Authority and Insurrection Part I
The last couple of years have witnessed determined challenges to the autonomy of Senior Police Officers coupled with widespread disorder. The right of Chief Constables to remain in Office has been severely tested and the creation of Police Commissioners will see an increased scrutiny of how they lead. An operational incident involving the attempted arrest of a suspect led to local disorder which quickly spread across the Country. This has happened before. The late 1970s and early 1980s were battlegrounds between Politicians and Senior Police Officers and between rioters and the less senior Police ranks. The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has unwittingly linked them both by claiming that the arrest of leading gang members in the wake of last year’s riots has led to more violence in areas where younger members have filled power vacuums. We must hope that the recent enforced removals of Senior Officers does not have a similar effect on the Police Service. Ambitious young Superintendents can be troublesome.
This article is the first of two instalments which will look back to the tumultuous events of the 70s and 80s and examine how senior police officers tried to deal with challenges to their authority by politicians community groups and mobs, and will then leap forward to seek parallels with more current events.
When I joined the Liverpool and Bootle Constabulary in 1971 the Chief Constable was Sir James Haughton. He was known by two very different nicknames, ’Sunny Jim’ and ‘The Smiling Assassin.’ He deserved them both. As a senior detective in Birmingham Sir James was instrumental in the introduction of Regional Crime Squads, which spread across the Nation as an early example of cross border collaboration. They rapidly became both successful and notorious. As a Chief Constable he inherited a City (Liverpool) and soon after a Town (Bootle) in which a combination of booming night time economies and a faltering industries and docks was reflected in rising violence and crime.
I now digress to write about the origins of units, Charles Darwen having comfortably beaten me to it on species. I have observed in a number of settings that the origins of a unit often stay with it. Whilst working in Jamaica in the late 1980s .I was initially puzzled at the reluctance of the Jamaican Police to leave the station and go out on patrol, I thought they were worried about the violence that they may encounter, but learned that this was not the case. They were not at all intimidated by the violence that they encountered and indeed they frequently initiated it. I came to realise that the Force had started as custodians in ‘Lock Ups’ to which plantation owners would bring troublesome slaves, and so were inclined to stay in the Station. I went to South Africa to monitor their policing of the elections which led to the appointment of Nelson Mandella as President. I chatted to a South African Policeman who fondly reminisced about expeditions into Angola to ambush and kill what he had thought were terrorists but were now called freedom fighters. I asked him how long he had been in the army before he joined the Police, he replied that he hadn’t, these had been Police Operations. . He was in a squad, (a squad is a Unit with some bad intentions.) It was only when I returned to the UK and did some research that I realised that the South African Police emerged from paramilitary ‘Commandos’ formed to fight the Zulus and the British.
To return to Liverpool. Houghton’s predecessor Acting Chief Constable Herbert Richard ‘Bert’ Balmer had formed his own Commando Squad to combat the drunken and the criminal elements of the City by ordering each Territorial Division to contribute a number of Officers to a Central Squad. Those who arrived were a mixed bunch. Some were drawn from specialist ‘Plainclothes’ Sections and included some proven thief takers. Others were sent along because they were considered difficult to manage. Soon after taking up Office Houghton renamed them the Task Force. They patrolled crime and disorder hotspots in ‘Jeeps’ in what could most kindly be described as an enthusiastic and robust manner As with Sir James’ previous creation of the RCS they quickly became both successful and notorious. I was a teenager embarking on a long and varied social life at this time. I can testify that the sight of one or more clearly marked long wheel based Land Rovers roaring down the street was a clear signal that it was time to stop whatever you were doing and go home. Their crews were not given to negotiation.
