Rioters need to see it’s not fun, says US criminologist
This sort of rioting is thrilling for the participants, says James Alan Fox – it is not a sign of entrenched criminality
Seen from America, the mayhem on the streets of Britain has more in common with "wilding" than rioting of the type that destroyed US cities such as Detroit and Newark in the 1960s.
But British police need to learn from American mistakes and get out of their squad cars and back onto the streets and into communities if it is not to re-occur.
James Alan Fox, professor of criminology and law at Northeastern University in Boston, told The First Post that the immediate response must be a security clampdown using all means necessary short of lethal weapons.
"There has to be an immediate show of force so that the rioters see that this is not so much fun after all," he said. "Use the army only if absolutely necessary. This is not war, and it is much better if the police handle it."
Fox sees the riots as having more in common with violence following a soccer match than a social upheaval. The term "wilding" originated with a gang of teenagers who ran out of control in New York's Central Park in 1989 and, after multiple muggings, gang raped a female jogger.
"This is a contagion of wilding," he said. "It is exciting, thrilling. It can occur randomly after something like a police shooting, and get out of hand. The majority doing the looting and arson see it as fun, and justify it because lots of other people are doing it.
"It is different from entrenched gang activity, and if the police can quickly squelch the rioting, the people involved are not necessarily committed to a life of crime and violence.
"This is not a sign of permanent change in British society."
Fox compares the mayhem to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which were sparked by the acquittal of policemen accused of beating black motorist Rodney King. "A lot of people saw an opportunity to loot and steal stuff," he said. "But once it was controlled, it was over."
However, the LA police lost control of South Central, the heart of the riots. The looters were halted on Olympic Boulevard by Korean shopkeepers armed with rifles, shooting from the tops of their buildings. This is a potentially dangerous lesson for London, where Asian and Turkish business owners have been seen defending their properties in Hackney and elsewhere.
Some American commentators see the UK riots as a harbinger of trouble to come from unemployment, recession and public spending cuts. But Fox is adament: "Economic problems are context, but not motive."
His has been one of the voices behind the 'no broken windows' or 'zero tolerance' policing strategy which American 'supercop' Bill Bratton - suggested for the vacant job of Metropolitan Police commissioner - famously used to halve the New York murder rate in the 1990s.
The strategy has been widely misunderstood - 'zero tolerance' is only part of it. As important are the use of computer tracking techniques to target criminal trends and hotspots, and the philosophy that a city block without broken windows will not host corner drug dealers.
"The lesson we learned in America is that when you put all the cops in cars, it is easy for the cops, and cheaper for the city," said Fox. "But the cop becomes separated, the enemy encased in steel. Interacting with the community is vitally important."
In the face of recession and social tension, Fox is calling for a 'bail-out' of 'at-risk youth'. The government should beef-up 'youth enrichment' and after-school programmes and at the same time flood high-crime neighbourhoods with cops, on the beat.
"It can't wait till the recession subsides," he warns. ·
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