By Professor Clive Williams
We tend to think in Australia that Britain has most of the answers in policing and that we can always learn from the British police. Having been in Britain for two weeks, I am less certain that is still the case.
To give you some examples:
A Premier League game between Manchester United and Bournemouth AFC was aborted last weekend "after a major terror alert" at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United. A crowd of 75,000 was evacuated and a controlled explosion conducted on a suspected IED. To my mind this was a massive overreaction by the Greater Manchester Police. The device was reportedly made up to look like a pipe bomb and was said to consist of a mobile phone attached to a pipe and left in one of the stadium lavatories. (It later proved to be an accidentally left-behind training device.)
There was no need for the stadium to be evacuated. The suspect device could have been dealt with by simply closing off the immediate area and sandbagging the suspected IED for later examination, or disrupting it in place (as happened), or removing it within a bomb containment unit. None of these measures required the evacuation of the stadium or the postponing of the fixture, which will now have knock-on effects for European competition and the players involved. Even if the device had detonated, it is unlikely the effects would have been felt beyond the toilet block.
I suspect that the Greater Manchester Police are running scared because of the recent finding of police culpability in the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster that killed 96 people. Better therefore to adopt a no-risk no-culpability policy than make an informed decision to let the match go ahead.
In Britain, IEDs are dealt with in London by the Metropolitan Police and outside of London by the army. There is no indication that the army EOD team at Old Trafford felt it was necessary to evacuate the stadium and abandon the fixture. This kind of police overreaction simply plays into the hands of those who want to undermine society through acts of terrorism or the threat of terrorist violence.
In the past, British Transport Police prided themselves on dealing with suspect IEDs while keeping the Underground and above-ground rail systems running. Most of the time they were dealing with hoax devices intended to disrupt the transport system. There are well-known indicators for a real device which would then be isolated and dealt with, causing minimum disruption to the travelling public.
It has been reported that the army might have to be deployed on British streets to counter the threat from terrorism because police officers are not volunteering to carry firearms, as they fear "being hung out to dry" if they shoot someone.
The British government has announced plans to recruit another 1500 extra firearms officers in the wake of the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks, but there are already 300 vacancies across England and Wales as the number of firearms authorised officers has fallen to its lowest level in seven years.
The Police Federation in a poll carried out with 122,000 front-line officers found that only one in five wanted to be armed with a gun. A further survey of 16,800 officers found that two out of five officers would like to be armed with Tasers, but it was claimed there has been little progress because of ministers "dragging their feet" on providing police with modern policing items such as Tasers and body-worn video cameras.
Police in Britain fear either a Paris or Brussels style terrorist attack, or a terrorist attack coming out of Northern Ireland. But there are significant differences in the threat profile between France/Belgium and Britain. Europe is awash with illegal automatic weapons coming from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. There are said to be more than a million illegal weapons in France alone.
Fortunately such firearms are not readily available in Britain, and an attack there – whether Islamist or Irish nationalist – is much more likely to take the form of an IED. Terrorist planning for a real IED attack will usually provide indicators that can be used to trigger a preventive response.
No lead-time Islamist attacks are more likely to feature knives or vehicles as weapons, but they are less likely to cause many casualties or be as deadly as other forms of attack.
Another media report had to do with police inaction over a "massive rave" that took place on Saturday night at Frome, Somerset, where police decided not to disrupt it "for health and safety reasons" until 9.30am on Sunday, despite receiving more than 400 calls from angry residents.
Greater Manchester Police were also in the news after Assistant Chief Constable Rebekah Sutcliffe was suspended following a childish late-night row in a hotel with another senior female police officer over who had the best boobs at a "senior women in policing" conference.
In Devon (where I am) the newly-elected Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner Alison Hernandez is under investigation for possible party election expense irregularities. This is hardly a good start for the latest incumbent of the £85,000 ($171,000) a year, four-year position charged with "securing efficient and effective policing". A PCC requires no policing experience, but the elected person controls police finances and can sack the chief police officer, the Chief Constable. Needless to say British police are less than happy with this situation.
British police TV shows invariably play up tensions between senior police managers and front-line police, who seldom seem to get senior management support for their day-to-day work. Whether this is just good television or a reflection of reality is not clear, but Australian police can take some comfort from the above examples in knowing they are streets ahead of British policing as it is practiced today.
Clive Williams is Visiting Professor at the ANU College of law is currently working in England. He is a criminologist and has been a member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators since 1990.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.