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Why Global Terrorism cannot be allowed to threaten UK Local Policing
The UK's Secret Weapon
The recent terrorist atrocities in Paris, Nice and Rouen have left France reeling and have led to call for changes in security policy and policing. Tension between disenfranchised young people and the police continues to grow, and racial attacks have escalated creating further distrust and alienation of the police by minority communities. This has resulted in further protests about policing which has been met with an increasing use of force - and so the downward spiral continues. As well as trying to meet the threat of terrorism, the police are having to deal with growing disorder which they tackle by driving young people further towards the open arms of the Islamist violent extremists.
I once asked a French police commander why they did not sit down with the community and talk about their grievances. After pausing momentarily to confirm my question was not a joke, he patted his side-arm and said “Why would we want to talk to them? We are not interested in their needs. They do as we say!”
This simple example illustrates the yawning chasm between the unique community policing style in the UK and the policing carried out in the rest of the world.
We have one under-utilised tool in our counter-terrorism armoury that exists nowhere else on earth. We have the best community police service in the world bar none. It has thrived and prospered despite everything that has been thrown at it for 180 years including the demands of international suicide terrorism that arrived with the new millennium. The British police service continues to deliver an unarmed, community-based service with the highest levels of integrity. It is the envy of the world everywhere- except Britain.
Increase in Hate Crime
The aim of the terrorist is to fracture society with fear, mistrust and hatred. They are aided in their endeavours by the far-right who exploit the climate of terror by turning neighbour against neighbour to create disharmony and disorder to further their political agenda of driving out anyone they consider to be undesirable.
In the middle of this heady mix, UK policing leads the way in building and maintaining community cohesion, a policing role which is absent most other societies. In much of the rest of the world, calling the police to help them with a problem is the very last thing a citizen would do. In the UK it is usually the very first.
A feature of all Islamist terror outrages is an increase in community tension in areas of high ethnic minority population, often accompanied by a spike in reported hate crime. In variably the far-right try to capitalise upon this fear by inflammatory activity which further diverts the police from providing much-needed reassurance. In a cohesive community this can quickly be defused by sensitive policing, but this is reliant on trust and resources. The UK recently saw a variation on this theme by the wave of xenophobia which accompanied the Brexit vote, created largely by shameful exaggerations and deliberate misinformation by politicians and press about the tenuous links between immigration and criminality. Misguided and ill-educated racists need little encouragement to turn their vile prejudices into active discrimination and violence, and the tension still latent after Brexit will need little to inflame it further.
Racists are indiscriminate in their targeting. During a time of heightened tension not only is any ‘foreigner’ treated with suspicion and contempt, but anyone who looks like a foreigner is subjected to the same treatment. To the far-right it, a terrorist attack heralds the start of the open-season on Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, in fact all those ethnic minorities who they have never really liked being here anyway. And yet it is the police who are asked to account for the increase in hate crime.
Community Policing UK Style
Community Policing UK Style
Community engagement not air strikes is the key
Despite the commendable success of the police and security services in thwarting plot after plot, we can safely assume that IS will get lucky at some stage in the future and there will be another terrorist outrage in the UK. The threat of global terrorism will remain with us for at least the next generation and probably beyond. No amount of air strikes on distant desert strongholds will address the problem of why some Muslim young people, born in the UK, are willing to kill themselves for their twisted ideology. Indeed, quite the opposite is true, for every air strike and civilian casualty, how many incensed and alienated British Muslim youngsters will be spurred on to Googling their local IS recruitment office?
On a local level the same is true of the policing response to tension and disorder. It is not the short-term tactics of enforcement and stop and search that will achieve lasting results, but a long-term strategy of building trust, dialogue and positive community engagement at schools, community centres and places of worship. Only when the whole of the community can see the human face of policing and experience policing delivered by positive role models that they can identify with, will people trust them enough to actively support them, share their suspicions, and join their ranks.
UK Policing plc is world-class at community engagement if they are given the resourcing to do it and allowed to get on with it. There are hundreds of examples of community cohesion projects all over the country which would be unthinkable in France in the current climate.
Unfortunately, they are just that, projects; not business-as-usual. The problem is that projects are reliant on funding and are vulnerable when the public sector funding screw is turned, particularly if they cannot show short-term results. As a local Commander in Slough, I resisted a great deal of governmental pressure to remove my police officers from schools and community projects where I knew they were doing more to prevent crime in the next generation, than a dozen of their colleagues were doing in the anti-robbery patrols which were then flavour of the month. Weekly calls from the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit were an occupational hazard.
Securing the hard evidence for this community-based approach takes years, and often an indication of success is something not happening, ie no riots, no local bomb factories and no teenage suicide bombers. Regrettably it is only when these things do happen in the most unlikely of towns that the inevitable question is asked ‘How could that happen here?’ I was a young PC in Aylesbury in 1985 when home-grown 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay was born in the quiet Buckinghamshire town. What drove him to blow himself up 19 years later in one of the UKs worst terror attacks? What warning signs were missed in those intervening years? What caused his extreme disenfranchisement? Was it avoidable?
Prevention-based initiatives with their roots in the community have the greatest chance of success. These should be targeted towards engaging the young people who are at the highest risk of succumbing to the powerful IS propaganda machine and becoming the violent extremists of the next generation. The children of today need to be immunised from becoming the terrorists of tomorrow.
Society gets the police it deserves
It is often said that a society gets the police it deserves. Until there is greater recognition that, for all its faults, the UK still has the best police service in the world, there is a danger that British policing will descend into the continental model and consist largely of enforcement and coercion. The lack of investment in community policing will lead to a response policing only service. Opportunities for informal interaction with the public and long-term partnership problem solving, currently seen by the government as ‘nice-to-do’ rather than ‘need-to-do’, will diminish as the police withdraw behind ever-more protective equipment. Hostility and mistrust on both sides will increase as the police become less approachable and responsive. Initially this will begin with minority communities but the lack of trust and confidence will quickly spread to the traditional supporters of the police until our grandchildren can look forward to the sight of armoured land-rovers cruising the streets laden with heavily-armed paramilitaries grimacing out at them though bullet-proof glass. Welcome to France 2016.
Brian Langston QPM LLB(Hons) MBA is a writer and consultant on leadership and diversity. He is the former Assistant Chief Constable (Operations) for Thames Valley Police and pioneered a community-based approach to building trust and confidence within minority communities.