Authority and Insurrection Part II
This is the second of two articles examining parallels between challenges to the autonomy of the police and outbreaks of disorder in the early 1980s and the present. Part one examined the build up to these tumultuous events. This piece begins with the commencement of the Toxteth riots, with the Merseyside Police effectively chased out of the area and trouble spreading throughout the North West. It will look at how deficiencies in equipment tactics intelligence communications and leadership hampered Police efforts to initially prevent and eventually restore order, but will also pay tribute to how these troubles were eventually resolved..
In the late 1970s police officers diligently practised bussing and debussing and elaborate drills with long shields, procedures which were redundant in the fighting in Liverpool 8, most of which took place in Upper Parliament Street, a very wide thoroughfare. As the rioters attacked groups of officers carrying long Perspex shields were exposed to attacks from the side. They desperately linked their shields to form a single line across the road. Now they were really in trouble, but from the front. Rioters approached the shield wall at point blank range and threw bricks which conveniently bounced back to them for recycling until they eventually struck someone. More enterprising assailants used cast iron railings and scaffolding poles to puncture the wall. Some engaged in teamwork and dropped lampposts over it. Rioters commandeered milk floats, placed bricks upon the foot pedals and sent them careering towards the lines. They threw hundreds of petrol bombs, made with bottles stolen from the same dairy. Locals still attribute the decline of the milk round to these events rather than to aggressive pricing by supermarkets. Few officers were badly burned but the flames forced them to drop their burning shields, and any breaks in the line were attacked by a second wave of rioters who hurled projectiles to devastating effect. After the first night of rioting my uncle who owned a pet shop in Lodge Lane at the top of Upper Parliament Street rang me and asked if his Mynah Bird would be safe. I assured him that although there may be trouble properties would be safe and there was nothing to worry about.
Later that evening as major unrest broke out again I was sent to Police Headquarters allocated 2 sergeants and 20 constables and marched to Upper Parliament Street where the Rialto, a dancehall converted previously into a furniture store and now into an inferno. We joined the shield wall, making it deeper and harder to miss. I never saw them again as a unit although I may have bumped into a few of the survivors when things quietened down. The noise was deafening and communication via radio was impossible. In any case there was no one in charge to speak to. Some officers blew whistles but no one knew why. It probably made them feel safer. Assistant Chief Constable Austin Rawlinson bravely joined the shield wall but was unable to alter the way the fighting was conducted, he was too close and could not make himself heard. Someone or other was trying to run things from the control room, they were too far away and could not make themselves heard either.
The shield wall plodded on up the road, like and blinded bloodied but determined boxer. At one point it halted alongside a community centre close to a major junction. The centre was surrounded by a formidable fence that was too high for the police to climb but low enough for the rioters to throw heavy objects over. Losses began to mount. I held a hasty conference with a fellow Inspector, who shall remain nameless. A number of expletives have been omitted.
Me. (Pointing forward.) ‘Let’s cross the junction. Then they can’t get us from the side.’’
Fellow Inspector ‘No, they’ll attack us from behind.’
Me. (Pointing backwards.) ‘OK let’s fall back to that building line. Then they can’t get us from the side.’
Fellow Inspector. ‘No, we can’t go back.’
So, we stayed where we were, and they continued to get us from the side. In later life I learned that some people prefer the dreadful certainty of leaving things as they are to the frightening uncertainty of change.
Such was the intensity of the attacks that tear gas was used in a public order situation in the UK outside of Northern Ireland for the first time. It made little difference. If anything the wind was blowing towards the Police lines and the rioters were unaffected and undeterred. Having ran out of canisters authorised firearms officers (AFOs) used ‘Ferrets’, small projectiles designed to penetrate buildings and fill rooms with tear gas. They didn’t work either, at least not as intended. One rioter carrying a lit petrol bomb approached the line along with a small band of accomplices. They were dressed in army camouflage gear and black clothing and looked as if they knew what they were doing. An AFO discharged a ferret aiming, he later claimed, at a traffic signal junction box close to the petrol bomber. He missed his chosen target but the petrol bomber dropped to the floor. His companions attempted to drag him away but then abandoned him as police officers ran towards them. The ferret had struck him in the groin and he was losing blood rapidly. His accomplices took his incriminating clothing from the casualty ward, seriously weakening the prosecution case. He was declared ‘not guilty’ after a retrial and eventually received compensation having been identified as one of a startling number of innocent bystanders. He died soon after. Our lack of equipment had nearly killed him on the spot.
