Opinion: Security failures left retailers high and dry during August riots

Riot suspects on CCTV
Tom Reeve, editor of SND and CCTV Image

by Tom Reeve, editor of SND and CCTV Image

Staff were extremely frightened by events. Assaulted in their shops or on the way to work or forced to escape through the back of premises as looters poured in the front, many of the people affected must be reconsidering their jobs in retail.

Some shop owners lost everything. Burned out, looted, in some cases assaulted, there was very little security for them on those terrible days in August.

Shopkeepers must be asking themselves, what have we done to deserve this? Is it worth carrying on?

Underinsured in many cases, independent retailers looking forward to getting back on their feet must hope for public support and government largesse.

All very well after the fact, but what support should they have expected when it was all going down?

It’s a time of massive upheaval and shopkeepers have borne the brunt of society’s ills. Scourged by the failing economy and internet shopping, retailers had to stand by and watch a plague of looters strip bare their shops.

Why were they the particular targets of that violence?

  • they were accessible, a source of riches within easy reach;
  • they contained goods which, heavily advertised, had become icons of pleasure, success and status;
  • they had become political symbols, conspicuous displays of wealth, safeguarded by walls of glass and meshes of steel that marked the boundaries between poor and rich.

Depending on your political biases you may take your pick but the truth is all of the above.

Notwithstanding the motives for the riots, watching footage of the violence, I have been struck by the ineffectualness of security.

Undeterred by intruder alarms and security guards, the rioters smashed through laminated glass and tore away steel shutters and grilles. Hooded and masked, they swept through corner shops and shopping centres with little regard for CCTV (that bane of civil liberties!), grabbing armloads of gear before beating a hasty retreat to the streets.

Police, overwhelmed by numbers and wrong footed by the speed of events, picked their battles carefully. Police chasing fleet-of-foot looters equipped with the latest in high-tech communication devices from neighbourhood to neighbourhood wasn’t always an option when groups of rioters were tooled up for pitched battles, intent on burning everything in sight.

CCTV still of riot suspects in London

Politicians and police have turned to CCTV and police photography, claiming they will identify, arrest and prosecute the thousands of people whose images now grace a dozen police websites.

It started as a tacit admission of failure and has evolved into a policy but even a cursory consideration of this claim reveals its banality: Most of the people pictured on those websites will not be identified. The police do not have the technology nor the systems in place to make that many identifications. Good news for the Orwellian conspiracy theorists but bad news for security and crime prevention.

The anonymity of the crowd will protect many of those people because most of them are not known to the police and because, even if they were, most people are very bad at remembering faces. As a police officer once told me, one ***** looks very much like another. As time passes, memories fade and people’s appearances change in subtle, and not so subtle, ways.

Rioters and looters will be emboldened. Retailers will continue to be frightened.

Police and politicians, already burdened with planning for possible terrorist attacks, will now have to factor riots into security plans for next year’s Olympics.

Good luck to us all.

Your opinion

Please share your opinion with us. What was the root cause of the riots? What should the police have done? Is security ineffective? Are you concerned about more riots in the future?

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