Monday, 22 February 2010

Security threat levels, police responses and public perceptions.

A post I read a few days ago over on Stressedoutcop's blog got me thinking about the wider issues raised by his observations on dealing with the scene of a potential threat to the safety of the public. It comes in the wake of several other bloggers, including Crime Analyst, who have raised the issue of the utter paucity of available police resources to respond to the unexpected, although not necessarily a terrorist incident. Stressedout's post reminded me of one of my first bloggings, which was about a Sunday afternoon's duty being totally transformed, in a blink, from the excited buzz of Speakers Corner, Hyde Park, into one of mass death and the destruction of an airliner near Heathrow airport. My post focussed not on the scene, because I never actually arrived, but on the reaction of the great British public who prevented my unit from getting to it, inadvertently sparing us the horror of having to become temporary mortuary attendants but in so doing, adding to the problems of the emergency services at and near the scene. (Read it here if you want to) My entire police service was overshadowed by Irish Republican terrorism. In my early years in London there wasn't a week that passed when I was not either involved in some sort of bomb threat or security scare, or one that I'd heard of on a neighbouring division, via my personal radio or in another police force via the news media. In one week there were at least 5 explosions and a drive-by machine gun attack on or near my central London Division. I heard many an IRA bomb blast echoing across the rooftops of the West End and was among the first at at the scene of two, the images of which will never leave me. Even in my last decade, I was closely involved with operations that were mounted to protect military personnel at public events or on covert armed CT operations to try and protect prominent people or capture those who were intent on killing them. Since I moved on to other things further from the sharp end, other terrorist organisations and acronyms have entered the current vernacular and although less frequent than the dark days of PIRA mainland bomb attacks, the next generation, this generation, has been horrified by even greater acts of mass murder and destruction on an international scale, although one could argue that the citizens of Northern Ireland have endured a similar ordeal, spread over decades, which shifted the way they conducted their everyday lives. The one thing that I always feared, as a senior officer expected to assume command at the scene of such an incident, was having the resources available to do the essentials and having the clarity of thought and resolutness to get it all done and not let anyone down. As a Pc in London, when we had a confirmed `coded` bomb threat the initial 15 minutes were utterly nerve shredding, especially as we were rarely given a precise location by the informant, a deliberate tactic to heighten panic - (thats why its called terrorism). Being in central London we had lots of divisions concentrated in a small area and so always seemed to manage to get the resources we needed, at least from my perspective, although on every occasion it was very much on a `wing and a prayer`. Smaller forces have fewer officers per square mile and later in my career as a `county mountie` attending similar incidents, I really felt the difference of being away from The `Met`, particularly when comparing the practical experience of the county force who didn't have as much practice. Until, that is, they copped a real bomb, then it all stepped up a gear. Which brings me back to Stressedoutcops post. He said something that showed just how aware he really is to the situations he envisaged in his post and it was this, "I don't know how I'd react but hope I could detach myself from trying to be hands on and put in place the building blocks needed". Spot on. The blocks of building a structure of `contol` at a major incident, is down to the first officers at the scene. Having grasped the seriousness of the situation, the toughest thing is to realise that they have to remain detached from `alligator fighting` and think `swamp drainage`. Manuals are written on this sort of thing, but in short it means that the first officers must fight the urge to dive in to something which although appearing important in the initial moments, like slapping a bandage on a bleeding citizens head wound, have to be delegated. A major incident, such as the substantial and credible threat of a bomb going off, means that bigger things have to be considered like where to put the main RV point, ambulance and fire service RVP's, where the best access and egress points are to ensure your routes in and out won't become quickly clogged by emergency vehicles, good comms reception and a whole raft of other considerations that any police officer reading this will be well aware of - if their force has allocated the time to train it. In the real world the initial phase of such incidents are, as Stressedout` stated, totally chaotic and you are unlikely to find even a handful of Pc's required to do the work that a dozen would struggle with. Cordoned off areas by the use of the magic tape, the removal of the public from danger, the preservation of evidence, and the creation of good access points for specialist officers from all services are just 4 important tasks from a list that can go on for pages. It doesn't make exciting TV news footage but it is what the job will ultimately stand or fall by When the bomb threats and explosions became a regular feature of my working life, we became quite good at it, and so did the public. In the beginning, a cordoned off street or two would bring the problems and antics that Stressedout wrote of, with Joe and Josephine Public responding with gripes, complaints, piss taking and occasionally downright obstruction of our duties. Once the bombs started to go off, the glass started to fly and the flesh and limbs started to get blown off, the public (and the police) started to get the message. The sort of police training required to manage the first 30 minutes of a serious incident such as described herein and by Stressedout` happens, typically, once every 5 years, in a classroom, for perhaps an hour or two. Take a look at the faces of these innocent people. They are now just statistics and we should all remind ourselves that they were once living, loving and loved. It has been relatively quiet of late, so what has been happening in the lull? The debate on the various police blogs about the diminishing size of police response teams at police stations across the UK highlight their struggle to answer the usual influx of calls, let alone incidents that require the rapid build-up of resources that a major incident demands. And don't be fooled by the use of the term `Major` either. Around 15 simultaneous, serious casualties will pretty much close a typical hospital's A&E department. And as for Stressedout's original, valid point about the questionable value of the `Security Threat Level` and of the concurring derisory comments this matrix attracted, I think that it would be far better if this month's Home Secretary issued some sort of expectation of response from members of the public, so that they know how to react when confronted by a hastily erected police cordon and how, by failing to adhere to it or follow instructions issued at the scene thereof, they could actually be hindering the emergency services, putting themselves and others at risk and, if they breach said cordon they could be breaking the law. This would be far more useful than a nebulous soundbite that educates and informs no one but scares tens of thousands. Once upon a time, Londoners were amongst the most `bomb savvy` people in the western world (outside of Northern Ireland of course, whose remarkable people are in a different league altogether). I do hope it doesn't take more people being blown apart before the message gets across again.


