The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

special patrol group

The ITV news clip above from September 1981, when investigations were still ongoing into the riots of that year, saw the Metropolitan Police on the defensive over the role of the Special Patrol Group.

Refusing calls to disband the SPG, they were instead calling for it to increase in size. And at the same time, the Met also brushed aside calls for the police to be overseen by the civilian authorities claiming they were best placed to investigate their own problems.

I was standing at a bus stop in 1981 when a police car I didn’t realise was Special Patrol Group (SPG) stopped and one of the officers inside asked me what I was doing.   “Waiting for a bus,” I said, bit confused by the question.  “Well get a move on,” he replied.

And that was my one and only encounter with the SPG.

I appreciate that had I been black, my encounter might have been more prolonged and led me to a local cop shop.   I found this in my 80s collection – a leaflet from a group in south London campaigning against the so-called SUS laws allowing police to stop young people and search them in the street.  This became a major cause of the 1981 riots.

SUS law

So, what was the Special Patrol Group and why was this police unit problematic?

  • This unit was part of the Metropolitan Police and specialised in public disorder and in the Thatcher era was seen as a highly politicised branch of the police
  • It had been set up in 1961 and was seen as an elite unit that officers would aspire to join
  • The SPG tended to enforce stop and search, referred to as the SUS laws, which came to be seen as disproportionately affecting black youth in inner cities. The enforcement of this law undoubtedly contributed to the 1981 riots in areas like Brixton
  • In 1979, the SPG’s conduct during severe rioting in the Southall area of London came under scrutiny following the death of teacher Blair Peach

Despite its widely recognised role in provoking the 1981 riots in Brixton, the SPG was redrafted into the area in force during the miners’ strike because many regular police officers had been sent up north during the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

That created a manpower shortage, apparently, that the Special Patrol Group then had to fill. The reason given was a large increase in burglary at that time. Rather begs the question why the SPG wasn’t sent up north to deal with the miners while regular officers could continue crime solving in Brixton. But what do I know?

The SPG was so hated that the unit even inspired a punk song by The Exploited. It was eventually disbanded in 1987.

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