This has also been published in Huffington Post
As counter terrorism awareness week commences front line police officers in London and elsewhere are becoming increasingly fearful that they are likely to become victims of savage targeted attacks on the streets of the UK by fanatical Islamist jihadists.
Circulating on the police grapevine are alarming accounts which suggest that both police officers and PCSO’s have been recently subject to ‘hostile reconnaissance’ in the vicinity of police stations when off duty travelling to or from work.
Police have every reason to be anxious: Just last month five men were arrested in conjunction with a plot that featured Shepherds Bush Police Station in West London. Images of two police officers and two PCSO’s were recovered during that investigation.
After initially denying that these arrests were anything to do with an ‘extra vigilance’ warning emailed to UK police officers a short while previously, the Met later unusually provided very specific details of the alleged plot after the men had been charged and had appeared in court.
Newspaper headlines the day after the men were remanded in custody made alarming reading and it became clear that the plot allegedly referred to nearby TA barracks as well as the local police station and its officers.
The tragic events in Quebec and Ottawa that left two Canadian soldiers dead after attacks by ‘lone wolf’ jihadists certainly added to concerns. Just a day after the Ottawa murder two police officers were injured in New York, one seriously, after they and two colleagues had been attacked by another ‘lone wolf’ jihadist brandishing an axe.
The four ‘rookie’ officers, wearing full uniform were, at the time, posing for photographs with tourists. They were also armed and managed to shoot dead their assailant. Inevitably this led to largely unarmed British front line officers asking themselves and each other what the end result would be if such an attack were carried out in the UK. The conclusion was inevitable; at least one dead police officer.
The fact is that not only do UK law enforcement officers have to be concerned with those who have travelled abroad to fight or train and self indoctrinated ‘lone wolves’ but with the disturbing number of extremely dangerous criminals. Many of these individuals are gang members who have converted to this extreme form of Islam whilst serving their prison sentences. Most have, what is termed by police, to have ‘access to firearms’ either directly or via ‘armourers’ that supply firearms ‘on demand’ to the underworld.
There is no doubt that the Met’s counter terrorism command will respond vigorously to the threatening implications of any “hostile reconnaissance” but officers themselves are concerned that other than receiving ‘stay vigilant’ advice they are not being kept fully informed of events in relation to the very real threats to their own safety or being afforded additional protection which might, just might, enable them to survive such an attack.
Despite the threat, officers are still not permitted to carry equipment in the form of extendable batons or CS/pepper sprays to and from duty. Within the Met, several appeals have been made to senior managers over the years but all have been scornfully rejected with a clear implication that officers actually risk arrest if they carry their protective equipment when not on duty.
Rank and file firmly officers believe that those who now wish to ‘carry’ should be given the ‘lawful authority’ to do so. This will apply in particular to those who have to travel to and from work by public transport or have to walk some distance to and from their parked vehicles.
Police critics seem to forget that police officers are sworn constables for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Intervening off duty or being recognised as a police officer by the more nefarious elements that plague our society is a precarious business.
Mobile phones have proved invaluable to the off duty officer but they have their limitations. Dialling 999, waiting for the answer, telling the operator which service is required, listening to the operator repeating the mobile number to the control room receiving the call is amazingly time consuming when all hell is breaking loose or you are the individual being attacked.
The situation has now dramatically moved beyond intervening off duty or even being subjected to intimidation and assault by virtue of being a police officer to a very real threat of being attacked, murdered and possibly even beheaded. Clearly much more needs to be done by the Home Office and those of Chief Officer rank to protect police officers other than a ‘watch yourselves’ statement. This should include permission to carry equipment to and from work and perhaps at other times when off duty.
Single crewing or patrolling is bitterly resented by most front line officers and cutbacks have made this even more prevalent. Those cutbacks have meant that assistance for the single officer in many parts of the country can be some distance away and of course there is also the question of litigious and frivolous complaints.
There is no doubt that at present the UK faces a very real terrorist threat from either organised, well trained groups or ‘lone wolves.’ The view amongst front line officers is therefore simply this; operational single crewing or patrolling should no longer be the ‘default position’ and must only take place under specifically designated circumstances.
With the march of technology, urgent consideration should be given to implementing a reliable GPS system which would enable officers to, if they wish, carry a discreet form of panic button. This would be automatically linked to the nearest police control room and would enable off duty officers to summon ‘urgent assistance’ in any part of the UK. Such buttons have been issued to some social workers and others such as community nurses.
Of course none of these precautions would protect on or off duty officers from an attack from well trained, well equipped terrorists but it might buy them some time in the event of a murderous assault such as that launched on the unsuspecting Lee Rigby.
Some UK police forces offer advice and even courses to companies and local authorities in order that they are able to counter what is termed ‘hostile reconnaissance.’ Surely now there is an urgent need for all police officers to receive counter surveillance/hostile reconnaissance training which would probably be of a single day’s duration.