As morning broke the battered shield wall reached the top of Upper Parliament Street and turned into Lodge Lane. Most of the shops were ablaze. We found some old ladies looting a supermarket and told them to go home. They were carrying margarine, and when asked why they hadn’t taken the butter they replied that it was too expensive. Other looters fled from an off licence, save one who had drank so much that he could only crawl. He got arrested, the rest got away. I approached my Uncle’s shop with a sinking heart with visions of a charred Mynah Bird in the wreckage. The shop was intact, guarded by my Uncle and his family and friends. As a resident of Toxteth he had automatically assumed that as I was a Policeman I would be lying when I assured him of the safety of the shop and the bird and had recruited some vigilantes. The following conversation took place.
Uncle Billy. ‘What took you so long?’
Me. ‘I’ve been busy.’
We trudged on.
The |Tactical Aid Group (TAG) Manchester’s equivalent of the OSD turned up to help and, to our intense relief they suffered heavy casualties. If they has saved us life would have become unbearable. Anderton ordered that they were to be properly protected. They located the only ‘proper’ riot helmets in the country and he despatched a vehicle to collect them. This was the decisiveness that gained him the respect of his force. We had to make do with NATO tank helmets, designed to shatter on impact to absorb the force of bullets. Better equipment in the form of cricket boxes shin guards and perhaps most importantly short Perspex shields was found or made and issued. This new kit made it possible to run at rioters without being injured by the missiles they threw, so they ran away. Injuries fell and arrests increased. The pendulum began to swing in the favour of the police.
The riots continued for days, died down and then flared up again. Enter Inspector Jimmy Gibson. He looked like Desperate Dan of The Dandy, was an accomplished athlete had a brain the size of a planet. He went on to become a Commander in the Metropolitan Police but was under promoted. Jimmy knew Liverpool 8 from his time there on patrol, in the Task Force and as a member of the plainclothes section. To help him inform the control room of what was happening he purloined a driver and cruised about in Traffic cars, which were attacked and destroyed on consecutive nights. He went to the Police garage to get another one and was handed a curt note from Traffic Superintendent Gil Hughes informing him that if he didn’t look after this one it would be his last. Realising that his strategic approach was not in step with established practice Jim turned tactical and joined a shield wall at the junction of Upper Parliament Street and Saint Nathaniel Street. Every time the wall moved forward rioters on the first and second floors of the adjoining flats dropped large items including a motor bike and television sets on the officers below. 1980s televisions were not flatscreens, they were more like small warehouses. A well aimed set broke the shoulder of one constable and the skull of the other who were stood slightly to the right of Jon Murphy, the chief constable of Merseyside and I. Some officers still wish it had fallen slightly to the left.
At this point Gibson sidled up to me. I should have run away. The following conversation took place.
Jim “We need to clear the second floor of those flats.”
Me “How are we going to do that?”
Jim “I thought you might take a few guys up there and capture the landing.”
Not for the first time in our relationship Gibson had skilfully switched from ‘We’ to ‘You’ without my noticing.
I gathered a few willing Officers and briefed them as best I could. The noise was deafening and projectiles whistled past our ears. I shouted very loudly and waved my arms as if I were a nineteenth century Missionary converting the Heathen. I was about as successful. I explained that we were going to capture the third landing on the second floor. Some of them nodded which led me to think that they understood and agreed. I have come to realise that I was trying to explain too complex a concept. The next time the shield wall surged forward we raced up the stairs. In accordance with my instructions I ran past the ground floor past the first floor and onto the second floor. The newly formed squad ran past the ground floor and attacked the first floor which was as they interpreted it the second floor. Or landing. Whatever.
