By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - London police, hampered by past criticism of heavy-handed tactics, vowed to get tough with rioters after three nights of violence but there are questions about how long the force can keep up its massive operation if trouble persists.
As disorder threatened to break out across the British capital for the fourth day on Tuesday, senior Metropolitan Police (Met) officers promised "robust" action which could include the use of baton rounds -- non-lethal "rubber bullets."
It comes after many ordinary Londoners questioned how rioters had been able to loot and ransack shops with impunity with no police officers present, or with those that were there failing to act.
Some 16,000 police will be on duty in London on Tuesday night, far in excess of the 2,500 that would normally be in place with another night of widespread violence predicted.
Such are the demands that every available officer will be turning out, putting huge pressure on the Met and forcing it to shut down all bar its most serious investigations for 72 hours.
"We are planning for massive disorder again," Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh told reporters.
"There is no leave in the Met. There's no training. There are 12-hour shift patterns. Every able-bodied officer whether they are in plain clothes (detectives) or whether they are uniform need to be standing next to their communities."
The level of violence has clearly taken the Met by surprise and officers have repeatedly described the scale of the riots as "unprecedented." The talk is now of a tougher response.
"We will be robustly policing any events of disorder that we get tonight," the Met's acting Commissioner Tim Godwin told reporters. "This is not a game. This is criminality. This is burglary and violence."
"RAMP UP" FORCE
John Tully, vice-chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation which represents ordinary and lower-ranking officers, said riot police could "ramp up" their use of force.
"Other than short shield charges and cordons, I haven't really seen any aggressive tactics yet from many of the riot officers," he told Reuters. "It's possible we could ramp up the style of policing from those officers."
Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the extra officers would allow police to "push more edges than they could yesterday."
But while baton rounds will be considered, Orde said water cannons, which some commentators have called for, would be "entirely inappropriate and more importantly entirely ineffective" as they were unwieldy and used for fixed locations.
"There has been some very ill-informed comment," Orde told Reuters. "I think (the prime minister and home secretary) are confident that robust policing using the traditional British model of minimum use of force, albeit ... proportionate but very robust, will deal with this issue."
Another option might be the use of the army, although it is not one either politicians or senior officers seem keen on. "I don't sense we're anything close to that stage yet," Orde said.
The issue of the use of force poses great problems for the Met which in the past prided itself on its public order policing, allowing genuine dissent while taking restrained but firm action against troublemakers.
But recent events have shone an unfavorable spotlight on their tactics. There was huge criticism of what many said were heavy-handed actions during trouble that broke out during a G20 summit in London in April 2009 when a bystander, Ian Tomlinson, died shortly after he was pushed over by a riot officer.
Last year, there was criticism in equal measure for both inaction and oppressive tactics during protests by students against a rise in tuition fees.
Tully said the incident with Tomlinson, which was caught on film, would prey on officers' minds.
"Because of that, officers are now thinking, should I actually push that person back, should I use a baton strike should I use CS (gas). There's an underlying worry," he said.
In the glare of the world's media not to mention members of the public armed with mobile phone cameras, Kavanagh said they had to be seen to be "a calm, professional police service."
"CRACKING A FEW HEADS"
"What we need to be seen to be doing is using all the force that is necessary and not using bravado type comments about cracking a few heads," he said.
Police have also dedicated huge resources in the last 25 years to building community relations in deprived areas where the police were once viewed as racist and hostile.
With trouble now erupting in those same places, the use of baton rounds and the like could destroy that work.
"We are not going to throw away 180 years of policing the communities lightly," Kavanagh said. "If (the use of baton rounds) is a tactic that is used, it's going to be properly considered, the repercussions for it and the change in the way we police will be long-lasting."
The other major question is just how long the Met can maintain its ability to deal with the riots when its commanders admit it is being stretched like never before, and when police budgets are being slashed by the government as part of austerity measures.
Police chiefs say the cuts have not impacted on their ability to respond to the trouble and promise their operation can go on for as long as necessary.
"We've got to hold our nerve here. I'm confident that we can provide the aid requested for a reasonable period yet without getting overly concerned," Orde said.
"Potentially one can mobilize 297 support units across the country but if we did that you would see a substantial hit on local policing. We're not close to that yet."
Tully said plans to cut some officers' pay and conditions had left morale at rock bottom, while some officers were growing weary after long, exhausting shifts.
"The officers are stressed, they are under a lot of pressure ... they're almost out on their feet," he said.
Asked how long they could go on, he said: "Who knows? How long they can carry on is a difficult question to answer. I wouldn't really like to say."
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Andrew Heavens)