Police stand by watching as protesters move close to a burning police car on Saturday night in Tottenham. For many it evoked painful memories not of the Second World War. Photo: DEMOTIX
Britain’s biggest police force is facing criticism after it let looters run riot in north London for almost 12 hours, in some of the worst scenes of street disturbances seen in recent years.
Tottenham riots: police let gangs run riot and loot
Telegraph | Aug 7, 2011
By Martin Beckford, Mark Hughes, Duncan Gardham and Tom Whitehead
The Metropolitan Police said it was focused on containing violent disorder in Tottenham on Saturday night, which left dozens of officers injured and saw squad cars, shops and flats burned to the ground.
But its tactics meant gangs of youths were free to break into stores at nearby Tottenham Hale retail park and in Wood Green, with looters forming an orderly queue in broad daylight to steal from a sports shop.
Riot police did not intervene to stop the looting in some areas until 7.30am the following morning, almost 12 hours after the riots began, and last night there were fresh disturbances in Enfield.
Police defended their actions, saying that their priority was to avoid loss of life in the violent clashes that started after a peaceful gathering outside a police station, held to protest a fatal shooting by Met officers on Thursday.
Metropolitan Police Commander Adrian Hanstock said that police took a decision to devote resources to the scene of the riot rather than the looting.
He said: “What you have to recognise here is that this is opportunistic criminality. These individuals who stole, looted and rampaged through businesses, businesses which are struggling in the current climate, took advantage at a time where police were dealing with some serious incidents that posed a threat to life.
“Of course we are going to focus on fires and people potentially in danger.
“You have got a situation where people have been violent and are setting fire to things. Police officers have to remain in position even after the initial violence dies down.
“It is a very delicate balance. Officers have to consider that by staying here [the riot scene] can I prevent someone being seriously injured or should I intervene when someone is committing a theft that we might be able to investigate afterwards.”
Trouble flared after family and friends of Mark Duggan gathered at the police station on Tottenham High Road at 5pm Saturday afternoon.
The 29 year-old suspected gang member was killed in a taxi on Thursday evening after a surveillance operation.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating amid allegations that officers opened fire first, although it was first claimed that a policeman had been shot and only had his life saved when a bullet hit his radio.
The IPCC was last night forced to deny internet internet rumours that Mr Duggan had been “assassinated” by officers in an execution-style killing where he was shot in the head.
It was widely rumoured that the riots were then triggered by police violence towards a 16 year-old girl at the protest.
Police say there are “conflicting responses” but some of those at the scene claimed the girl threw an object at the line of officers and was knocked down, prompting retaliation from the crowd, and the allegation spread not only on the street but also on the internet as protesters used mobile phones to keep in touch.
By 8.20pm, two police cars had been set alight further up the high street and small numbers of policemen in riot gear were struggling to control groups of youths, faces hidden by hoodies and bandanas, who began targeting nearby properties.
Three hours later a double-decker bus had been torched and homeowners were forced to flee burning homes and small businesses in one of the poorest areas of the capital. Fire crews were unable to reach the blazes because of the threat posed by the crowds.
Brian Coleman, the Leader of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: “It is simply unacceptable that fire crews were threatened when they were trying to help protect local people. This mindless violence against firefighters has to stop.”
One of the biggest shops on the high street, a 1930s building home to several flats as well as a branch of Carpet Right – the chain run by Lord Harris of Peckham, a Conservative donor – was destroyed by flames.
Stuart Radose, who lived above the burned-out carpet shop, said: “It looks like the Blitz, where we were living. You could see things getting worse and worse, and there just didn’t seem to be a police presence at all.”
For many it evoked painful memories not of the Second World War but of the 1985 riots at the nearby Broadwater Farm estate, during which PC Keith Blakelock was murdered.
Speaking from his home near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, his son Mark, a 39-year-old retail director, said: “What has happened in London has brought back memories.
“It is distressing to see the images on television.
“My thoughts are with the families of the police officers who have been injured.”
By midnight fire engines were able to start putting out blazes on the high street while lines of riot officers drafted in from across the capital advanced, with the help of mounted police.
But witnesses said anarchy still reigned down the many side streets in the area, with cameramen and TV crews attacked by the mob.
Youths were seen calling friends on their mobile phones to join in the mayhem, with claims that many of the worst troublemakers were not locals. It was even suggested that the area’s gangs, who do not normally encroach on each other’s territories, put aside their differences for the night.