The rioters I encountered were mainly women, who screamed and ran away. A lone male hit me on my newly acquired NATO tank helmet and shield with a hammer. I struck him on the arm and head with my baton. If the equipment had been swapped he would have laid me out in seconds, as it was he eventually slumped to his knees. He said, in a French accent, “I am not a bad fellow you know.” My first thought was that continental revolutionaries had joined the insurrection and we were doomed. He turned out to be a sole onion seller who had ridden a bicycle to the North West whilst wearing a beret and a striped vest. He had fallen into a violent relationship with a Kirkby girl and came to hate the police officers who turned up and arrested him.
After a few moments some of the squad wandered up the next flight of stairs out of idle curiosity. They seized upon my assailant restrained him further and dragged him away. He was paroled in time to take part in skirmishes in Toxteth the following summer where he was again restrained, not by me. I have not seen him since and I don’t want to. This brief episode highlighted how ineffective the standard issue equipment was. * Batons are now longer and heavier and I hope, more effective. The NATO helmet may have been good for stopping single bullets it was not so good a taking repeated hammer blows. When I took it off it had split in two. I would have been safer if he had shot it.
As the disorders continued the OSD had taken to driving their carriers and jeeps amongst the rioters, another tactic previously used in Northern Ireland. At first the crews remained in them. Once the rioters realised this they attacked them at close range. This meant that the crews could not get out even if they wanted to. Interviews with participants in last year’s unrest reveal a kind of ecstasy that overtakes rioters. It has to be seen to be believed. One leaped on top of a Carrier and tried to throw a petrol bomb into the vent on its roof. If he had succeeded he would have killed the Officers inside. As it was he nearly killed himself as the petrol bomb exploded at his feet. His intentions were lamentable, his nerve was admirable. These driving tactics led to a controversial death when a partially disabled youth was run over. In another incident a rioter was trapped between a vehicle and a wall in a collision which raised a cloud of dust from the building and broke his back. When challenged about these tactics Oxford replied with the brutal accuracy for which he will be remembered "They can see the vehicles coming and they know what will happen if they get in the way." As the disorder continued the crews took to leaping out of their vehicles and the rioters scattered. The transition phase was difficult.
Although the equipment and the tactics gradually and steadily improved the use of intelligence didn’t. Looters had stashed their booty in the area and although denunciations came in searches were not commissioned for fear of ‘inflaming the situation,’ which would have been quite and achievement. I went to daily briefings and on re emerging was eagerly accosted by my PSU, who asked “What’s happening?” After George Wareing’s misfortune ** I knew better than to tell them that we were undertaking a tactical withdrawal or were consulting with community leaders and I had learned not to enquire about any injuries that they may have sustained. I replied “I dunno” which was true but not helpful.
A form of command and control which formed the foundations of today’s Gold -Silver - Bronze began to evolve. It included all the Superintendents in the Force to spend a week on Night Duty in charge of Toxteth. This was fair. Fairness is a sure sign of a bureaucracy and it doesn’t work in riots. Few of them were trained for what they faced and some of them were not suited to it.
In the last episode of ‘Band Of Brothers’ a series based on a US Airborne Unit in the Second World War the surviving ‘real life’ members were interviewed. When asked about their leaders they said “They got us the equipment we needed and stayed out of the way,”
A Superintendent turned up in Liverpool 8 as per rota. He was nicknamed ‘Aberfan’ for reasons which became obvious.*** He had not seen Band of Brothers (it wouldn’t be made for another 20 years.) and he quickly showed a perverse propensity for micromanagement. We were on standby which given our exhausted condition meant ‘sleep.’ He decreed that we would place half of the PSU on the bus and the other half in the canteen, and that they would swop places every two hours. I pointed out that this meant that no one would get any sleep and that if we were called out to action that to get half of the PSU on the bus would take as long as it would to get them all on. I had after all been trained in both bussing and debussing. The following conversation took place.