Blue Eyes said...

Fantastic post, Mr H. What a shame that politics seems to attract people without the kind of experience and knowledge that you have and rejects those who clearly would be a massive asset to the country.

De Campo said...

Excellent post. It’s fascinating how the lives (i.e.: situational awareness levels) of Londoners has morphed over the years.

Are the IRA still active players in terrorism? Since 9/11 I imagine most of their support evaporated. I know that their image in my Irish Catholic community in Baltimore was completely flipped after the 9/11 attack.

Hogday said...

Blue: Glad you found it interesting. It really was just `bread and butter` to us, in those not too distant days past.

De Campo; Glad you enjoyed it too. PIRA...hmm, how can I put this? Maybe with a question to your question: Do people whose lifestyle for 40 years was bomb making, shooting, terrorism and extortion, suddenly sign onto the dole and seek lawful employment? When I was in the states in the 80's I found it difficult explaining that American donations, however well meaning, were actually paying towards the killing of British police officers, just like me.

Crime Analyst said...

Fascinating stuff H.

My brother in law was at Tottenham Court Rd, then Heathrow during the seventies / eighties at the same time I was in the West Muds. His experiences were often more highly charged than my own, although we did have the Handsworth riots and mutual aid miners scraps.

Thnaks for the link and reference to the article in progress about resources. Your post on "our bit" was greatly appreciated too, many thanks.

I wonder if you saw the article about ACPO siphoning cash from the anti terror funds for flats in Westminster and what your thoughts were?

Now if it were the anti terrorism unit, who could justify the use of the funds in the interests of public safety, I'm sure there wouldn't be an outcry. As it is, it seems to have created a right old acpo stink yet again.

All the best

aka Crime Analyst

Hogday said...

Steve: Cheers. As for my comments about the cash siphoning, I will have to take a short thinking break to polish of a bottle of Champers before commenting on that. You see, I used to outrank the head of the NPIA (but only until he'd got about 4 years service)
Chin-Chin ;)

Stressed Out Cop said...