The Task Force quickly became a popular place to work. They were on ‘Days and Lates’ and were thus excused Night Duty, which was and still remains an unpopular and arduous shift. The team spirit was excellent and in an early form of community engagement they engaged with grateful Licensees and Club Owners who plied them with trays of ale when it was quiet. Uniform Foot Patrols were no more a deterrent to car thieves and pickpockets then than they are now and so Task Force Officers donned plainclothes and conducted clandestine observations before leaping out and arresting startled offenders. Crime and disorder fell to the point where the notion of disbanding the Task Force and returning the Officers to three shifts on their under resourced Divisions was mooted. This spurred them on to greater heights. Arrests for assault, disorder, going equipped for theft, offensive weapon and ‘suspected person loitering’ (known in Liverpool and Bootle as ‘SPL’, and elsewhere as the ‘Sus Law’) increased. So did complaints.
Liverpool 8, known after the riots of 1981 as Toxteth, was a particular battleground. Local youths especially members of the long established but severely alienated Black community were convinced that the Police were discriminating against them. Community leaders complained bitterly to Sir James about the outrages committed by his officers, and threatened that if matters did not improve then widespread disorder would take place. Houghton listened to them carefully and expressed his dismay concern and support before assuring them that he would act quickly to resolve their grievances. As soon as they had left the room he would turn to his staff officer and instruct him to ‘’Get the vans out.’ ‘High Profile Policing’ which involved the Task Force engaging in confrontational stop checks and arrests for minor infractions intensified. The Liverpool and Bootle Constabulary had made the serious mistake of measuring their work in activities, such as increasing arrests, rather than in outcomes, such as a falling crime rate. The Task Force had successfully resolved some problems with crime and disorder and they should have been deployed either differently or elsewhere or both.
Houghton’s successor Sir Kenneth Oxford had also spent his earlier service as a successful detective but he was a very different character. He had worked in the Met for a contender for the outstanding Police Officer of his generation, Commissioner Sir Robert Mark. Mark had vigorously stamped out police corruption and had confronted anti-establishment demonstrators with the paramilitary Special Patrol Group. He was a firm advocate of Police independence, and resigned in 1977 following a disagreement with the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins over the introduction of an Independent Police Complaints body which he thought would undermine police discipline and effective investigation. The times were changing, but Oxford paid this no mind.
He had arrested James Henratty for the notorious A 6 murder and Christine Keeler for her part in the Profumo Affair. When the World Cup was stolen he was tasked with its recovery but was beaten to it by Pickles the dog. Oxford had a lump on his head and was nicknamed with a shocking lack of creativity ‘Lumpy Head’. He joined Merseyside Police as Deputy Chief Constable on the 1st November 1974 and began well. I attended a meeting on juvenile crime and his grasp of the facts, chairmanship and handling of a diverse and potentially difficult group were exemplary. Oxford was wined and dined in after hours drinking and gambling houses by a small and extremely powerful clique of Senior Police Officers. They thought that they were about increase their already considerable influence through their new accomplice, who clearly liked a drink or seven. They were mistaken. As soon as he was appointed Chief Constable Oxford removed them from the temptations of territorial command, and caroused with them no more.
In later service I drank with Oxford on a guest night at the Police College. As the night went on he withdrew from the conversation and watched like a hawk as his less careful colleagues imbibed to excess and lost some of their inhibitions. (So far as I can remember.) One Officer decided to tell him exactly where he was going wrong. Oxford listened carefully, smiled grimly and nodded occasionally. I had to go and get the Officer out of bed the next day. He was remorseful in the extreme, and feared for his career. When he eventually got promoted people thought they had picked the wrong Jones. Sir Kenneth was in many ways a liberal Police Officer for the times, and pioneered the use of cautions for minor offences including the unlawful possession of drugs. However he had a fiery temper, was reluctant to accept advice and was dismissive of criticism. He feuded with both the Chair of the Police Authority Margaret Simey and with Alison Halford the Country’s first female Assistant Chief Constable. He seemed to view their close relationship as a threat rather than a strength.
