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British riot police arrive in front of a burning building in Croydon, South London on August 8, 2011. Now in it's third night of unrest, London has seen sporadic outbreaks of looting and clashes both north and south of the river Thames. (CARL DE SOUZA/Getty Images)
British riot police arrive in front of a burning building in Croydon, South London on August 8, 2011. Now in it's third night of unrest, London has seen sporadic outbreaks of looting and clashes both north and south of the river Thames. (CARL DE SOUZA/Getty Images)

A city in flames, a police force under fire Add to ...

On the fourth night, they finally showed up in force: at least 16,000 police in yellow jackets and riot armour, up from 6,000 the night before, standing in clusters on almost every major street corner across the burned-out and shattered expanses of London’s perimeter, ready to face the rioters.

They were met with taunts and scowls as they marched Tuesday afternoon onto the streets of Tottenham, Croydon and Clapham, where buildings had been allowed to burn to the ground and shops had been looted with little response from an overwhelmed and seemingly disorganized police force.

London’s Metropolitan Police, the world’s oldest modern urban police service, has rarely been so unpopular, and the unprecedented wave of rioting is further damaging the already dismal reputation of the force popularly known as Scotland Yard.

The Met’s woes are legion. Battered by a newspaper-industry corruption scandal that has stripped it of its leadership, it has been accused of using excessive force, including a fatal shooting that triggered the riots, and of being overly cautious in the way it handled them – all the while facing political criticism from all sides.

Prime Minister David Cameron flew back early from his vacation on Tuesday to declare that he would “do everything necessary to restore order to Britain’s streets and make them safe for the law-abiding,” including adding 10,000 police officers, some of them bused in from other cities. (He will also recall Parliament for an emergency session on Thursday.)

But he was not going to accede to demands from MPs and many citizens that he send in the army, employ water cannons or plastic bullets or impose a citywide curfew. Such measures would fill the world’s TV screens with scenes of violence and military occupation only months before London is due to host the Olympic Games.

Mr. Cameron took a gamble that the presence of thousands of extra police, and news that they were “considering” the use of plastic bullets, would deter the young protesters, who appear largely to be motivated by greed and a desire for excitement rather than by political anger or systemic rage.

By midnight Tuesday, that gamble appeared to have paid off, as London avoided the vast conflagrations of Monday night. A far-right group said that about 1,000 of its members around the country were taking to the streets to deter rioters Tuesday. “We’re going to stop the riots – police obviously can’t handle it,” Stephen Lennon, leader of the English Defence League, told The Associated Press.

In Manchester and Nottingham, cities that had previously been involved in unrest, violent rioting took place on Tuesday. But London remained comparatively calm after shops had mainly shut their doors and boarded their windows at 6 p.m. So far 685 people have been arrested in London and the capital's prison cells were overflowing.

Nevertheless, that still left London with a 32,000-member police force that is facing criticism both for having triggered the riots and for having failed to quell them at a moment when it is least able to deal with such challenges.

Only a few weeks before the riots, the chief of the Metropolitan Police Service, Sir Paul Stephenson, and its second-in-command, John Yates, were forced to resign after the Met was linked to the News of the World’s alleged privacy-invading and influence-buying practices. Their close association with the tabloid’s senior editors, some of whom were given jobs on the force, and allegations they had received free gifts from the paper put them at the centre of a political scandal. (A judicial investigation will begin in September).

Tim Godwin, the Met’s acting chief, announced only two weeks ago that the force would have to enter a period of retrenchment and self-examination in order to root out its internal flaws: “Corruption is in no way endemic in the police – we continue to do all we can to root it out,” he said. “We need to learn, we need to change. We accept that.”

But before this process could even begin in earnest, Mr. Godwin and his force were confronted with a wave of seemingly random and unpredictable violence covering the full expanse of a city of 10 million, with little sense of how to respond.

For the first three nights, they held back, largely out of caution: This is a police force that has been denounced for its lethally heavy-handed response to previous incidents of unrest. At a protest against a G20 summit in London two years ago, a year before Toronto’s infamous protest, Met officers made heavy use of the “kettling” technique to contain protesters and ended up striking a bystander to the ground with batons, causing him to die of a heart attack.

That event, and others like it, have left the Met hesitant to use heavy force – and the lack of permanent leadership left them without an effective way to call more than a few thousand officers back from August vacation.

Aggravating the situation further – and making the force even more unpopular – is the confusion surrounding the event that triggered the rioting.

That was the shooting by police last Thursday night of a father of four and alleged cocaine dealer named Mark Duggan. People in the north London community of Tottenham believe Mr. Duggan was shot without provocation while sitting in a car.

There has been a long history of heavy-handed policing, especially toward visible minorities, in Tottenham, and the shooting raised suspicions. A protest in support of Mr. Duggan that began on Friday degenerated into looting and rioting – although the anti-police protesters did not appear to participate in the rioting, and quickly denounced it.

By Saturday night, the riots had become an event unto themselves without any connection to the initial protest or its message.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, a civilian oversight body, released findings showing that Mr. Duggan had been shot twice, once in the arm and once fatally in the chest, and that a non-police pistol found on the scene had not been fired.

While this fell short of proving the protesters right, it did indicate that at least some of their suspicions may have been correct. (A full forensic examination will not be complete for four to six months, the IPCC said.)

At a moment when they are being pressed to become more aggressive in their approach to the rioting, this news may prompt London’s police force to be even more cautious, lest the difficult work of quashing a riot devolves into more injury or death. Trapped between violent excess and cautious inaction, thousands of officers are left in an awkward limbo.

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