Panic buttons, day courses for 100,000 plus officers plus the end of single crewing ‘by default’ would doubtless have force accountants, already struggling with millions of pounds worth of government cuts, reaching for their valium. In addition the fate of police community support officers would require some major decision making as they are not currently issued with any form of defensive weapon yet are also clearly vulnerable to terrorist attack both on and off duty.
Unarmed officers in London and elsewhere are dependent on their armed colleagues, such as those from the Met’s elite CO19 unit, to come to their assistance in the event of a firearms or terrorist incident.
It took ten minutes for such a unit to arrive at the scene of Lee Rigby’s death during which time unarmed police were ordered not to intervene. CO19 officers themselves are concerned as to their ability to respond to terrorist incidents especially in relation to a multi venue attack. Many Met officers of all ranks believe that the number of Armed Response Vehicles (ARV’s) on the streets of London should be doubled so that at least one ARV would be allocated to each London borough.
Worryingly smaller more rural forces outside London however would take even longer to deploy armed officers and whether inside or outside London, it is doubtful whether unarmed officers would obey orders to ‘stay back’ if one of their colleagues was in the process of being hacked to death and armed assistance was some way off.
The response by Canadian officers and indeed by police officers in most countries of the world to a situation such as that seen in Ottawa, would be far more efficient and effective in terms of sheer numbers of armed officers taking to the streets simply because all carry firearms as a matter of course.
In London and elsewhere, most officers would have to look on helplessly as their armed colleagues did battle with or attempted to hunt down the terrorists. It would simply not be possible to put the numbers of armed officers on to the streets of London or any UK city in a relatively short period of time as the Canadians were able to do.
The view of most UK police officers is still that they would prefer not to be armed yet the death of colleagues or a Mumbai/Nairobi type massacre of British innocents in any of our towns and cities would almost certainly bring about a change in police attitudes.
A major terrorist incident in the United Kingdom would undoubtedly result in a plethora of ‘full and frank’ enquiries. One question that will be asked is how the United Kingdom came to be populated by literally thousands of trained potential Islamist terrorists.
Since the mid 1990’s intelligence has poured in which has clearly shown a constant stream of individuals travelling abroad to countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Syria for the purpose of training or combat. Most foiled terrorist plots in the UK involve at least one individual who has fought or been trained abroad.
Yet ignoring the overwhelming evidence, successive governments have refused to strengthen our ‘chocolate teapot’ border controls. Despite concerns of police, the UK Border Force and the security services, it has, until recently, been a ‘walk in the park’ for individuals and groups involved in illegal terrorist activities abroad.
Increased activity by hard pressed counter terrorist officers at airports has produced some positive results but the absence of meaningful departure controls has still embarrassingly meant that direct travel to Turkey by jihadists or so called jihadi brides has still been possible.
Recently the Met Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, stated that at least five Britons a week were, notwithstanding the extra police activity, leaving the UK to fight in Syria while just days ago it was revealed that Sidhartha Dhar , despite being on bail for terrorist offences, was able to leave the UK presumably for Syria.
Outstanding work by the police and security services has frustrated numerous terrorist plots yet the pressure, compounded by cutbacks and increased demands on the police in terms of current and historic abuse allegations, pornographic child images, internet fraud and even social media harassment, is beginning to tell.
Added to this, despite denials by Chief Constables, is the collapse of community policing which is a direct result of the cutbacks. Popular safer neighbourhood teams have been decimated which, aside from other ramifications, has adversely affected the quantity of information and intelligence that flowed from communities to police in respect of terrorism. Those officers that remain drown in a welter of crime reports, statements, interviews and taskings so that the sight of an officer actually visibly patrolling and speaking to the public has become as rare as a Banksy cartoon on the walls of Scotland Yard!!!
Front line officers have little confidence that in the aftermath of the shambolic police response to the 2011 riots, senior officers and government have the ability to cope with a scenario whereby terrorists go on a multi-venue rampage or undertake murderous attacks on individual police officers or members of the armed forces.
Sadly Ottawa has perhaps brought that inevitable fateful day even closer and if a major terrorist atrocity occurs in the UK before next year’s general election then the government could stand or fall by virtue of its preparedness and response.
Meanwhile Theresa May’s most recent speech in relation to countering terrorism will only have contributed to the animosity that exists between her and front line officers. There was, perhaps not unsurprisingly, no mention of the current jihadist threat to police officers or of measures to ‘protect the protectors.’
If tragedy does befall the police service, officers will be only too well aware that whilst the terrorist may have wielded the knife, fired the gun or detonated the explosive, responsibility will also rest upon the shoulders of those politicians responsible for our shambolic border controls, devastating cutbacks and morale sapping vilification of, for all its faults, the world’s finest police service.