By the time Oxford met with Community Leaders from Toxteth they had formed into the militant and radical Liverpool 8 Defence Committee. Unlike Houghton he acted upon their complaints. He transformed the Task Force into the Operational Support Division (OSD) and controversially banned them from patrolling in Liverpool 8. Whilst monitoring the South African Police I was told of a unit became so notorious for their unnecessary violence that their name was changed and their vehicles were painted a different colour. Their personnel, equipment, operating principles and activities remained the same. This was not the case in Merseyside. Each time the name of the Squad has been changed from Commando to Task Force to Operational Support Division and more recently to Matrix its style has become less aggressive, and their work has become more sophisticated so that Matrix now target Organised Crime Groups and Gun Crime. Still, I am sure that the DNA of the Commandos still lurks somewhere in the chromosomes of Matrix, that they are a squad rather than a unit.
To encourage cultural change Oxford placed the OSD in the charge of Chief Superintendent Don ‘The Don’ Grieve, one of his erstwhile drinking partners, Superintendent George Wareing who had been a Syndicate Director on my Special Course and the redoubtable Chief Inspector Peter Smith. This was a team who encouraged neither aggression nor duplicity. The OSD were now focussed on harvesting shoplifters in the City Centre, easy ‘handovers’ which counted as crime detections and looked good as statistics . They perpetuated the focus on outputs rather than outcomes. Toxteth was off the agenda, and Officers who sailed to close to the wind soon found themselves ‘binned’ and sent back to their Divisions.
Here was the crucial difference between Sunny Jim the Smiling Assassin and Lumpy Head. Houghton took a hard line but avoided conflict. Oxford did the opposite. Despite his attempts at conciliation the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee viewed him as an aggressive and unsympathetic racist. It was to cost him and the Force dear.
Oxford also differed from Sir James Anderton, another outspoken controversial and idiosyncratic Chief Constable who reigned at the other end of the East Lancashire Road in Manchester. Anderton thought that he was Oliver Cromwell in an earlier incarnation and behaved as if he was God in his current one. He campaigned against the organised crime gangs that controlled the sex trade and illegal drinking clubs in Manchester, and successfully drove down drink related crime and disorder whilst alienating the gay community on behalf, he claimed, of the ‘general public.’
Anderton and Oxford were fierce rivals. There is a story in which Anderton had his driver ring Oxford in his office and inform him that he had Mr Anderton waiting to speak to him from the car phone, a new invention. Oxford immediately ordered his secretariat to have a car phone installed in his vehicle. He then got in the car and ordered his driver to ring Anderton’s driver. The following conversation took place.
Oxford’s driver. ‘Mr Oxford wants to speak to Mr Anderton on his car phone.’
Anderton’s driver. ‘Mr Anderton is on the other line.’
This story has been told about other competing leaders elsewhere. It might not be true. The significance is that it is Anderton who comes out on top.
They were both in Office when the Toxteth riots broke out. There are many reasons why these riots were so uniquely violent intense and vicious. Poverty and crime and disorder go hand in hand, and unemployment was rife as the City’s docks and factories foundered. The council re housing policy of moving the poorer tenants from slums into new properties had caused widespread discontent, and employers in the nearby city centre were notoriously reluctant to employ black citizens. Riots in London and Bristol inflamed a range of grievances, and showed that the Police would struggle to cope with a determined insurrection. Police Officers are often the victims of the failings of others. It goes with the cloth.
This is not to say that the Force was an innocent victim. Policing in Liverpool and Bootle in general and in Liverpool 8 in particular had systematic and structural problems. The Divisional boundaries were ill conceived. Upper Parliament Street, a major thoroughfare with bars and clubs marked a Divisional boundary, so that patrols operating in the area came under two different commands and two separate communication channels. There was no strategy for policing the area Mobile Patrols responded to incidents then drove away. When Officers were deployed on foot they were often looking for criminals, and indiscriminate and inflammatory stop checks were a standard tactic. The plainclothes section rules the local clubs with a strong hand and raided and closed those that they considered troublesome with impunity. Although Oxford had banned the OSD from the area they still prowled around the edges, and could enter in hot pursuit of suspects, an exception that rioters soon exploited. Critically there was the sense in the community that Oxford and the Officers he lead were hostile intolerant and unwilling to listen.
