British PM rows with police over 'zero tolerance' strategy

14th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Sunday a "zero tolerance" crackdown on street gangs after recent riots, fuelling a row with police over plans for the US "supercop" behind the tough strategy.

Police chiefs criticised Cameron's decision to hire ex-New York police supremo Bill Bratton in a bid to 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.

Interior minister Theresa May backed Cameron, saying the public wanted "tough action".

Bratton himself, however, said zero tolerance is "a phrase I hate".

"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 wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper.

Instead the expert, who is credited for tackling gang violence in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, listed a raft of measures including understanding how gangs work and using injunctions to curb their activities.

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

"I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them," Hugh Orde, the head of the British police chiefs' body, told The Independent on Sunday newspaper.

Orde, a leading candidate to take over as head of London's Metropolitan Police after the previous leader was felled by a phone-hacking scandal, added: "It seems to me, if you've got 400 gangs, then you're not being very effective."

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

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

More than 2,140 people have now been arrested in connection with the riots, of whom around 1,000 have been charged.

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.

More than 1,500 people observed a minute's silence at a peace rally in Birmingham in Britain's industrial midlands later Sunday, police said.

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.

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.

© 2011 AFP

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