Aberfan “My decision is right. It is illogical but it is right.”
Me “Yes Sir!” (Salutes smartly and carries on.)
The eventual training and deployment of cadres meant that whoever was in charge wanted to be there and knew what to do. He wasn’t one of them.
The first four nights of rioting in Liverpool saw 150 buildings burned down and 258 police officers treated in hospital. One of them eventually died, after more than a year and a day, so that under the existent law he was held not to have been murdered. He was. There were further outbreaks into August, with a final toll of 781 police injured and 214 vehicles damaged, mainly thanks to Jimmy Gibson. There were around 160 arrests, but few of these were in those initial outbreaks of violence. If it had been a boxing match it would have been stopped.
When ‘copycat’ riots broke out at Moss Side Anderton gave community leaders the chance to defuse the situation and when this proved unsuccessful he sent in TAG who swiftly restored order. The community leaders appeared on television and explained that the Anderton had told them what he would do if they couldn’t sort it out and had then done it so they couldn’t really complain. There was none of that in Liverpool
The many complex reasons for the riots were lost as the focus turned on Oxford who was forced to take a step back from proceedings. Margaret Simey the Chair of the Police Authority was frustrated by her inability to either influence him or call him to account and observed that the people of Liverpool 8 would have been "apathetic fools" if they had not protested. This may or may not have been true but it was hardly a help at the time. Eventually the disorder died down, but not before an ‘Oxford Out’ march saw several officers stabbed outside the old Police Headquarters in Hope Street. Oxford stayed in and continued to feud with a range of authorities over a range of issues albeit with lower levels of intensity. He was knighted in 1988 retired in 1989 and worked for charities until he died in 1998.
As the dust settled Superintendent Dave Wilmot who was to eventually succeed Anderton as the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester was put in charge of what became known as ‘The Toxteth Triangle.’ He implemented an apparently radical policy in which the area was policed by foot officers alone, with neither mobile nor traffic patrols and a skeleton CID. In fact it was a continuation of the move away from hard line policing that Oxford had introduced before the riots. It was claimed that officers posted to ‘The Triangle’ had bullseyes painted on the back of their tunics to make them easier to hit. The OSD spent their evenings on the borders ready assist when their colleagues came under attack, which they did with chilling regularity. Police horses had not been used in the riots in case the rioters hurt them and police dogs had not been used in case they hurt the rioters, although both sections were keen to get involved. Now dog patrols were an important police presence in Toxteth. .Gradually the violence subsided, partly because the organised crime teams who prospered in this safe environment did not want to bring attention to their business and largely through the bravery of those unsung foot patrols. Toxteth remains a deprived area pitted with ruined and vacant premises with remarkably low levels of street crime and disorder.
Sir Robert Mark, Sir James Anderton and Sir Kenneth Oxford saw that organised crime and disorder were increasing and they each decided to do something about it. Crime prevention and community engagement were small and ineffective departments, ‘bolt ons,’ still in their infancy. Collaboration hadn’t been invented and these men of their time weren’t about to bring it in . They considered operational matters to be theirs and theirs alone and they would not tolerate any form of interference from politicians or authorities or the public. They responded to challenges to their authority by forming squads, which at the time were just about the only tool in their kit bags, but they didn’t work. The myths of Police autonomy and invincibility were shattered on the streets of Toxteth, and they have not returned.
The police of today are better informed trained equipped and led than they were then. The prompt and effective intelligence led operational responses to last year’s riots were followed by thorough investigations and well presented prosecutions that have deterred offenders and encouraged communities. They are more accountable now than it in the early 1980s. Officers of all ranks are called upon to justify their actions far more swiftly and far more often. These changes are not motivated by political extremism or inherent criminality. They are a part of a major and sustained shift in attitudes towards authority.
Interference and assistance are very different things. The one hinders and the other helps. The introduction of Police Commissioners is meant to help, and they may yet prove themselves ‘a good thing.’
Assistant Chief Constable,
* OK my leadership wasn’t too good either...
**See Part 1
***He was a Welsh disaster.