Shine A Light

Sandwiches, Red Bull and Public Support: police officers talk about England's riots

A fortnight after a peaceful protest against the shooting dead of Mark Duggan sparked four days of rioting across urban England, police officers tell their stories of violence, sleep deprivation and acts of kindness

Police Review
20 August 2011

A fortnight after a peaceful protest against the shooting dead of Mark Duggan sparked four days of rioting, police officers tell their stories of violence, sleep deprivation and acts of kindness. Reproduced with thanks to Police Review.

Riots-in-Birmingham--Men--007.jpg

The scene where three Birmingham men were killed: Reuters

PC Andy Hewlett, The Met

‘I was returning to my home in Croydon with my partner last Monday, when we saw a branch of Argos being looted.

‘People were pouring out the back of the shop. They had obviously forced open the fire exit and were coming in our direction. Even though I was off duty, I needed to do something, and I made a decision to challenge the rioters. This is our community and where we live. I was quite incensed that this was happening and that spurred me into action.

‘I called the police but was told that no one was available, so I decided to try to block the entrance, while my partner, who is not a police officer, took photos of the rioters. My experiences from both my time in the army during the Gulf War and my police training were at the front of my mind.
‘We were there for around 90 minutes, during which time the furniture store House of Reeves was on fire and burning down.

‘Stones started to be thrown, rioters were approaching us and I realised that some of the people trying to get in knew I was a police officer. I could hear them whispering around: “He’s a copper, he’s a copper.”

‘At that point, they came towards us en masse. It was evident just by their body language what they were doing, they were either going to go through us or get us. It was at that point that I grabbed my partner and pulled him out of there quickly. We had no protective equipment, and managed to get away without sustaining any injuries. I slept well that night knowing that I had done all I possibly could do. If I had closed my door and done nothing then I think that would have stayed with me a lot longer.

‘The ability to challenge inappropriate behaviour is really important in the community, but with the level of violence, disorder and criminality that was taking place, I think there is very little that the community could have done that night without putting themselves at great risk. Faced with a mob in front of you, there is a potential for things to horribly wrong.

‘However, if I was in the same situation, I would do the same thing again. What happened that night was out-and-out criminality.’

PC Scott Davies, West Midlands Police
‘On the Monday of the riots, I worked an 18-hour shift in Birmingham and then 12-hour shifts on the following days. I am riot trained, so have been on standby for that, but mainly I have been closing off main arterial routes into the city centre of Birmingham to limit people coming in. We have been trying to stop any criminals entering the city centre and ensuring that members of the public are not putting themselves in danger.

‘It has been a case of going home to bed and then getting up to come straight back in again. We have been drinking a lot of coffee and getting sleep wherever we can, whether that is in the traffic car or in the office. A lot of people are grumpy about the job but we are sticking together and having a good laugh in between. I think that is the police mentality: if you cannot cry about it, then laugh.

‘There has been no reprieve from work and no time for family life. I have an eight-year-old daughter whom I do not live with anyway, so with my rest days cancelled, I might not get to see her for another week. Other people have had difficulty with childcare. One of my colleagues has four children under five at home, so it is difficult for him, and he was supposed to be moving house last week so that is all on hold.

‘The first couple of days were a bit disappointing, because there was nothing in place to feed us or give us breaks, which was not entirely the force’s fault because we are stretched in all departments, so it is difficult to organise things like this. However, by Wednesday, we had packed lunches and drinks provided, and people did come round and do welfare checks.

‘Holidays have been honoured, although I heard a couple of people were phoned while on holiday and asked to come back in but they have said no.

‘[The Prime Minister] David Cameron mentioned that we have coped, but we have coped on the basis of calling people in from forces across the country, even from Scotland, who are staying here at a cost. I just do not see how that is saving money.

‘Everyone is feeling stretched, but we are all in the same boat, and that means we are all pulling together.’

PC James Gardner, Gwent Police
‘I had been up since 5am on Monday working a day shift when I was called to Gwent Police headquarters and told I was going to London on mutual aid. I had to cancel my evening out and ended up working until 4am the next morning. After staying in Imperial College student halls in central London, we were up at 8am and straight back out to offer public assurance around the city. One of the boys had to miss his daughter’s first birthday. It is just a case of getting on with it now and then piecing together our home lives when we get back.

‘The public reception has been incredible. We have been driving along and people have rolled their windows down to thank us on the road. We have had people coming out of their homes with cups of tea and chocolates. A man with a sandwich van came over and fed us all. One man came out of a Chinese restaurant and said he had put a tab on for officers and they could help themselves. They did not take him up on it as we are not here to take from people, but it was a really nice offer anyway. I had a lovely cup of tea in a family’s house on Wednesday. Met officers seemed pleased to see us too.

‘We have had a few people not so keen. We had a couple of boys down in Brixton saying “Let’s see how you Welsh lads handle the Brixton boys”, but it has been quite quiet generally. We came across one robbery and the offender was pretty shocked when 27 officers came out of the vans. There are so many of us. Every time you drive down the streets every couple of hundred yards there are police. The public love it and it is putting criminals off. I just hope they do not send us home too soon [only for it to] kick off again.

‘We are feeling a bit tired, sweaty and hot but now we are here we want to stay. We can deal with the tiredness. We have been running on tea, coffee, chocolate and adrenaline. We are trained to do this. We want to be here to help and make sure no more of our bobbies are injured.’

Sgt Dave Baines, South Yorkshire Police
‘We have mainly been on reassurance patrols around London, talking to the community and targeting the criminals who have been doing the looting and putting police presence back in the vulnerable communities.
‘I would say 95 per cent of the public are massively behind us. It is unbelievable. In 15 years’ police service, I have never known anything like it.

‘The first night was a bit poor. We ended up at Wellington Barracks [close to Buckingham Palace, home to the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, F Company, Scots Guards and Household Division bands] with 80 people sleeping in the gym sharing two toilets, four urinals, eight showers and two sinks. However, the Met has been really good. We had an apology for first night and we have had so many sandwiches we had to start giving them out to members of the public.

‘Bobbies have given up leave to come down. We had one lad who was supposed to be on annual leave, and one officer who was due to fly out of the country on the Friday and but volunteered to come down and get a train back the day before.

‘I will not forget the first time we came into London in convoy with 13 vans and motorcycles from South Yorkshire and went down to New Scotland Yard. There were four Met bobbies on every street corner on the Edgware Road. People were clapping, cheering and sticking their thumbs up as we came down.

‘The hardest part has been the long hours and we have been in kit for most of the time, which is uncomfortable and warm. We are sweating and people are getting dehydrated.

‘Some of us worked from 7 am on Tuesday and finished at 10.30pm on Wednesday night, with just two hours’ sleep in the middle. There has been lots of Red Bull and we had a chance to rest on Thursday morning.

‘My kids came back from holiday on Tuesday and I was due to see them for the first time in a fortnight but got called down to London. Once again, the week has shown that the average British bobby will drop what they are doing and go out to help people. It is time that the government starts acknowledging our role.’ 


Interviews by Hollie Clemence and Lauren Archell. 

Originally published in Police Review. 

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