The English Riots: The Autopsy Is Well Underway

In my last column  on 19 August 2011, I commented on the riots that took place in English cities. Soon after the riots, Prime Minister David Cameron, stated his conviction that the riots were the result of a broken society and gangs, which he quickly moved to declare war on. Since then, government, academics and the voluntary and community sectors have been performing an autopsy on the riots and this post outlines with regard to young people’s involvement, some preliminary findings; asks what we can learn from the past and overseas, and what investigations are currently underway.

Ministry of Justice Data

Following the release of data about people charged, prosecuted and convicted, by the Ministry of Justice, in the soberly named Statistical bulletin on the public disorder of 6th – 9th August 2011-October Update,  we can begin to dissect the issue with a forensic approach and taxonomize what happened.

Riot activity: crime type

First off, let us separate the notion of the riots – an unhelpful catchall term, from the different types of criminal activity that took place between 6 -9 August 2011. The argument for doing this is two-fold. Firstly, the term riot naturally implies that we are dealing with public disorder orchestrated and or caused by people conspiring together over one or more identifiable causes. We do not know, although we may now heavily doubt, if this was the case. Secondly, if we are to have a serious debate about the role that social deprivation had in motivating people’s actions, it is helpful to be able to ask questions of emerging data such as: is there a link between the misappropriation of property and indicators of poverty of offenders? Is there a link between people’s previous convictions and the crimes they committed during the disturbances? And so on, without the distraction of trying to figure out if people were revolting or reacting to one particular pressure or event.

By far the biggest crime group of offences are perhaps surprisingly – or unsurprisingly depending on how you view the disturbances, theft offences (63% of offences). By theft offences we mean burglary i.e. people entering premises to steal goods (45%), theft (16%) and robbery i.e. using force (2%). The next biggest crime type is violent disorder (26%), which includes offences such as affray, assault, and so on.

Let’s pause there and ask: was this primarily a violent incident of public disorder, or a chance for opportunists to acquire property? If it was the former, might we not have expected to see a higher percentage of disorder offences than theft offences? Of course, the complicated answer might be, that the ‘riots’ were all of the above and more. But, setting the scene is key for understanding what happened.

Who are the offenders?

At this stage it might be helpful to try and group the offenders into cohorts, because from what we know already, the offenders are a mixed bag. I am mostly interested in the data about young people and I have purposefully not included data on race. 42% of 10-17 year olds who appeared before the courts were in receipt of free school meals. 64% of the same age group were from the 20 most deprived areas in the country and 3% were from the 20 least deprived areas. 66% were classified as having a special educational need and a third had been excluded from school. 30% were classed as persistent absentees from school. Add on top of this the fact that over 70% of offenders of all ages had at least 1 conviction and you have quite a mix of criminality, social deprivation and low educational attainment.

On a prima facie examination of these statistics, we might be able to suppose that there is a core of young people who are not only not getting an education and are poor, but have already committed crime in the past. We might then see other groups of young people clustered around specific risk factors. But, let us not forget those young people who don’t seem to fit the typical offender profile, what do they look like? On the information new have at the moment it is difficult to come up with a clear picture. The general picture however indicates that for a large number of the offenders, social poverty and deprivation is common. The link between social deprivation and crime is attractive, but at this stage still moot to some extent and we should be wary of making conclusions at this stage.

What does history tell us?

It may be helpful to look back in time to youth disturbances in the past. Dr. Andrew Davies, Senior Lecturer of History at Liverpool University has researched extensively on youth and gang violence in 19th Century Manchester. He recently wrote an article for the Guardian, based on his book The Gangs of Manchester,  in response to David Cameron’s views on the riots. He outlined that 19th Century Manchester had a problem with youth gang violence known as scuttling in its poorest districts. The response taken by the city’s magistrates was to set increasingly harsh sentences for the offenders and their families to little effect. Other suggested responses were to heavily increase policing in these poor areas.

According to Davies’ research, the criminal justice system’s response did little to prevent or cure the problem of scuttling. His research showed that a scheme of working lads clubs set up and financed by local people and offering education, training and recreation, played a significant role in the decrease of scuttling towards the end of century.

This is just one example, but we are brought back to the issue of deprivation and its potential role in creating the conditions that nurture youth criminality. The Manchester example would seem to go some way to suggest that policing and punishing the way out of the problem won’t have any long lasting effects, but that tailoring a more positive and constructive response that aims to tackle deprivation will yield better results.

What investigations are currently being carried out?

The above only really scratches the service, which is why I am reluctant to draw conclusions. However, we may soon know a lot more as there are a number of large scale investigations being carried out, which should provide some independent insight to move the debate forward. IARS’ Director, Dr. Theo Gavrielides, in partnership with Simon Fraser University (Prof. Brenda Morrison) are exploring the potential for an evidence based model of restorative justice with riot related cases. Dr. Gavrielides will be visiting the University in British Columbia to present initial research findings and address academia and the public in a series of events starting 7th May.

The Guardian Newspaper and the London School of Economics are also carrying out a large scale empirical study with support from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Open Society Foundation.

On 11 November the Runnymede Trust are holding an event to launch a piece of research Reducing Riots to Gangs; a Critique and a Warning. IARS continues to do its own evidence gathering and work of addressing negative perceptions of young people through the London focused 99% Campaign and its young people have started a new blog in response, which will be launched in December.

There is one other point of interest worth exploring. What many people in the UK might not have realised was that only a few months before the August riots, riots also broke out in Vancouver, Canada following a sports match. 140 people were injured with 4 stabbings and approximately 120 arrests. There was not only violence but criminal damage and looting too. Various disparate theories about why those riots have been suggested, which are not too dissimilar from those suggested about the English riots. If you have any information about the Vancouver riots we at IARS would be interested to hear your views Email or join the IARS LinkedIn group.

They key thing is that we focus on keeping the debate objective, evidence based and politically neutral whilst we still in the fact finding phase.

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