LONDON (Reuters) - British police chiefs on Sunday hit back at Prime Minister David Cameron’s plans to enlist a U.S. crime expert after last week’s riots, as the conservative leader vowed “zero tolerance” against street violence.
Cameron, criticised by some in his party as being too liberal on crime and punishment, has taken a tough stance after four nights of looting and arson hit cities across England.
“We haven’t talked the language of zero tolerance enough, but the message is getting through,” Cameron said in an interview in the Sunday Telegraph.
The prime minister, who has suggested the initial police response to the riots was too timid, has enlisted former New York, Los Angeles and Boston police chief William Bratton to advise his coalition on how to tackle street gangs, which he blamed for much of the violence.
But senior police officers, who have criticised the Conservative-led coalition’s plans for police cuts, have reacted sceptically to the plan. “I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them,” Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, told the Independent on Sunday.
“It seems to me, if you’ve got 400 gangs, then you’re not being very effective. If you look at the style of policing in the States, and their levels of violence, they are so fundamentally different from here,” said Orde, a front runner for the position of head of London’s police.
Cameron has dismissed suggestions that political and economic grievances lay behind the violence which killed five people, calling it “criminality pure and simple”.
More than 2,800 people have been arrested and courts have worked around the clock and during the weekend to clear a third of those cases.
Two men, aged 17 and 26, were charged late Saturday with the murder of three Muslim men knocked down in Birmingham while trying to protect their communities.
About 20,000 people were due to attend a multi-faith peace march on Sunday in the central England city with the aim of keeping a lid on any potential racial tension.
The riots have shocked Britons, many of whom are still asking why the mass disturbances occurred, and were allowed to spread so quickly from London to other major English cities with arsonists and looters seemingly taking over many streets with ease.
A ComRes poll for the Independent on Sunday and Sunday Mirror newspapers found only 29 percent of voters thought Cameron and his government had handled the riots well, while 48 percent were dissatisfied with the response.
The mass disturbances, the worst in decades, began in Tottenham, north London, after a demonstration against the police shooting of a suspect.
Most offenders are unemployed young men, though they have included a millionaire’s daughter, a charity worker, a journalism student and a soldier.
The Liberal Democrats, the junior coalition partner, have been more restrained in their comments, and its deputy leader Simon Hughes, writing in the Observer newspaper, advised against “knee-jerk solutions including over-hasty moves to change the social contract and approaches to sentences”.
Planned police cuts include reducing the national police budget by 20 percent, with the loss of about 16,000 officers, as the government deals with a record budget deficit.
Theresa May, the interior minister, said the planned cuts would go ahead. She told Sky News: “I know it is possible to make cuts in police budgets without affecting their ability to do the job the public want them to do.”
Finance minister George Osborne told the BBC on Saturday that throwing money at the problem was not the answer, saying the country needed to tackle deep-seated social problems.
But the ComRes poll showed 70 percent of people thought the cuts should be immediately reversed.
Opinion polls during the past week have seen Britons calling for stronger police measures, including imposing curfews, being allowed to use water cannon and rubber bullets.
Cities were largely quiet on Friday and Saturday after police flooded the streets again to ensure weekend drinking did not reignite the rioting.
“What became clear was that although the Met had put more officers on the streets on Monday night that hadn’t actually been sufficient,” May told Sky News.
“The Met commissioner came forward with proposals, the prime minister and I were very clear about two things. We wanted to see a presence on the streets, we also wanted to see a tougher arrest policy, that has been followed through.”
The government’s police cuts have been questioned by Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson, less than year before the city hosts the Olympics.
“The general movement (of police numbers) has got to be static or at least upwards, and that is vital for policing in London,” he told Sky.
Editing by Rosalind Russell