British PM in row over 'zero tolerance' strategy

By Danny Kemp, Agence France Presse

Posted at Aug 14 2011 06:58 PM | Updated as of Aug 15 2011 02:33 PM

LONDON - British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a "zero tolerance" crackdown on gangs after recent riots, despite a deepening row with police chiefs over plans for a US "supercop" to advise the government.

Top British police officers criticized Cameron's move to hire ex-New York police chief Bill Bratton to help prevent a repeat of the violence in which five people died, saying a homegrown model of policing was needed instead.

"We haven't talked the language of zero tolerance enough, but the message is getting through," Cameron told The Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

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.

"They were nicking televisions because they wanted a television and they weren't prepared to save up and get it like normal people. The complicated bit is why are there so many, why is there this sizeable minority of people who are prepared to do this?," he said.

Interior minister Theresa May leapt to the government's defense, insisting it was her job to tell forces "what the public want them to do".

A four-day frenzy of looting and arson in London and other major English cities have sparked a nationwide debate on the causes and possible responses, with just a year to go until the capital hosts the 2012 Olympics.

But Britain's top policemen -- angered by government plans to cut force budgets as part of its austerity measures and by Cameron blaming them for being slow to react to the riots -- were in no mood for lectures.

Hugh Orde, the head of the police chiefs body and a leading candidate to take over as head of Scotland Yard after the previous leader was felled by a phone-hacking scandal, criticized the move to bring in Bratton.

Bratton, credited for tackling gang violence in New York, Los Angeles and Boston, is due to come to Britain as an unpaid adviser later this year.

"I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them. It seems to me, if you've got 400 gangs, then you're not being very effective," he told The Independent on Sunday newspaper.

Acting Scotland Yard chief Tim Godwin accused the government of "inconsistency" over how tough the police were expected to be, following allegations of heavy-handedness in the G20 protests in 2009.

"The views we are hearing now are slightly different to those," said Scotland Yard Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin. "The scale and spread of the violence was and criminal behavior was far greater than anyone could have imagined."

More than 2,140 people have now been arrested, of whom around 1,000 have been charged. Godwin said he expected around 3,000 people to face the courts over the riots.

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

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 neighborhood against looters in Britain's second city.

Police in London meanwhile confirmed they believed the killers of a man found shot dead in a car in south London on August 8 were involved in looting. A suspect arrested over the beating to death of a man in west London on Monday is in custody.

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.

In Britain the public debate over the riots shows no sign of abating.

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.