On the 11th September 2001 I was a superintendent in East Manchester. A colleague and I were stood on the building site of the Commonwealth Games Stadium, now Manchester City’s ground, planning out the Commonwealth Games. We got a call an aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Center. 9/11 began a seismic cycle of change that has shaped my career and policing since.
What had been a plan to manage a games and an opening ceremony operation to prevent Irish terrorism became a debate, and only that at that point, as to how suicide terrorism could be combated. Soon after the games I stood in a North Manchester hospital with an armed team managing the medical treatment of Kamel Bourgass who had only hours earlier stabbed DC Stephen Oake to death in the city. International terrorism had arrived in Manchester and in the following years in GMP I dealt with planned terror attacks at sports grounds, shopping centres and aviation security.
Since those times we have rapidly built a police counter terrorism security network which is the envy of the world. The brilliant work of the security services and the police has been effective in keeping us safe despite on-going global attacks. The attacks we have seen have been shocking and dreadfully sad but they were what we had grown to see as the threat.
Friday 13th, Paris has changed our world on the level of 9/11.
Events that perhaps have been seen on the streets of Kabul or Baghdad happened in a major European country. It was an attack at the pace, intensity and proportion of a military operation.
We should recognise and pay huge credit to the rapid pace of response of French Police who prevented a much larger casualty toll.
France does have a different context. There are levels of weapons on the continent far beyond what we see in the UK and some marked extremism issues. On the Wednesday before the attack we held a European Firearms Conference in Birmingham to promote British approaches to gun crime as we are seen as the success story in Europe. The government is active in trying to strengthen Europe’s approach to firearms.
But it is close. We cannot ignore the fact that whilst ammunition and firearms are relatively hard to secure in the UK there is a determination now in those inspired by ISIS. Events are moving quickly in Syria and we cannot be certain of the international response. There is a generational conflict underway.
I have repeatedly said that despite austerity that we will protect the public. A Paris scenario starts to challenge this proposition.
I welcome government investment now in intelligence gathering by the security services they are excellent at their job. Prevention and early interception is our best weapon. It isn’t just the security services that do this. Neighbourhood policing, which we will sustain at reduced numbers, plays a big role. Security service intelligence leads need counter terrorism police to investigate and arrest.
One day someone may evade this net and we will need to respond. Special Forces investment is good, they have incredible expertise but they will not be on the scene quickly. As the timeline of Paris shows the casualty rate in minutes is breath taking. It will be the police, on the ground, who will determine events. Our armed staff will confront a challenge with a much greater threat than normal. We need to give them the numbers and capability to face multiple attacks and have the best chance of winning. Winning is not a given in this scenario.
Finally, unarmed police play a key part in major incident surges to help manage the scale of this challenge. Our tradition of unarmed policing can, and must endure, but it may need for a period to do this under the umbrella of a greater armed capability.
Government has already chosen to invest in security and special forces. In the next few weeks we will see whether this is mirrored in choices on policing in the Comprehensive Spending Review. If it is not, there will be an asymmetric response that invests in intelligence at the front and high end military capability at the back. The rapid response at Paris shows effectiveness in that middle ground when we need to rapidly investigate leads or an attack begins is vital. This is the ground the police must hold.
As hard choices are made on spending we need to remember the first duty of the state is the defence of the realm and the security of citizens. Whatever the government choses to do we will protect the public and we will need to consider how we reshape the force for new missions we may need to face.