Sir Kenneth Newman was a successful and influential senior Police Officer who was Chief Constable of the RUC, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Commandant at Bramshill and an HMI. He devised the tactics and equipment intended to combat violent disorder in the late 70s and early the 80s. This were not his finest work. There is an unwritten law in military history, ‘Plan for the next war, not the last one.’ This law was ignored by the French, who built the superbly impregnable Maginot line between France and Germany after the horrors of the trenches in the First World War. It was followed by Hitler who drove his tanks into France through undefended Belgium. Newman planned to quell disorder similar to that which had occurred during the celebrated Grosvenor Square Riots of 1968. Here a large crowd of predominantly left wing students tried to force their way into the American Embassy as part of a demonstration against the Vietnamese War.
A casual reader of contemporaneous accounts may think that this was just an elaborate ritual. Demonstrators were reported to have tore up a plastic fence, uprooted parts of a hedge and broke a number of windows. This happens in my street most nights. However the event extensively filmed surviving clips show a fierce and protracted battle in which stones firecrackers and smoke bombs were thrown at Mounted and Foot Officers engaged in close combat with the rioters. The statistics show that there were nearly 250 arrests and 50 people, half of them demonstrators and half of them police officers were taken to hospital.
The Grosvenor Square Demonstration caused a great deal of concern. Unprotected Police Officers had struggled to control demonstrators and new tactics were required to stop them forcing their way past Police lines. Newman introduced bussing and debussing in which Police Officers practised getting on and off them in sequence, and introduced long protective shields to protect small snatch squads who were meant to dart out to grab troublesome demonstrators. Had Grosvenor Square happened again these tactics would probably have worked. It didn’t . Toxteth was very different. The rioters hadn’t read the manual.
By 1981 broke out Joe Squires was the Chief Superintendent of the Division which covered half of Liverpool 8, along with a stretch of the City reaching out through the suburbs of outer Liverpool beyond what is now John Lennon Airport. I returned to duty as a patrol Inspector in 1981 having spent a few years at Manchester University. I was posted to Belle Vale which was one of the suburbs under Joe’s command. It was not as nice as it sounds but nowhere near as volatile as Liverpool 8, where the Bobbies complained that when they tried to make an arrest that neighbours and passers by would try and ‘spring’ the prisoner, and that threats and bricks were routinely flung at them. Intelligence gathering interpretation and dissemination was poor, and Joe got to hear very little of what we would now call Tension Indicators, in part because his staff were scared to tell him. Even if they had there was not much that he could have done.
In July the OSD were famously lured into Toxteth in pursuit of a couple of youths on a motor bike. It is suspected that there were arrangements to attack them at a set location but they caught up with their quarry before they got that far. The fracas that followed as the rider escaped developed into full scale riot that lasted for several days. Joe Squires strode out onto the streets to confront the rioters and was attacked injured and taken to hospital, leaving the Division leaderless. After a few hours of running fights badly shaken Officers were ordered to reassemble in the yard of Wavertree Police Station, which lay just outside the Liverpool 8 area. George Wareing of the OSD addressed them. He had also been bravely engaged in the fighting and had sustained a large and very visible cut where a well aimed brick had struck the top of his hairless head. George informed the disgruntled survivors that they had made a tactical withdrawal to allow the area to settle down, and that Senior Officers were seeking to negotiate with Community Leaders. This neither reassured nor appeased his audience who knew a headlong retreat when they had been in one and considered negotiating with Community Leaders a form of treason. Having finished his briefing George decided to enquire as to the welfare of the Officers thus.
Superintendent Wareing. ‘Is anybody injured?’
Disgruntled Police Officer towards the back. ‘Only you, you stupid get!’
It made it all almost worth it, but worse was to come.
Assistant Chief Constable,