Public engagement is vital to effective policing to combat terrorism

I spoke at a RUSI Conference yesterday on “Delivering Counter-Terrorism”.  My theme was why good governance (and in particular lay oversight) is an essential and important part of ensuring that counter-terrorism is effective and what needs to be done to strengthen public trust in an area vital for our national security.

I started by saying:

“In this country, policing is built on consent – the police are there to provide a service to the public, they should be responsive to the needs of the community and they are – or should be – accountable to the public they serve.  This is as important when we are speaking about counter-terrorism and protective services as it is when we are dealing with neighbourhood policing.

There are very substantial resources devoted to counter-terrorism in this country – perhaps some £2.5 billion per annum.  These sums have grown rapidly since 9/11 and since the London bombings in 2005.  During the last few years, we have seen the creation of a national network of four counter-terrorist units and a number of counter-terrorist intelligence units around the country – all linked and coordinated by the Counter-Terrorist Command (SO15) in London and under the auspices of ACPO(TAM).  It is only right and proper that there should be arrangements in place whereby the public can be satisfied that the monies spent and the resources deployed are being used efficiently and effectively, and that what is done constitutes value for money.

At the same time, it has to be recognised that counter-terrorism is not simply the responsibility of specialist units.  Although terrorism may not seem to be a day-to-day concern in most local communities, the reality is that it should be.  The threat of Al Qaeda inspired terrorism is what the Americans would no doubt call “a real and present danger” for all of us.

The modern terrorist threat is home-grown as well as international.  Successive Director-Generals of the Security Service have warned that there may well be hundreds of individuals engaged in various ways with terrorist plots.  And – as is well-known – these plots have as an objective the achievement of mass casualties.

There are few areas of the country where there are no potential targets, particularly as those targets might include parts of the critical national infrastructure, iconic sites, places of mass resort – attacks elsewhere in the world  have occurred at night clubs, in markets, at schools – and the UK has its own experience of attacks on the transport system.  In Spain, of course, there was an attack on Madrid’s commuter transport system in the run up to a General Election – a fact we might all want to ponder over the next few weeks, although I should stress that I have not heard any intelligence to support such worries.

Most areas have somewhere that might be a target – and, whilst London may have more than most, as London targets become hardened, then others become more likely.  (This will need to be a particular issue when planning the counter-terrorist response to the London Olympics in 2012.)

Moreover, what is now known or alleged about the location of bomb factories, training grounds and bonding events, often not in the most obvious of places, also demonstrates that effective counter-terrorist work must span the whole country.”

I then went on:

“And carrying the public’s support with counter-terrorist measures is essential.  In fact, I would go further: it is vital that the policing service is a continuum – one service dealing with anti-social behaviour, neighbourhood issues, street crime, burglary, serious and organised criminality and terrorism.  There are synergies between the different aspects of policing work: traffic police who find that those speeding are wanted for other crimes; credit card fraud used to finance people trafficking; the disposal of large quantities of peroxide bottles being spotted by local PCSOs identifying a terrorist plot in the making; and the list could go on and on.

Critically if it is the same police service that has to manage the community consequences of high-profile counter-terrorist operations, then that police service will be mindful of those consequences in the way in which those operations are conducted.

Community engagement also delivers better policing as through that engagement the public can, importantly, give a steer and direction on questions such as what reassures them and what does not, or how to use particular policing tactics in culturally sensitive ways that will command public support.

Building strong relationships with communities is going to be essential for future anti-terrorist work.  Getting it wrong will not only build resentments that will make co-operation with the police more difficult but are also likely to act as another factor influencing a very small minority to listen to the calls of those promoting terrorist violence.”

I then moved on to the issue of trust and the break down of political consensus:

“It used to be the case that the major political parties were careful to move with consensus on matters of national security.  That consensus broke down a few years ago with the debates on the length of time terrorist suspects could be held in police custody before being charged and with some of the rhetoric deployed over control orders and other counter-terrorist powers.

The consequence is that now, when Ministers warn of the dangers, what they say is discounted.  And I do understand that some credibility was inevitably lost over Iraq and the WMD that were never found.  And it is not just about Ministers.  The security service is seen as implicated in the WMD issue and the service, along with the police, is accused of talking up the threat so that more resources will be awarded.

So there is a general issue to be faced: how do those of us who are privy to some of the intelligence picture of the terrorist threat convince the wider public that that threat is real and that the measures being taken are justified and proportionate?  How much can and should be shared?  Is it possible to share enough to convince and at the same time protect the sources on which that intelligence is based (or for that matter convince people that what is being done is sensible but not induce alarm or panic or shut down the UK’s tourist industry)?