Mr Hogday

This is a Great post you have written. Your wealth of experience from the common sense times shows where we are taking our eye off the ball in today's policing.

Brilliant Stuff

Stressed Out Cop said...

Oh and I once met the bloke who was first on scene at that crash in 72

1 solitary PC at the outset .. Can you imagine being faced with that.

Anonymous said...

My best mate and I teach "strategy" and concluded long ago it is all written in retrospect. I'm all for planning and practice, but it all seems to get taken over by idiots mouthing dross and setting up briefings, incident rooms and the rest as the clock ticks down on what needs doing with real speed. The answers are things like 'partnership working' but we all know this is just another throw-away phrase. Quality and all the rest require genuine evaluation and honesty - both out of the window before we start.

Hogday said...

SOC: Glad you're still talking to me. I will add the letter `i` after anything I comment about on your blog if i think you might miss it and give me the 1000 yard stare - lol.

allcoppedout: You have no idea how vividly relevant your comment is to me, concerning someone I've hinted at and sent a private msg to Analyst about.

Analyst: Re the above. Spooky eh?

JuliaM said...

I guess this morning's news answered De Campo's question..?

Agree with the others on rhe quality of this post, Hogday. A very enlightening one, and shows how 'progress' isn't always what some people strive for, no matter what their focus-group mandated strapline says...

headless said...

Cheers Hogday - another great post. I'm not in the same line of work, so it's really interesting to read - certainly more so than some of the other police blogs, which, if I may say so, seem just to be complaining and whining the whole time. (NB - Not *every* other police blog! before I start getting flamed!!)

What a better use of money it would be to adopt some kind of public information "ad" to inform the public about how we could/should respond to a hastily thrown up police cordon, rather than advertising the "Policing Pledge" (I mean - really?! What's the point???!)

Hogday said...

JuliaM: Thanks for the comment and, yes, how (un)timely my post was, particularly in respect of De Campo's question. My heart sank when the news of that massive IED broke, despite the fact that I was expecting something like it, but not because of anything the Home Secretary said.

Headless: I would be so surprised if the Home Office came up with something useful and workable. If you want to hear the quality of my whining, just keep mentioning that pledge thing. I can't even bring myself to buy that particular brand of furniture polish anymore. Its all just veneer anyway.

Pearl said...

I've always wondered how I would react in an emergency of this level -- and how others in the area would as well.

I hope to remain ignorant as long as possible.


Hogday said...

Hi Pearl and welcome to the North of England. You'd be comfortable here, we have snow, but much warmer stuff than yours;)
I think you'd do OK. I was in a Michigan city once, and a call to a supermarket robbery. When the officers arrived and put the first round into their pump action shotguns, all the customers hit the deck in a sort of inverse Mexican wave - they were well drilled! In England folks would just sort of gawp. Needs must eh?

Mermaid of Moorgate said...

I've always had a lot of respect for the coppers I meet on the beat and I've actually had a brilliant response each time I've called my local police force. My favourite one was when four youths were graffiti-ing on a bus in Lambeth, so I told them off and said if I caught them at it again, I would call the police. They stopped for a bit and moved seats, then they started up again. I called the local police on them (for which I put the direct local number in my phone), described where the bus was headed to and within 3 minutes, bang on target, three police cars had surrounded the bus and hauled off the offending oiks. Brilliant swoop. ONe of the officers called me back on my phone to describe the gang.

"one of them had really ugly teeth, I mean, they stick out all over the place" i said.

Respect to the policewoman on the other end of the phone, who laughed her ass off. "They're the ones" she replied.

"Are they crying?" I asked

"Yep" she said.

"Good. Hopefully this will have taught them a lesson they will learn from", I said.

"With those teeth, i doubt it"...

beautiful moment.

Hogday said...

Mermaid from Moorgate: I've always wanted to believe in Mermaids! Take care when you confront the unruly, but my respect to you for having a backbone. Make sure you always have an escape plan as well ;)

Blue Eyes said...

