07/08/2011 09:53 BST | Updated 07/10/2011 06:12 BST

War and Police: Containment Lost

We may be 26 years on from the Broadwater Farm Estate Riots, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it was 1985 all over again judging from the scenes on our television screens.

But there is a marked difference between the unforgivable criminality we are seeing now, and the unforgivable criminality of nearly 30 years ago, when PC Keith Blakelock was hacked to death by a man whom I cannot name.

The Metropolitan Police Service then, like the Metropolitan Police Service now was not perfect, but older readers will remember that 26 years ago, Police Officers in comparatively primitive riot gear were engaging with rioters - and I know this might sound a bit silly, but cops were actually arresting people for committing crimes, rather than photographing them and popping round for tea and a taped interview after the event.

One former Met Officer who has asked not to be named, told me,

"The main problem, which was backed up by Lord Gifford's Public Inquiry in to the disorder was that senior Officers were keeping us in check for political reasons, and police officers from Mars will certainly be hoping that the senior ranks will have learnt from previous mistakes - but you can call me a suspicious old policeman if you like when I tell you that I doubt they will".

Another retired officer simply commented,

"They didn't actually lose control last night - because they didn't have it in the first place !"

But in 1985, violence and protest was mostly restricted to the Broadwater Farm Estate, which is why this weekend's disorder is different. A large number of local residents have crossed the line of peaceful protest, as called for by the family of 29 year-old Mark Duggan (shot dead in an armed incident last Thursday), and across the line of criminality.

Earlier, speaking to talkSPORT's Mark Saggers, I was asked why the police weren't arresting people who were committing serious criminal offences in front of their very eyes, and you know, the answer I gave on behalf of senior officers just wasn't convincing, not even for me. The general wisdom now is that it's best to film offenders and identify and deal with them down the line, when in the view of the boss classes, the situation and public danger would not be wound up any further. Of course, an old fashioned view might suggest that by watching police officers do nothing when serious offences such as arson and LOOTING are openly taking place, that the rule of law is lost, and that others may be encouraged to join in the mass disorder.

For clarity, I am not judging the actions of police officers over the weekend, but the public will now rightly want to know how millions of pounds worth of damage was done all over Tottenham High Street, how public safety was apparently put at risk by police and firefighters not taking instant action to deal with blazes and to arrest those who caused them, and how "pockets of criminality" as the Met are describing the scattered nature of events, have been allowed to develop.

Of course, we should be fair to the Met' in noting that the landscape of policing is very different today, with mobile smartphones and Citizen journalism ready to pounce upon the every move of officers. Senior Officers I have spoken with are concerned that an apparent overreaction could worsen an already volatile situation come sunset - but commanders are considering drafting Officers in from all over the Met force area, and I understand, possibly Hertfordshire and Kent too.

It is crucial to remember that the event that appears to have sparked this weekend's carnage is under investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. We have heard reports that Mr Duggan was armed, and the Metropolitan Police say that a bullet was recovered from an Officer's airwave radio - but to my lasting regret, we learn from Stockwell that these matters need the independent verification they are now receiving, or not as the case may be. In the meantime, even peaceful protesters must understand that there is little point in prejudging the investigation. As for the rioting and looting criminals, well they're beneath contempt.

And so as a substantial part of North London burns, it's now time to revisit the nationally practiced system of containment and policing of public order disturbances? My prediction is that this will be key to any future autopsies of events,

In 1985, the focus was on containing violence in the smallest area possible, and to instantly regain the rule of law - now it's blocking streets with London busses, and protecting health and safety regulations. Believe me, experienced serving officers kind of like the old way.

PC Keith Blakelock lost his life as part of efforts to uphold his Oath of Office - and for that, he has our lasting respect.

"The primary object of an efficient police is the prevention of crime: the next that detection and punishment of offenders if crime is committed. To these ends all the efforts of police must be directed. The protection of life and property, the preservation of public tranquility, and the absence of crime, will alone prove whether those efforts have been successful, and whether the objects for which the police were appointed have been attained" (Richard Mayne, 1829 in setting out the test and purpose of establishing the police).