History of the Metropolitan Police
Brixton Riots, 1981
These were the first serious riots of the 20th century, and the first entailing substantial destruction of property since the formation of the Metropolitan Police.
A serious increase in street robbery in Lambeth caused the District Commander to institute a plainclothes operation known as Operation Swamp 81, which resulted in a significant number of black youths being stopped and searched. This intensified the resentment of a group who already frequently protested against and obstructed police actions on the street.
On Friday 10 April 1981, PC Margottia (L 643) tried to assist a black youth who had been severely stabbed. The young man, thinking he was being arrested, broke away with the encouragement of three other youths. Two more officers caught up with him, gave him first aid and summoned an ambulance by radio. Before it could arrive, a crowd of black youths hustled him out of police protection and took him to St Thomas's Hospital by car.
The policemen who had tried to help the youth had bricks and bottles thrown at them, and four police cars coming to their aid were attacked. The disturbance lasted an hour and a half, during which time 6 people were arrested and 6 police officers injured. In the meantime, false rumours spread that the police officers had refused to help the injured young man, that they had tried to prevent him from being taken for treatment, and even that they had inflicted his injuries themselves.
As a result there was a great deal of tension in the district when the Operation Swamp searches were continued the next day. The riot was triggered by the actions of two young PCs who saw a man putting something in his socks, and searched him on suspicion of carrying drugs. Although he protested that he merely kept his money in his socks for safety, they proceeded to search his car, and walked round it to check the tax disc and licence plates. To the small crowd which had gathered to harass the officers, this appeared as provocative authoritarianism. Violence broke out, eventually centring on Railton Road, where the police only regained control after many buildings and cars had been set alight and the Fire Brigade had been attacked.
299 police were injured, and at least 65 civilians. 61 private vehicles and 56 police vehicles were damaged or destroyed. 28 premises were burned and another 117 damaged and looted. 82 arrests were made. Molotov cocktails were thrown for the first time on mainland Britain. There had been no such event in England in living memory.
Lord Scarman was appointed by the Home Secretary to hold a Public Inquiry. The report concentrated on the policing rather than the underlying causes of the report, but made it clear that the riot was an outburst of violence against the police, and that local community leaders and police should share the blame for the breakdown in communications. It also stated that the police needed to be better organised for riot control, and made clear the extent to which increasing unemployment coupled with discrimination against the black community in a variety of ways were vital contributory factors.
Important practical lessons were learnt from the experience, which were applied in later riots.