Crikey that was bold Mermaid. People have been stabbed to death for less.

archytas said...

We (management academics) used to joke about selling our wares. MBO (management by objectives) in 1960, PBO (policing by objectives) in 1990. The cops being dumb enough to buy clapped out, failed stuff years after sell by date.
Stuff like BPR (business process re-engineering) and high power McKinsey consultancy is all based on dross I might put up for ridicule to undergrads.
What's needed is genuine problem identification and real-time evaluation (and not as more jargon) across the legal system and its connections.
Every cop I know is more budget conscious than most business students, but for the wrong reasons.
I left the job after watching an inspector fall into the hole in the road I'd coned off, as he bollocked me for putting them in the wrong place and leaving my car with the engine running (because of a flat battery).
We have no clue about how to use resources because they are all being spent on people doing the wrong things because this is what they get paid for. It's all much worse than British Leyland sleeping through the night shift.
I've seen community initiatives collapse because they were given money - which brought in the time-wasters.

Anonymous said...

I'm struck in many police related blogs that official figures won't help much in helping analyse the real problems.
I was a cop until 1978 and we were dealing with much less crime. There were less of us, less civvies and much less equipment. At Mudwater Airport, there were some old weapons in a SB locker and two of us with a revolver 'protecting' a 30 mile perimeter. SOCO was primitive.
A recent PhD on cuffing, nodding and the rest could have been written then. One just doesn't seem able to trace what has been going on, changing and remaining the same through 'figures'. I feel the same as an academic about society as a whole.
There has to be another way into these problems. The 'data' are all bent and there a few, if any signs of genuine evaluation or willingness to engage in such a process. Nulabour make me sick, but no alternative seems to be putting genuine mechanisms for transparency forward. Blogs are outing a bit of the pressure, but I am reminded of Samizdat in the old Soviet Block. Reading in here is a bit like watching Bremner, Bird and Fortune.
Police and varieties of social work expansion look a bit like coming back 35 years on and finding a double-sized factory producing 75% of old output with few workers and a massed bureaucracy.

Mermaid of Moorgate said...

Blue eyes - I've been responsible for the public attrition of many an unruly teenager in Lambeth. I don't know why - maybe it's the fishy tail - but when I ask them to pick up their litter or clear up after their dogs, they do. All youth need is a little proper, reasonable discipline that does not make them feel like crims, but which makes them assess their behaviour. Or so I hope. Maybe they've got a hit out on me...

Hogday said...

Archytas: Keeping this short, your final para. translates, to me, as what I have termed elsewhere (having poached the expression from a former, highly specialist, flying soldier) as `the long screwdriver`. A tool wielded from afar by someone unaware of what they are screwing, or why.

Allcoppedout: Strategic police leaders(sorry, managers, `leader` was removed from the Bramshill College well before my course) still need the heart and soul of the skilled, street level, police tacticians. But the old apprenticeship scheme has gone for a burton. Perhaps in a similar way, to use your Russki analogy, that the Stakhanovites had the plot wrested from their grasp and reduced to propaganda?

Anonymous said...

Whatever is going on Hog, I'm as sure as I can be that the 'dark heart' of Broken Britain is a combination of scrote and over-paid jobsworth bureaucracy, with all the latter not having to live or work where the problems are.
I really can't see you or I wandering away from some poor kid's doorstep after being allowed a glimpse (unless we are self-deceiving). Yet this is happening and was when I tossed away my big hat 30 years back.
Sutcliffe is now at low risk of re-offending. Maybe we should warm up the 'long screwdriver' - red hot pokers once had uses! I reckon news of his possible release is just a blind. They'll sneak out a few more dangerous unknowns while we are looking at him.

Hogday said...

Allcoppedout: I expect we'd be told its all in the interests of equality. Well equality has to be enforced wheras freedom has to be defended. I'd rather be a defender than an enforcer.