Identifying criminals: Justice seen to be done

Identifying those who took part in the recent riots in London and other English cities may prove easier than in past disorders, but the recent widespread introduction of surveillance technology brings its own problems, argues Edward Higgs.

Security camera at London (Heathrow) Airport. Photo / Adrian PingstoneIn August 2011, after four nights of rioting, the English public awoke to newspapers full of photographs of looters with headlines inviting them to ‘Shop a Moron’. Many citizens did so, although some grainy images released by the police from closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) were of poor quality and many rioters took the sensible precaution of wearing scarves round their faces. In London some looters even sacked a fancy dress store to acquire masks to hide their identities.

‘Riotous assemblies’ are, of course, nothing new in England, nor are problems of identification in such circumstances, although riots in the past often had aims other than simple looting. In 1723 Parliament passed the Criminal Law (or Black) Act, which mandated the death penalty for those who had recently

in great numbers, armed with swords, firearms, and other offensive weapons, several of them with their faces blacked, or in disguised habits, unlawfully hunted in the forests belonging to his Majesty, and in the parks of divers of his Majesty’s subjects …

The ‘Waltham Blacks’, as they were known, were opposed to the corrupt administration of the forests by Sir Robert Walpole and his Whig cronies.

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