In the immediate aftermath of the August 2011 English riots, the media identified the causes as being centred around a feral underclass of youths who lived in inner city areas and who took advantage of certain opportunities to acquire specific property, mainly electrical equipment and sports clothing. The media put the blame on a ‘want something for nothing’ mentality that it believes has permeated society, much to society's detriment. However, how accurate was the media’s portrayal of those involved?
Two months after the riots and looting, 1,400 of those arrested are still ‘in the system’ and their specific details are yet to be known. However, those who have been charged and prosecuted have allowed certain data to be generated. The ages of those found guilty and their criminal past – if it existed – have been made available.
The breakdown of the ages of those convicted to date is:
Age 10-17: 364 persons
Age 18-20: 525 persons
Age 21-24: 365 persons
Age 25-30: 235 persons
Age 31-34: 83 persons
Age 35-39: 48 persons
Age 40+: 95 persons
Therefore of those who have been through the courts, 889 have been aged 20 years old or less – about 52% of all those convicted to date (October 23rd 2011). During the whole of 2010, the number of children/youths aged between 10 and 20 convicted of some form of criminal offence made up 31% of all cases. During the 2011 August riots, this figure was reached alone by those convicted in the 10 to 17 years age bracket.
The most common conviction to date (October 23rd 2011) has been for burglary, which so far has made up nearly half of all convictions.
Crimes convicted of:
Violent disorder: 27%
Other disorder offences: 11%
Criminal damage: 2%
Those convicted have been on the end of a robust sentencing policy. The Ministry of Justice justified such a policy by saying that robust sentences would deter anyone else from engaging in such criminal activities in the future. The average custodial sentence for violent disorder committed during the August riots has been 10.4 months. Similar offences in 2010 were punished with an average custodial sentence of 5.3 months. The average sentence for conviction for theft has been seven months in prison.
73% of those who have appeared in court to date have previous criminal records. Those with a criminal record have on average committed fifteen previous offences. The most common is theft and /or handling stolen goods. 27% of those charged had no previous criminal conviction.
Arguments have continued as to the importance of gangs with regards to the riots and looting. Some of the media believed that once the riots started in Tottenham, it gave a green light for gangs in north London to embark on a looting spree. So-called ‘hood passes’ were given out – this is an agreement, albeit temporary, that allowed gangs from outside of Tottenham to come into the area to participate in the looting. Those who believe that much of the looting was coordinated by senior gang members point to the fact that the shops that were most targeted were electrical hardware shops such as Curry’s and Comet and sportswear shops such as JD Sports and Footlocker. The same shops seemed to be targeted once the riots spread to other parts of London – certain shops seemed to be ignored in terms of looting while others throughout the capital where the riots occurred were the same as were initially targeted in Tottenham. The same pattern was seen in other English cities. Those who believe gangs were involved in the riots claim that these shops were targeted as a result of specific orders from senior gang members who orchestrated movement via smart phones. Those at the bottom of the gang ladder did the looting and physically moved the stolen goods into the cars of more senior gang members.
However, not everyone shares this view. Gavin Knight, author of ‘Hood Rat’, points out that some of those arrested clearly were not gang members – if only because of their age. Currently (October 23rd 2011) 461 people convicted and sentenced have been over the age of 25 – 27% of the total convicted to date. As a result of their research, the Centre for Social Justice puts an effective age limit of 25 years for gang members. Certainly those aged 30 years and above would not fit into a classic gang ‘mould’ and the figure for this group is currently 226 convicted – 13% of the total convicted to date. A graphic designer, a teaching assistant and university students have all been successfully prosecuted and, again, these people would not be seen as being classic gang members. Those who do not believe that gangs were at the heart of the riots also do not support the belief that smart phones were at the centre of organisation. They believe that individuals contacted friends via smart phones and that these people then contacted their friends but that there was no darker side to this form of communication – no organised gang input. John Pitts, a criminologist, has pointed out that riots were the last thing gangs needed if they were to function as they normally do with their involvement in crime. The riots eventually flooded the streets of the cities involved with police officers and their support vehicles. Police helicopters aided identification of those on the ground. Shrewd gang leaders would also have known that CCTV would have been used by the police after the riots to identify looters. However, Pitts does concede that low ranking gang members may have seen the riots as a one-off opportunity to get goods that they could sell on for a small profit but that it was highly unlikely that any gang leaders – the so-called gang elders – have been arrested and charged.