LONDON >> British police revealed today that they sent officers to protect major shopping centers and the 2012 Olympics sites after intercepting phone and social network messages saying they were targets for rioters.
Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens of London’s Metropolitan Police told a committee of lawmakers that police sent extra officers to London’s Oxford Circus, two malls and the Olympic Park on Aug. 8 after seeing messages on Twitter and the BlackBerry devices of people who had been arrested for rioting.
Owens said that “through Twitter and BBM there was intelligence that the Olympic site, Westfields (shopping malls) and Oxford Street were going to be targeted.”
“We were able to secure all those places and indeed there was no damage at any of them,” she said, according to London’s Evening Standard newspaper.
Police and politicians claim young criminals used Twitter and Blackberry’s simple and largely cost-free messaging service to coordinate looting sprees during the riots.
The government has said it will debate whether cell phone services could be disrupted or blackouts imposed on social networks during riots — proposals that have already been fiercely opposed by civil libertarians.
The acting chief of London’s police force, Tim Godwin, told Parliament’s home affairs committee that police had considered seeking approval to switch off such services, but decided against it. He said the legality of such action was “very questionable,” and social networks were a useful intelligence asset.
Police have arrested more than 3,000 people over riots that erupted Aug. 6 in north London and flared for four nights across the capital and other English cities.
A 16-year-old boy was ordered today to stand trial for the murder of a retiree attacked when he confronted rioters in London, as judges and prosecutors used tough punishment and name-and-shame tactics against hundreds of alleged participants in the mayhem.
The government said police would get better training and stronger powers to deal with a new and unpredictable era of street disturbances.
“We will make sure police have the powers they need,” said Home Secretary Theresa May — including, she suggested, the power to impose blanket curfews in troubled areas.
A teenager, who has not been named because of his age, appeared in court today accused of killing 68-year-old Richard Bowes, who was found lying in a street during violence in Ealing, west London, on Aug. 8.
CCTV footage captured Bowes being punched and falling to the pavement after he tried to stamp out a fire set by rioters. He died of head injuries three days later.
The suspect, dressed in a black shirt and with his arms crossed, was charged with murder, violent disorder and the burglary of a bookmakers, a supermarket, a video store and a restaurant.
He did not enter a plea and was ordered detained as he awaits trial at the Central Criminal Court.
The boy’s 31-year-old mother has been charged with obstructing the police investigation. She also was denied bail.
So far about 1,400 people have been charged with riot-related offenses. More than 1,200 have appeared in court — often in chaotic, round-the clock-sessions dispensing justice that is swifter, and harsher, than usual.
Although a public opinion favors stern punishment for rioters, a few cases have made headlines and sparked debate. A London man received six months in jail for stealing a case of water worth 3.5 pounds ($5) from a looted supermarket. A Manchester mother of two who did not take part in the riots was sentenced to five months for wearing a pair of looted shorts her roommate had brought home.
Most of the convicted suspects have been sent for sentencing to higher courts which have the power to impose longer terms of imprisonment. Two-thirds of the accused have not been granted bail. The usual rate for the magistrates’ courts hearing their cases is 10 percent.
Although Prime Minister David Cameron said last week that those who participated in the riots should go to prison, the government denied trying to influence the judiciary.
The courts service said “sentencing is a matter for the independent judiciary,” though it acknowledged that magistrates in London were being told by their legal advisers “to consider whether their powers of punishment are sufficient in dealing with some cases arising from the recent disorder.”
May, the home secretary, said she had pressed prosecutors to lift anonymity from underage defendants convicted of riot-related offenses. Defendants under 18 are customarily offered anonymity by law, even if they are convicted.
Five people died during the unrest, including three men hit by a car in Birmingham, central England as they protected local shops from looters. Two men and a teenage boy have been charged with murdering Haroon Jahan, 20, and brothers Shazad Ali, 30, and Abdul Musavir, 31.
Several suspects have also been questioned about the death of a man who was shot in the head during rioting in south London.
The Association of British Insurers has estimated the cost from wrecked and stolen property at 200 million pounds ($326 million) but expects the total to rise.
David Stringer contributed to this report.