WITH the terror threat so high, there is now a debate about whether Britain needs to increase the number of armed police officers in order to respond to any Paris-style attack.
The Met Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, has spoken plainly about being able to cope with the terrifying prospect of ‘marauding shooters’ attacking multiple sites at the same time across London.
His response to the threat is to increase the numbers of armed police to 5,000 officers.
I’m a great advocate of increasing our police and security capability, and our capacity to meet the awful spectre of a Paris atrocity here, but what about regions outside London?
Northern cities have been targeted by terrorists in the past – they’ve even focused on small towns – so where do the likes of York, Harrogate and Skipton fit into the larger picture? How capable are they responding to a terrorist incident?
Several chief constables from the North have now spoken out, one or two quite candidly, and they’ve said that they simply couldn’t cope. They’d probably manage to get a handful of armed response officers to the scene within 15 or 20 minutes in a big city like Leeds. But in York? Or a rural market town?
Our neighbours in West and South Yorkshire, and Humberside would rush armed officers to our assistance, as we would for them, but inevitably it would take time – and overlooks the fact that they might be dealing with an attack themselves.
The positive news is that the Government has recognised this to some degree and has approved a national increase in the numbers of police who are to be trained in the use of firearms. The unanswered question is just where is the funding coming from?
We’ve seen some diabolical cuts to policing budgets over the past five years and frontline policing numbers have been eroded despite Westminster’s assurances to the contrary. In fact, the Chancellor was all set for a further 23 per cent cut to be imposed before the horrific events in Paris forced a welcome U- turn.
Nevertheless, the damage is already done. Ask anyone in North Yorkshire if they’re satisfied with current levels of policing and see what they say.
I spoke on national radio and mentioned some of our own heritage sites here in North Yorkshire, including the many strategic Ministry of Defence sites we’re also responsible for, and I asked the question again: What about us?
The reality is that we’re dependent on armed officers coming to help us from elsewhere. With the best will in the world, armed response units racing to our assistance from neighbours could still take an hour or more to reach the scene of an attack.
When Derrick Bird went on a murderous shooting spree in rural Cumbria in 2010, their closest armed response officers were the firearms units of the Civil Nuclear Police who guard the power station on the Cumbrian coast at Sellafield. Bird was at large for six hours. He killed 12 and shot 11 others.
There’s no easy solution to this, but it’s something we’ve got to sort – quickly. We need a capability that can effectively deploy our own North Yorkshire armed officers if required – and they need to know that reinforcements are will arrive within minutes, not hours.
There has been talk of regional hubs, including a North East base from which armed officers could be quickly deployed to provide a fast and effective response. This wouldn’t replace our own armed officers on the ground in North Yorkshire, but would be available to reinforce them.
This is all very well, but we can’t have them piling into a minibus. What we desperately need is an air-lift capacity. We need helicopters – which is ironic, considering that recent cuts have seen police helicopters sold off and local bases closed.
North Yorkshire has been particularly affected. At the moment the closest helicopter base is at Teesside Airport – also earmarked to be scrapped along with others.
I’ve made no bones about this in the past. It was short-sighted, and I fear we may have thrown the baby out with the bath water. We need the type of helicopter that has the capacity to complement any increaset in armed police numbers, and get them from A to B quickly.
The Government is making it a requirement for each force to increase its armed officers. But there’s no talk of more officers, just training existing ones. That means withdrawing officers from other roles and reducing their presence on the street. They’re simply asking us to rob Peter to pay Paul.
I understand that for many that this whole subject is really uncomfortable, because it forces us as a society to face up to being somewhere we actually don’t want to be.
The truth is that the spectre of terrorism is real, it’s a national security issue and the grim reality is that we are one Government ‘Cobra’ meeting away from seeing armed police supported by the military actually deployed on our streets.
A Paris-style terror attack here will change us forever and it’s right and proper to be prepared. We the need capacity and capability to put armed police officers where they’re required – quickly, or we could pay dearly.
Armed police won’t prevent an attack but the prompt intervention of armed police will mitigate the loss of life.
The brave men and women who volunteer for this training will run towards the gunfire when the public run away. Their role is to engage the terrorists so that they shoot at them – and not us, the public.
The Metropolitan Police have shown their capability by conducting several high profile training exercises on London’s streets to demonstrate their armed response to an attack and I’ve got to say the resources that the Met have are impressive and reassuring to see... but what about us?
Mike Pannett is an author, director, consultant and former police officer. He is standing as an Independent in this May’s crime commissioner election in North Yorkshire.