The terrorist attacks in Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge are barbarically intrusive reminders that we live in an age of peril where the public, as well as the security services and police, are the targets of people bent on destroying, not just derailing, our way of life. They have thrust the issues of security and policing – and a government’s role in shaping those – into the forefront of public debate. It’s vitally important the ensuing response isn’t counterproductive.
I left the police in 2014 after almost six years of service. The cuts presided over by Theresa May while she was Home Secretary, and the impact of the Windsor Report, were significant factors. In a piece I wrote for The Guardian at the time, I suggested that “the looming threat of terrorism” was a factor that should be considered when working out just how thinly the police could be stretched. It’s with no pleasure that I note this prescience.
I’m not alone: the Police Federation, the Mayor of London, serving officers, former officers like Peter Kirkham or Dal Babu; we are all saying the same thing. We’re not whinging about pensions; we’re angry about the vulnerability to which the public and officers are now subjected. And the fix being advocated is the same: more officers, more community policing, more armed officers. If you had six or seven plumbers standing around your tap telling you why it was leaking and how to fix it, you’d listen. Yet somehow the Conservative government have cast these observations or criticisms as crying wolf, as vested interests looking out for themselves, not for the public others and I swore an oath to protect.
Countering terrorism is not simply a matter of armed officers on the street (although those numbers have declined by 1,300 since 2010) and rebuilding these armed response units in the Met and elsewhere is simply taking officers away from response team or other duties. New officers do not simply appear out of nowhere with their firearms ticket already stamped. Policing, at its best, is preventative, proactive, public-orientated. That requires a presence in our communities, not simply a fleet of vehicles roaming the streets, waiting for the worst to happen.
The decline in community policing has been severe. The officer who was responsible for the patch where my parents live in Hampshire has seen the area he covers increase fourfold with no increase in the number of officers to help him. A ward in London used to have one sergeant, two or three PCs, and six or seven PCSOs. The same ward is now served by one or two officers at best, the others having been moved into Local Policing Teams who spend much of their time investigating low-level offences or picking up the slack left by over-stretched response teams who have, themselves, seen their numbers decline.
This is important because if the public are to speak to the police about their concerns, be they related to terrorism or otherwise, it is far more likely to occur when they know and trust and regularly see an officer on the beat. This is not anecdotal; this is my experience doing that job. While investigating a series of stabbing scenes that might have started due to an argument over Islam, a sixth-form college in Hackney that had seen radicalisation in 2012/13 told me in 2014 that the loss of SNT officers meant they were much less able to and confident in reporting concerns to the police.
Less community policing reduces the capability of the police to acquire and develop useful information. As Bob Quick, who oversaw counter-terror policing in London, told The Guardian, “This has reduced the capacity of the police to work in communities building relationships and trust to in turn generate community-based intelligence about persons of concern.” This is especially the case in communities where speaking out might attract opprobrium or even danger.
But this is a broader issue, too. While attacks such as London Bridge bring policing into sharp focus, this erosion in numbers and resilience is a problem across the board. The cuts to funding in other key public services, or the increased demands placed on them, have an effect on policing too: less provision of mental health services mean more people in crisis require police attention; waiting times in A&E increase the duration officers have to spend there with prisoners or victims; over-stretched social services are less able to safeguard children who are, in turn, more likely to come to police attention. And those are just a few examples.
Everything interpenetrates in public services. There are knock-on effects across the board and when everyone is struggling, that effect is exacerbated. Twenty thousand fewer police since 2010 (and 26,000 fewer police staff) is a massive reduction but that is within a public services maelstrom of cuts. Everyone is more stretched, more stressed, less able to deal with everything. While terrorism is justifiably the focus, these cuts have an impact on all of us.