Comment

Terror and the Metropolitan Police

Preventing future terror attacks in London rests heavily on the trust that exists between the police and the community

When Cressida Dick (56), the first lady officer to preside over the 188-year-old Metropolitan Police (Met), assumed office on April 10 this year, she should certainly have known that she was taking up one of the toughest police jobs anywhere in the world. A city of over eight million with a hugely diverse population, London, by any standards, is complex to police. Crime is on the rise, if not statistically, at least in public perception. The phenomenon of ‘knife crime’, mainly by white youth, has assumed dangerous proportions, with the Met having to form special task forces to handle it sternly. The situation is compounded by a tinge of politics, caused especially by differences between an incumbent government belonging to one party and the Mayor to a different party.

Although she is a Home Office appointee, the Commissioner reports to the Mayor. Not long ago a Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, gave hell to Ian Blair, appointed by the Labour government in 2005. Mr. Blair had to finally call it a day. This is the political backdrop against which Ms. Dick has to operate. She does not owe her job to either political party, and is generally known to be apolitical and a thorough professional. But she has had a torrid early tenure: first, the strain of coping with the aftermath of the March 22 attack near Parliament, and now last week’s attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market, both in central London.

Fortunately, the lightning-like response of the police to the first of the two attacks of last week has won wholesome praise from everyone. Ms. Dick can therefore rest assured that her force will not be lacking in speed if the capital is again subjected to violence. However, the question many Londoners are asking is, how can the police foil a future assault? Do they have enough resources, manpower and legal authority? It is difficult to answer in the affirmative.

The need for numbers

Terrorist violence since 9/11 has repeatedly proved that despite all technological assistance that the police have been given, the latter need more hands. There is nothing as reassuring to the public as seeing an armed policeman in uniform on the street. The Met and the rest of U.K. police have no doubt a litany of complaints against successive Conservative governments, chief of them being an unimaginatively drastic reduction in police strength. A rough estimate is of a loss of about 12,000 jobs in the past seven years. This comes at a time when the police have on their radar about 3,500 terror suspects, and 28,000 “persons of interest”. While the Met has about 30,000 men and women, the rest of the country has only about 90,000. There is a clear mismatch here between resources and workload.

The next major issue that confronts the police leadership is: Can the Met and the rest of the U.K. police do more to prevent terrorist attacks? Yes, they can, provided there is a blanket assurance that no policeman will be hauled up for any bona fide action against a terrorist suspect. The task requires constant updating of police dossiers. This calls for sustained fieldwork to collect basic data. Whether the existing police strength — with the assistance of MI5, the domestic intelligence outfit — is sufficient to do this is a moot question.

Keeping tabs on radicals

There are known hotspots in London, Birmingham and a host of other places where frustrated Muslim youth are susceptible to recruitment to the militant ideology. Physical and electronic surveillance by the police of suspects is in place. An eye is being kept also on certain mosques for disseminating objectionable propaganda material. The problem, however, is that the arm of the law doesn’t extend to indoctrinated, radicalised youth until they commit a crime — this explains the phenomenon of persons let off after questioning going on to indulge in violence.

Ultimately the effectiveness of action in such situations rests heavily on the trust that exists between the police and the community. To be specific, there is a need for ceaseless communication channels that would help identify indoctrinated/radicalised youth; where there is a hiatus, little can be achieved. Despite all the confidence in the overall ability of the police to keep the average citizen safe, what is of concern is the growing feeling that terrorism can never be rooted out completely.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 1:26:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/terror-and-the-metropolitan-police/article18788561.ece

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