Striking the correct balance is even more difficult when we start to look not just at society as a whole but at individual communities and sections of communities whose initial reaction to the authorities of the state will be one of suspicion or hostility.

But this is not something that is new. In the late 1990s the Metropolitan Police through Operation Trident rebuilt its relationship with sections of the black community in London and engaged their support in tackling so-called black-on-black killings.  And all over the country, police authorities have worked with their local police services to consult local communities about the use of stop and search powers, helping to improve practice and reduce community resentment.

To understand the problems that we may face, the police need the co-operation and support of all or virtually all strands of community opinion.  I am not here talking about the recruitment of covert sources – although the environment in which the police are operating will also have an impact here.  I am talking about ensuring that the police understand what is happening within a community, that they are aware of which meeting places are attracting people who may be vulnerable to extremists, and that if there are worries or concerns about particular individuals they are articulated so that the police may monitor them.

None of this can happen without trust and that trust cannot be created overnight.  Moreover, it will require a very high level of trust for an individual to voice suspicions about a friend or family member.  But even the degree of trust necessary for individuals to talk to the police about community sensitivities will require a consistent willingness by the police to address that community’s concerns.  The police cannot be just fair-weather friends; they will need to be there all the time.

It is only when individuals within that community have sufficient confidence in police officers whom they know will they start to confide their fears and concerns.  And they will only acquire that confidence, once the police officers concerned have demonstrated their willingness to act on other issues that worry the people from that community – and these will often be traditional policing issues about burglary, street crime or anti-social behaviour, as well as matters which are directed specifically at that community.  And that confidence will only acquire sufficient strength for more serious matters to be raised when the police officers concerned have shown that they can act appropriately and effectively and, where necessary, with discretion.

In my time as an elected politician, I attended hundreds of community events.  At many of them, there was a police presence.  However, there was no point in that presence when the demeanour of that officer was such as to indicate that he had drawn the short straw to spend his Saturday afternoon at an event he  or she did not understand with people whom he had only limited, if any, contact.  Much more important was the presence – the sort of presence I am pleased to say was becoming much more common – where the police officer is obviously known to those attending the event and where the conversations you would overhear with the officer were of the nature of: “you remember that matter I mentioned to you two weeks ago, well now this has happened ….”

These days there is now a much better idea than there once was of what brings about so-called radicalisation.  It is a gradual process whereby a tiny proportion of individuals within a community are persuaded to see that the only response to the grievances that they perceive as being practised against their people is through terrorism.

Some of those grievances are international: what is happening now in Iraq, or on the West Bank, or in Kashmir, or in Malaysia, or in Chechnya are all given their place as part of a single narrative; as are issues about the distribution of economic power around the world.

In this country, the role of our government in these issues or its failure to help resolve them becomes a factor.  As does the wider sense of discrimination in jobs and wealth against Muslims (even if this is not something that directly affects the individuals concerned).  And, of course, the measures that have had to be taken to combat terrorism create their own mythology of prejudice and discrimination.

Every inappropriate stop under the Terrorism Act, every time there is a fuss about Control Orders and the debates we had about how long terrorist suspects can be held without charge will all feed – disproportionately – into that sense of grievance.

Now please do not get me wrong, I am not criticising the measures that have been taken to combat terrorism – I am a robust defender of their necessity.  I certainly believe that there is abundant evidence that such measures have to be taken given the number of people who have already progressed along a path of radicalisation to a willingness to commit atrocities.

What I am saying is that we must look at all our policies (including those designed specifically to combat those who have already gone down the path of radicalisation to that willingness to commit atrocities) and make sure that we are doing all we can to choke off the flow of young people being persuaded to follow down that path those who have already taken that journey.

However, we all have a role to play in ensuring that there is a strong and deep engagement with communities about what is being done to combat terrorism.  The more that people understand why particular measures are being taken, the more they recognise that those measures are being used in a fair and proportionate way, and the greater is the sense that the police service is there for them and provides support to all communities, the more willing will be people in those communities to support the police and the less likely will credence be given to those who try to argue that it is all part of the single narrative of victimisation of that community.

It is essential, too that the police can demonstrate that they are not fair-weather friends and that they will actively address the wider issues of concern to those communities.  It is essential, so that when things go wrong – as they will – that there can be a dialogue, a debate, and perhaps an understanding.  And it is essential, so that the police will have the support and perhaps the information that they need to take forward their work.”

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