It is interesting, but on second thought not surprising, that British Prime Minister David Cameron should turn to an advocate of community policing, William J. Bratton, in the aftermath of the riots in the United Kingdom.
Bratton was most the police chief in New York City till 2009 and before that the chief of police of a demoralized and compromised Los Angeles Police Department in the mid-1990s. If you remember, that was after four LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King. The subsequent acquittal of three of the officers and no verdict in the case of the fourth sparked riots that occurred for several nights in 1992 in South Central Los Angeles. In a radio sound bite, Bratton mentioned that the introduction of community policing in Los Angeles had led to good, even excellent police/community relationships based on a survey.
When we think of rioters, we typically see them as anonymous groups of young men, with unharnessed energy and high testosterone levels who would disturb, destroy and instill fear, and who are bent on creating chaos and disorder. They are like the enemies in current or past military engagements that have to be marginalized, incarcerated, even stamped out. They are threats to the fabric of our communities and have the potential to turn viable neighbourhoods into blackened and burnt out war zones. Like the enemies in war, they are perceived as having no personal history, relationships, social or familial status as sons, brothers, uncles or boyfriends.
My understanding is that community policing has the capacity to repatriate these identities that are lost in the mob psychology of a riot or in the environment of gangs. If the police force knew Tom, Dick and Harry on the basis of their activities, relationships and social network; knew their attitudes, potential for aggression and motivations; these men would no longer be anonymous. Police intervention then is no longer a quasi-military operation, but a specific task of personal and professional association. How this develops depends of course on how the wider society perceives it’s young men and what preventive strategies it puts in place.
Some young men might be lost to criminal lifestyles or marginalized, but planning and social mentorship need to be a conscious activity of government, communities, social agencies and the police.