With cutbacks clearly taking their toll on British policing, officers watched with empathy and concern as the drama unfolded and noted how the French authorities were able to rapidly pour formidable police resources in the form of hundreds of heavily armed police officers on to the streets of Paris and other major cities.
There is little doubt, as has been made abundantly clear by the head of MI5 Andrew Parker, that the UK will suffer terrorist attacks in the future. The major difference however is that unlike France, terrorists in the UK will be faced by a largely unarmed police force which, in many parts of the country, could pose serious problems.
Even in London, outside the central area, there is concern that armed police might have difficulty in containing a multi venue attack and there is a strong belief that the number of armed response vehicles (ARV’s) needs to double in order to provide effective, prompt coverage throughout the capital.
The situation in smaller, more rural forces is even more uncertain with unarmed officers frequently expressing concern as to the amount of time it would take for armed units to be deployed to assist them. Cutbacks mean that these unarmed officers are now more frequently ‘single crewed’ while ‘back up ‘even from unarmed colleagues, is likely to be even further away than previously.
The problem with increasing the level of armed response is however one of cost with some forces having already cut the numbers of armed officers while others are giving such cuts serious consideration. Greater Manchester Police were intending to cut their number of armed police by twenty five; a decision they have since backed away from following events in France.
Whilst the ability of French law enforcement to assemble police resources with remarkable speed has been clearly demonstrated, an examination of comparative police numbers perhaps explains why.
The relevant fact is that the populations of France and of England and Wales are roughly the same; France however has 155,000 National Police (Police Nationale) and 105,000 Gendarmerie, all of whom are armed. In addition there are 18,000 generally unarmed municipal police which gives a grand total of 278,000.
Compare this to the police strength in England and Wales where there is a shrinking force of 128,000 officers with just over 6,000 of those armed. Even adding Police Scotland’s 17,500 officers which include 275 who carry firearms, does little to balance the equation.
Reports emanating from the Home Office suggest that the ultimate goal of the current Home Secretary is to reduce police strength in England and Wales to 80,000. This patently absurd reduction appears to be supported by the despised, soon to be knighted Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Tom Winsor and will unquestionably end British policing as we know it.
The figure of 80,000 becomes even more relevant in that the French were able to rapidly deploy 80,000 security personnel, primarily police, during the height of the crisis last week. The question being asked by UK police is what happens when terrorists eventually evade detection and take to the streets or other public places with the intention of killing. Clearly, despite their outstanding record, UK security services and counter terror police will not be able to thwart every terrorist outrage.
Front line officers, whilst discussing events in France and elsewhere, are also asking how is it that they are now held in such contempt by, not only the Home Secretary but apparently much of the UK establishment. It frankly makes little sense for any government embarking on an austerity programme to deliberately go out of their way to antagonise the police. It makes even less sense to have police morale on the floor when problems created by austerity are coupled with the greatest threat to national security since the Second World War.
None of these factors will influence how front line officers, both armed and unarmed, will perform when the inevitable terrorist incident or incidents occurs. Armed officers themselves believe they have never been better trained and equipped to ‘take on’ terrorists in any situation. These undoubted skills are supplemented by close working relationships with both the UK Special Forces and security services. The primary concerns of armed officers revolve around whether the ‘jam is too thinly spread’ and whether they will be able to deploy quickly enough to prevent carnage.
The deaths of two New York police officers following criticism of the NYPD by politicians has initiated debate as to whether criticism of police by public figures actually increases the dangers to those policing the streets. UK police fingers are being pointed in the direction of Home Secretary, Theresa May and other establishment figures in addition to the traditional police critics of the left.
The recent death of off duty Merseyside PC Neil Doyle, reportedly because he was recognised as police officer, didn’t even warrant a factual mention on the Home Office website never mind words of regret from Theresa May or any indeed any other government minister.
It should also be remembered UK police have been warned for some months that they are now the targets of jihadists both on and off duty following an alleged plot that centered around the Shepherds Bush area of West London.
Whilst arming all UK police officers would be no panacea, the murder of colleagues elsewhere, the recent terrorist incidents and the vulnerability of British police is beginning to see a major shift of opinion amongst front line officers who have previously indicated they would prefer to remain unarmed. They will be as aware as anyone that thanks to “chocolate teapot” border controls administered by the Home Secretary, there are now hundreds of trained jihadists in the UK who would be quite capable of wreaking havoc perhaps even beyond a scale seen in Mumbai and Nairobi.
Certainly individual police will have thought long and hard as to how they will react to the various terrifying scenarios. No officer will engage in activity that will amount to a fruitless suicide; some have indicated however that in certain circumstances they will not obey instructions to “hold back” if they are unarmed especially if they are in a vehicle that could be used as a weapon or as a shield and certainly if the victim is a fellow police officer being murdered and perhaps decapitated on the street.
However the government attempts to ‘spin it’ cutbacks are taking a dramatic toll of policing. Sickness levels are soaring and in many forces crime is inexorably starting to rise. The list of additional demands being made upon the police in the days of austerity Britain appears to be endless and the only crumb of comfort comes from recent surveys which shows that trust in the police continues at around 66%. Trust however in cabinet ministers and politicians remains embarrassingly ‘in the teens.’ How ironic therefore that Theresa May frequently refers to the loss of public confidence in the police.
A demoralised, run down police service facing an unparalleled terrorist threat is frankly a ludicrous situation and one which could well come back to haunt those responsible for destroying a police force which, despite its very occasional failings, is still rightly regarded as the finest in the world.
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