Some appear to have realised that the police had their hands full in Tottenham, and that there were richer pickings to be had in shopping districts elsewhere.
Less than a mile to the east, looting began at the retail park near Tottenham Hale underground station, not far from where Mr Duggan had been shot dead. Teenagers and adults were reported to have turned up in cars to fill their boots with stolen goods from branches of Currys and Argos, with every single handset taken from a mobile phone shop.
One woman was seen casually inspecting pairs of trainers and police arrested some at the scene as late as 7.30am.
The focus of the looting was at Wood Green about two miles away to the east. Eyewitnesses there around midnight said they saw no police presence, and a passer-by filmed leisurely looting still taking place at about 5.30am – more than nine hours after the original trouble.
Clips taken from a passing car and uploaded to YouTube, the video-sharing website, show young people running out of a branch of H&M with bags of clothes in broad daylight.
Further along Wood Green High Road, a crowd had gathered outside JD Sports and youths appeared to be waiting patiently for their turn to steal trainers, T-shirts and rucksacks.
Other footage showed a youth pushing a shopping trolley laded with stolen goods and others who had apparently filled suitcases.
Branches of T-Mobile, Body Shop, Boots and even Vision Express, the opticians, also had windows broken and stock taken.
When the passer-by who filmed the JD Sports looting returned to the spot, at close to 6am, police vans with blue lights flashing had finally arrived at the scene.
Rochelle Alexander, 34, a TV production manager, said: “They were ransacking H&M, Boots and Vision Express in the Wood Green Shopping Centre.
“Young girls of every ethnicity were turning up. It was like they were shopping at 3am. They were using shopping bags from the shops and just walking out. People were pulling up in cars. The tills were all on the floor and there were no police.
“Around the same time, they started attacking the Tottenham Hale retail park. It was just an excuse.”
Scotland Yard said 26 officers were injured in the riot while 55 people were arrested for offences including violent disorder, burglary and theft. Firefighters attended a total of 49 blazes. An investigation named Operation Withern was opened to find more of the perpetrators.
Smoke was still rising from the charred remains of vehicles and buildings as local politicians and community leaders arrived to survey the scene.
Speaking from behind the crime scene tape, David Lammy, the locally-raised Labour MP for Tottenham, said: “A community that was already hurting has now had the heart ripped out of it.”
But it was not until lunchtime when the first Government figure emerged as Lynne Featherstone, a junior Home Office minister who happens to be the MP for Wood Green, gave a short statement to “utterly condemn” the “attacks on police and property”.
The family of the man whose death led to the original protest said they did not condone the rioting.
His brother, Shaun Hall, said: “Please don’t make this about my brother’s life, he was a good man.”
By the afternoon rumours were rife that further trouble was planned for the evening, and shops closed early in Enfield Town in case it spread there. Reinforcements were brought in from police forces surrounding London to ensure a tougher response.
Mr Duggan’s fiance, Semone Wilson, insisted the trouble was not planned and that the family only wanted to know the circumstances of the shooting. “If we have got answers yesterday when we were asking for them I doubt this would have happened,” she said.
Last night the Independent Police Complaints Commission took the unusual step of announcing details of Mr Duggan’s death in a bid to end to rumours that he was killed in a ‘execution’ style shooting.
A spokesman said: “Speculation that Mark Duggan was ‘assassinated’ in an execution style involving a number of shots to the head are categorically untrue.
“Following the formal identification of the body Mr Duggan’s family know that this is not the case and I would ask anyone reporting this to be aware of its inaccuracy and its inflammatory nature.”
Last night reinforcement officers from other police forces were called in to assist as the Metropolitan Police anticipated further disturbances. Officers from Thames Valley, Essex, City of London, Surrey and Kent were drafted in.
Last night the violence appeared to be spreading to Enfield, further north in London, where breeze blocks were thrown through the window of a police car in Enfield Town and shop windows were smashed.
It comes at a turbulent time for Scotland Yard. The force has faced huge criticism for its handling of the phone hacking scandal.
Two of its most senior officers, including the commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, were forced to resign over the issue meaning the Met is currently searching for a new leader.
There is also an ongoing internal investigation after a handful of police officers were alleged to have received bribes from News of the World journalists for information.