Michael Kelly: Aggressive policing has no place in a civilised society
Our officers need to be integrated in our communities rather than just tackling criminality head-on in the streets
ALEX Salmond believes that the troubles that some English cities have been experiencing will not spread to Scotland. Like everyone else who has expressed this view, he is, of course, not complacent. He's not saying it couldn't happen. He's too smart to offer that hostage to fortune. It's just "less likely". And he is right to be optimistic, if only because we have no history of such disorder here.
However, attempting to explain why it is less likely that our cities will be infected by the contagious criminality that has spread north from London is more difficult. It is not that Scots are unable to wreck with the best of them. A few years ago, Rangers supporters did a far more effective job of devastating Manchester city centre than did the local wimps who this week could not even break into the Arndale Centre. Yet Scots don't replicate that away form in their home towns.
Salmond argues it is because we have a different kind of society here. Again, he is correct. In many ways we do. We are, as Stuart Waiton the sociologist has argued, a more conservative society. At first read this seems like a compliment: that Scotland still holds to the traditional values that bind society. However, it could also be taken to mean that we are behind the curve when it comes to expressing postmodern alienation. Give us time and we'll get there. This may be a warning for us to take action now and not wait for Scotland's poor and deprived to join the 21st century.
Professor Tom Devine, the historian, suspects that it is the lingering influence on our culture of the Kirk's authoritarianism that explains the difference.
More prosaically, the layout of our cities is different. Our 1950s policies of banishing the working classes to the periphery has meant a clear physical separation of the sink estates from the urban social capital worth looting and burning. Or it may be that we are fortunate enough to have attracted the right type of immigrant. For while no-one would class the current social disorder as race riots, those in London at any rate seem to be staffed exclusively by youths of African-Caribbean descent who do not have the same disciplined moral code or family structures that those who came from the Indian subcontinent brought with them to Scotland.
What is the same up here is the change in the UK's approach to policing. It is clear that the Metropolitan Police could have nipped this trouble in the bud if it had been much more direct in its response to the first night of violence. There is firm evidence from looters who joined the action subsequently that it was the images of police standing by allowing the shops to be broken into and emptied that encouraged more criminals to join the action.This hands-off philosophy is in evidence in Scotland. It may be a measure of our social cohesiveness that the item on top of our senior police officers' agenda is the issue of sectarian singing. If that's as bad as it gets, we've not got a lot to worry about.
However, in dealing with the minor trouble at some football matches last year, the police displayed the same paralysis that crippled the Met this week. Instead of using the powers they have to go into the stands and arrest the culprits, they called for a summit and are delighted that the response has been to set up working parties. Until events in London, I thought that this was simply incompetent dithering. Now it is clear that this is the new non-authoritarian philosophy that runs through the whole of British policing.
Yet, this analysis is incomplete. It does not explain the fact that the police are much more proactive in controlling peaceful demonstrations. They are happy to illegally kettle innocent protesters for hours and to take the odd fatal swipe at passing bystanders who happen to irritate them.
Their use of firearms is increasingly suspect. As Ian "Destiny" Hamilton, QC, has pointed out, in Scotland chief officers, on no authority other than their own, close roads for hours following car accidents because it makes it easier for them to investigate the scene.
There is increasingly the feeling that the police are interfering more in the lives of ordinary citizens but when it comes to violent or aggressive hooligans they back off. Much of their time now is to act as a support to social and community workers, supplying advice and leadership where it is lacking.
Is this taking the concept of police as a service rather than a force too far? While clearly there were major operational mistakes made in how the initial problems in London were handled - such as deploying far too few officers, mistakes which it took far too long to rectify - it would be wrong if these isolated and infrequent incidents were to lead to a reversion generally to more aggressive police strategies.
The philosophy of policing by consent is not a concept that people robbed of their business want to hear. But it is the right approach. It is right, too, that the police, rather than being a distant, feared body of authoritarian hardmen are integrated in the communities in which they serve, are accessible, do concern themselves with the deeper causes of criminality rather than simply try to quell it at its flashpoints.A Britain whose streets are controlled by water cannon, where even the most obnoxious, snivelling little thief is wounded and possibly killed by a rubber bullet, where the army puts down even the most aggressive of the anti-social elements who steal the plasma TVs and iPhones that the rest of us take for granted is not a Britain in which I want to live. The level of theft in Saudi Arabia is low, it is said, because they cut off the hands of thieves.
Civilised societies accept higher levels of crime as the price of the just and proportionate treatment of offenders. We live in a civilised society here. Policy should be directed at keeping it that way.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east