As we take stock of the terrible events in Paris last week – and the emergency in Belgium – the implications are beginning to sink in. Some are arguing that we should arm the police, or at least increase the number of armed officers. I find this incredibly difficult.
On the one hand, we have to protect the public – that’s the job of government. In cases like Paris that means we will have to meet violence with violence. You cannot negotiate with someone who wants to die. In a Paris-style scenario, you have to kill them before they kill others, which is why the government is right to support a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. And, incidentally, why Jeremy Corbyn’s equivocation is not just whacky politics; it’s outright dangerous.
On the other hand, we have to protect the public. In the vast, vast majority of cases that means working with the public. Most of the work to keep us safe and dispense justice has nothing to do with guns or bombs or suicidal maniacs. Most of it involves catching crooks and putting them on trial. And all of it – petty crime and international terrorism – relies on good intelligence, which starts with strong links between police and public.
Terrorism is a tactic that is used by weak armies to fight the strong. It can be very effective but it emerges from weakness to exploit weakness: you cannot destroy your enemy’s army or their government or even their people, so you attack their confidence, their togetherness and their ideas.
You cannot beat terrorism, therefore, with bigger guns. You already have bigger guns. Their tactics will remain. You have to fight them at their own game: never letting them sleep, undermining their ability to move and talk to each other and dividing them from their supporters. Guns are important, sure, but intelligence is more important.
Much of my professional life has been involved in fighting terrorists. When I was in Basra, Iraq, many argued we needed more kit. But what we really needed was better relations with local Iraqis who could tell us where the terrorists were. I was constantly struck by how easy it was to get distracted by kit. The trouble with kit is that it is clumsy, prone to breaking down and almost never where you want it.
Now I am responsible for policing I see the same problem from a different angle. The solutions and the challenges are the same. Never forget the basics: it’s all about people. You have to work with them, keep the good ones on side and pursue the bad ones to the end.
The same is true in Paris, or Brussels or on the streets of Wales. You have to have good links between the police and local people so they can pick up the titbits of information that lead to a terrorist cell. You have to have good relations so that communities aren’t inclined to help the terrorists.
That is why I think we must remain true to our police traditions and keep only very specialist armed officers for very specialist roles. We need to keep the situation under close review to ensure we have the response we need. But our police should remained unarmed, part of our communities and on our side.
Our most precious asset is the relationship between police and public. We must preserve that, whatever else we do.