. Ignoring the CCTV cameras, he casually made a line of holes down the left-hand window.

No one intervened. It was pointless. Ten minutes had gone by; there was no sign of the police, though Brixton Police Station is four minutes away on foot. Turning up Brighton Terrace, I reached for my phone, dialled 999, listened to a ringtone for two minutes, then called the fallback number. No answer from that, either.

Halfway up Acre Lane, an angry man invited me to agree with him that these youths were "just scumbags, out to nick anything they can get". When I declined, suggesting that social imbalances didn't help, he said: "Oh, so I suppose that sort of thing's just normal round here." Yet these troubles weren't a patch on the torched timber yards of 1995 -- or 1985, or 1981. This man lives in Brixton but he can't see the people living around him. The poorer kids don't know his type and don't want to know. Each side resents the other.

The following Monday, both pavements of the high street from Coldharbour Lane to Stockwell Park Road were behind incident tape. Foot Locker and Nando's were burnt out. The policemen posted on every corner looked bored. The road was one huge scene of crime.

I was reminded of how the police were said to have reacted in 1981. Vastly outnumbered by rioters, they retreated but returned to gather every scrap of evidence they could. For months after the riots, officers used it to collar looters, or passers-by, who received long sentences from compliant judges.

Is this the face of policing in the age of cutbacks, after the killing of Mark Duggan? Don't engage, leave the kids to smash things up and put business off, then return, collect thumbprints and shreds of fabric and leave forensics and the courts to clean up?

It's a recipe for more mess.

Nana Yaa Mensah is chief sub-editor of the New Statesman

Nana Yaa Mensah is chief sub-editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy