Throughout four nights of violence in some London neighborhoods, rioters updated each other on social network sites. Police struggled to get the situation under control.
Following the protests, Prime Minister David Cameron told members of the House of Commons that police and intelligence services would look into “whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
In July, the fatal shooting of a homeless man by public-transportation police led to protests in San Francisco. When another protest was planned, public-transportation authorities shut down all mobile communications. The result: thousands of frustrated riders; a cyber attack by anonymous hackers on Bay Area Rapid Transit; and a Federal Communications Commission inquiry into the matter.
But somewhere between the extremes — struggling to keep up with protests that can be planned with just a few keystrokes and a complete shut down of service — law enforcement agencies need to develop an effective cyber policy.
Five years ago, very few departments were paying attention to social media. Now, they will have to assign officers to monitor the sites. Policing the virtual world – or ignoring it – has real world consequences.
More lessons from London: Following the violence, Cameron placed some of the blame on gangs and promised a “concerted all-out war on gangs and gang culture.”
But to make effective change police and politicians in London need to take a long, hard look at what caused the riots.
The shooting of Mark Duggan, a known offender, was the flashpoint. But underlying the violence were feelings of frustration and pent-up anger at the lack of opportunities in many of the communities where youths took to the street.
There are no jobs and no ways to get ahead. Many felt let down by their government and acted up. There is large unemployment, poverty and an uneven distribution of wealth.
These youths couldn’t really act out against the politicians, but it’s really easy to act out against the police.
Cameron is seeking the aid of William J. Bratton, the former head of the Los Angeles, New York and Boston police departments. Bratton is known for his support of community policing and is credited with improving relationships between the police and the people they are sworn to protect. He’s also a no-nonsense cop, whose zero-tolerance policy means that even the smallest neighborhood infractions will lead to arrests.
For Londoners, rebuilding the damaged neighborhoods and businesses will take a long time. It will be years before the economy improves.
In the meantime, police and politicians need to find a way to communicate effectively with the people in the affected neighborhoods. Perhaps the next time there is a similar shooting, youths will not take to the streets if police and the policed know each other.
The truth is that the vast numbers of protests are civil. The fact that in London there was rioting and looting makes it an extraordinary case. Unfortunately police have to respond to that rare event and they are often measured against it.
We have gone through this before, historically. We can learn from these events. Will we learn? That remains to be seen.