Bitter memories. An officer helps a survivor of 7/7
In common with the rest of the British public, police officers across the United Kingdom watched in horror as the tragic events unfolded in Paris. When the horror subsided every police officer was asking one of two questions: "What if" or more disturbingly, "when."
Those same officers, many of whom would be first to arrive on the scene of any similar horrific situation in the UK, came to one damning conclusion; that the death toll would be many times greater here.
As I wrote in the Daily Mail, the bottom line is, quite simply, that whilst the French can throw hundreds of armed police on to the streets of Paris within minutes and thousands within an hour or so, we could not. Like a fire occurring in an occupied house, minutes count if lives are to be saved.
Following cutbacks, UK police numbers are now just over half that of their French counterparts. UK armed police numbers have been cut, yes cut, to just over 6,000; all 278,000 French police officers are armed. There have been no denials from the Home Office that their ultimate goal is just 80,000 police officers in England and Wales-a mere third the size of their French counterparts. Unbelievable and criminally stupid but doubtless welcomed by those with vested interests in private security companies.
In the aftermath of Paris, I watched with incredulity as Prime Minister David Cameron made the following statement; "We will do all we can to supply our police and intelligence agencies with the resources and the capabilities they need." Such was my level of incredulity that I had to replay this totally disingenuous soundbite several times.
His appearance reminded myself and others of the platitudes he uttered in the immediate aftermath of the tragic death of Merseyside PC, Dave Phillips. Yet just two days later, when grandstanding at the Tory party conference, Cameron's only reference to police was to accuse its officers of racism.
In the face of swingeing cuts to policing, assurances from the Home Secretary, Theresa May, that procedures are "in place" to deal with such terrorist atrocities have been greeted with derision by officers who are only too well aware that 'minutes count.'
Theresa May was suitably coy when interviewed about army support for police in the event of a major terrorist attack but if there is some sort of agreement with the army to provide immediate support in the event of an incident, ranking officers on the front line are unaware of it. It is these officers who would have to take immediate charge of that terror incident as it began.
Most police officers attending a terror incident involving jihadists with firearms would, in theory, be confined to being virtual spectators due the fact that they are unarmed. However every officer has considered his or her reaction to such an event. Many have said that if they encountered a Lee Rigby type scenario taking place in the street and were in a vehicle, they would ignore instructions and use that vehicle as a weapon in order to save lives.
The inevitable reaction to a horrific terror outrage is to deploy extra high visibility armed officers in central London together with air and sea ports. Even with the current high state of alert, simultaneous attacks for example, at Westfield in East London, Brent Cross in North West London, an underground train or station in central London and say Crystal Palace FC on a match day would stretch even these extra resources to the limit.
The situation in relation to other forces is even more desperate and there is real concern amongst officers in smaller, more rural forces, both for themselves and members of the public.
One officer stated that his nearest Armed Response Vehicle (ARV) would normally be at best 20 minutes away, often as long as 45 minutes. Even those armed ARV officers arriving at the scene could quite simply be overwhelmed by terrorist fire power in the absence of further assistance.
Officers still talk of the gun rampage in Cumbria by deranged taxi driver Derrick Bird that killed twelve people as police struggled to respond. Similar problems were also encountered by police in responding to shootings and murder in Northumbria by Raoul Moat who became a hero of the underclass before eventually shooting himself when cornered by police.
London may be a prime, high profile target but officers who police smaller towns are quick to point out that worldwide headlines would also be achieved by jihadist gunmen marauding through the undefended high streets of Thuro, Shrewsbury or Spalding.
Terrorists on the move. CCTV from 7/7.
Some forces are now having difficulty, in the wake of high profile police shootings involving Azelle Rodney and Mark Duggan, recruiting and retaining officers for their armed units.
Little wonder as the officer who shot dead Azelle Rodney had to endure ten years of torment before he was eventually tried and acquitted and if the officer involved in the Mark Duggan incident is eventually successfully prosecuted, armed units will certainly haemorrhage highly-trained officers leaving the UK even more dangerously exposed than at present.
Any mention of 'strong border controls' also brings hollow laughter from counter terrorist and UK Border Force officers working at our air and sea ports. Even as the trickle of jihadists travelling to Syria via Turkey became a flood, little was done by the Home Office to stem the flow and why UK police officers were not deployed to Turkish airports to assist Turkish authorities remains a mystery.
Embarrassingly, when the three jihadi schoolgirls travelled to Turkey, the one UK police officer stationed in Ankara had returned to the UK on leave and had to be rushed back.
Whilst official government figures place the number of travelling UK jihadists at 700, the real figure is likely to be closer to 2,000. Many of these have returned, remain unidentified and are a huge potential danger.
Amazingly, even amidst ISIS outrages in Europe and elsewhere, a review of Home Office funded counter terrorist policing at UK air and seaports is taking place with a view to cutting £12million from the budget. Those officers will tell you that their workload has doubled over the last few years with no increase in resources. Hopefully this ludicrous review will now be reviewed!!
The shambles at our borders doesn't end there. Theresa May's own creation, the UK Border Force, has suffered cutbacks and chaotic reorganisation. Former customs officers, who have been reluctantly absorbed into the border force, are now concerned that the detection of 'contraband' including drugs, firearms and component parts of firearms are being neglected; concerns in respect of smuggling were echoed by the former Chief Inspector of Borders John Vine, who quit his post after his reports were being redacted and 'bad news' publications delayed by the Home office.
Many of these skilled customs officers are furious at having been deployed permanently to passport controls where, despite Home Office denials, the priority is still avoiding queues.
Despite government denials, the reduction in police helicopter cover and police dog units will be a severe handicap in dealing with a terrorist incident. Helicopter cover across the country has been reduced and there are frequent complaints that helicopter assistance in frequently unavailable. Yet a helicopter is a priceless tool when dealing with any terrorist related incident.
Equally disturbing is the ongoing collapse of community policing which will unquestionably adversely affect operations against potential terrorists. It is from these communities that vital policing intelligence is received and, even if surveillance powers are increased, the absence of community intelligence will be potentially catastrophic.
The recent, much publicised armed police exercise in central London was useful although component parts were unavoidably missing due to tragic events in Sousse. Even that exercise however could not replicate the true horror of a potential attack that could be even more devastating than that in Paris.
On the positive side, armed police units are trained to a high standard and are able to deal with virtually any situation. There is ongoing cooperation with the armed forces with which there is a close relationship forged by joint exercises yet, as stated above, it is the initial stages of a terrorist incident that are crucial and for these the police will be solely responsible.
In London the simple fact is that the armed police 'jam' does not cover the slice of bread that is one of the world's major cities and does not even begin to lightly smear much of the loaf that is the UK.
Meanwhile, the increase announced by the government in the numbers of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ officers together with increased funding is a bittersweet pill for struggling police officers on the front line to swallow.
Whatever horrors await the British police service as the result of terrorist outrages, officers will not forgive the bile and untruths heaped upon them by David Cameron, Theresa May and Police Minister Mike Penning or the cuts that endanger both themselves and the public they have sworn to protect.