British PM in row over 'zero tolerance' strategy

14th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Sunday a "zero tolerance" crackdown after recent urban riots, fuelling a row over plans for the US "supercop" behind the strategy to advise the government.

Police chiefs in Britain criticised Cameron's decision to hire ex-New York police supremo Bill Bratton to help prevent a repeat of the violence in which five people died, saying a home-grown policy would be better.

"We haven't talked the language of zero tolerance enough, but the message is getting through," Cameron told The Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

A four-day frenzy of looting and arson in London and other major English cities has sparked a nationwide debate on the causes and possible responses, with just a year to go until the capital hosts the 2012 Olympics.

The Conservative premier accused some people of over-complicating explanations for simple criminality but admitted that underlying social factors including "deeply broken and troubled families" had to be addressed.

"They were nicking televisions because they wanted a television and they weren't prepared to save up and get it like normal people. The complicated bit is why are there so many, why is there this sizeable minority of people who are prepared to do this?," he said.

In a phone call with Cameron, US President Barack Obama commended the "steadiness" shown by politicians and the police in their handling of the riots, Downing Street said.

But Bratton himself said zero tolerance is "a phrase I hate", listing instead a raft of measures including understanding how gangs work, using injunctions to curb their activities, and getting former members to help intervene.

"I would not advocate attempting zero tolerance in any country. It's not achievable. It implies you can eliminate a problem and that's not reality," Bratton, credited for tackling gang violence in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

He is due to come to Britain later this year.

Britain's top policemen -- already angered by government plans to cut force budgets as part of wider austerity measures, and by Cameron accusing them of being slow to react to the riots -- were in no mood for lectures from anyone.

Hugh Orde, the head of the British police chiefs' body and a leading candidate to take over as head of London's Metropolitan Police after the previous leader was felled by a phone-hacking scandal, criticised the move to bring in Bratton.

"I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them. It seems to me, if you've got 400 gangs, then you're not being very effective," Orde told The Independent on Sunday newspaper.

Acting Metropolitan Police chief Tim Godwin accused the government of "inconsistency" over how tough the police were expected to be, following allegations of heavy-handedness in the G20 protests in 2009.

More than 2,140 people have now been arrested in connection with the riots, of whom around 1,000 have been charged. Godwin said he expected around 3,000 people to face the courts over the riots.

He said commanders would decide on Monday whether to scale down the surge of officers on London's streets, currently at 16,000.

The first people to be charged over some of the deaths in the riots appeared in court on Sunday.

Joshua Donald, 26, and a 17-year-old male who cannot be named appeared at Birmingham Magistrates' Court charged with the murder of three men hit by a car while defending their neighbourhood against looters in Britain's second city.

Thousands of people were expected to attende a peace rally in Birmingham in Britain's industrial midlands later Sunday.

West Midlands police chief Chris Sims said he had been invited to address the meeting, saying it showed that policing was seen as "part of the solution" not part of the problem" in the area.

He added that it "feels a million miles from the debates apparently raging in Westminster."

That debate shows no sign of letting up.

An Angus Reid poll in the Sunday Express newspaper found that 72 percent supported the reintroduction of compulsory national service for 18-year-olds, while 70 percent backed stopping welfare handouts for the parents of rioters.

© 2011 AFP

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