While some say that their forces struggled to cope with the scale of the disorder, others admit that they enjoyed being given "free rein" to tackle looters when the "gloves finally came off".
The candid opinions are revealed in interviews with rank-and-file officers for a new book examining the state of modern policing. The officers tell their stories in their own words while remaining anonymous to protect their careers.
Several say that the four days of looting and destruction last August made them feel temporarily liberated from the bureaucracy which usually governs their work. Others claim that years of "cop bashing" by politicians allowed rioters to gain the upper hand.
The book has been compiled by Stuart Davidson, a former Staffordshire PC whose blog, written under the pen name David Copperfield, sparked a row with the then-Labour government in 2007. He now works as a police officer in Canada.
Wasting More Police Time by David Copperfield is published on Thursday and comments made by officers include:
"I'm aware that people dislike us, but the concentrated, furious, howling hatred of the mob - that was disconcerting.
"There were credible intelligence reports that they were hoping to kidnap and rape a woman officer, and I was in no doubt at all that if they could get their hands on a male officer and get him away he would be killed."
PC, aged 30, from a southern force:
"I was pretty nervous. My mouth was dry and my hands were probably shaking a bit, but you try not to show it.
"I've had a fair few rucks and roll-arounds. But this was different. For the first time, I actually thought my life might be in danger. That's a very strange feeling when you're in riot gear and there's 30 of you."
PC, aged 29, from a Midlands force:
"At first we couldn't really do much more than hold our line.
"We had to allow blatant and very serious criminality to go unhindered, and that really sickened me.
"What kind of a police force are we? But we just didn't have the numbers.
"And when we did get let off the leash, you would find yourself running down a cut-through in the pitch black after a group of youths, trying to snatch one or two."
Sergeant, 37, from a southern force:
"The simple fact is, there are people in this country who like smashing things, stealing stuff and hurting others, and if they get half a chance they will do it.
"They want shiny new trainers. End of. It goes no deeper than that, and the newspapers and the TV news people ought to be ashamed of themselves for allowing other considerations to obscure the picture.
"That was a glimpse of what the country would be like if there were no police."
Retired PC, 55, Metropolitan Police, discussing Tottenham in north London where the riots began:
"When these latest riots erupted, my overriding feeling was, I hope they burn the whole place down.
"There are lots of good people living in these places, but they are a minority who, if they all died it would not be worth the life of one policeman or firefighter."
PC, aged 34, from a southern force:
"I'll just go against the grain slightly and say that I loved the riots. It's what I joined the police for.
"Any policeman worth his salt will enjoy battering the **** out of proper, evil *****, and that's basically what we did.
"I came across some people I know very well, who 364 days of the year I pretty much have to accept calling me a **** to my face.
"Now I had pretty much free rein, within the law, to give them a bit back.
"They are so used to us treating them with kid gloves, I think when the gloves finally came off they were more than a bit surprised."
PC, aged 29, from a southern force:
"If we said 'OK, it's kicking off in Tottenham, we'll go in extremely hard and nick hundreds of bodies,' I think that might have nipped it in the bud.
"On the telly, hundreds of cops battering the living daylights out of rioters. That would send a message.
"Mind you, the media story would have been 'Violent cops disgrace in London'.
"We really are damned if we do and damned if we don't."
PC, 30, from a southern force:
"The equipment was ****, the leadership was ****, the rioters were ****, but it was the best fun I've had in ages.
"It beats going to ****** domestics in the same block and trying to get the same morons to turn their lives around, day after day, year after year.
"Plus the overtime was ace. I'm off to Cancun for Christmas."
Inspector, 49, from a northern force:
"In my nearly 30 years of service I have seen the police and society pass each other travelling in different directions.
"When I joined, there were some real hard nuts in the Job and the work itself, conversely, was not actually all that dangerous.
"Most of the time, the sight of a couple of big cops hoving into view at the bottom of the street was enough to make people desist.
"Now, most of the old school, 6ft 3in ex-Guardsmen are long gone, and we get grief all the time.
"Our force is full of loads of women and skinny laths of lads of about 5ft 9in, who have their place I'm sure, but they are very much not about the projection of force.
"I don't advocate bobbies going around cracking heads willy-nilly, but I suspect there is some correlation here, between the softening and feminisation of the police, from the change from a 'force' to a 'service', and the increasing violence in our streets."