A Tale of Two Cities - Police bravery in the face of emerging threats

In March 2018, two separate attacks of terror, committed in two similarly ancient cities in Britain and France, have demonstrated how fortunate we are in Europe to have police officers that are committed to protecting the public and are prepared to sacrifice themselves to help save others. However, their job is getting harder.

Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame of the Gendarmerie Nationale, will have known the risks he was taking when he decided to enter the supermarket in Trebes, and exchange a civilian hostage for himself. He was a highly trained commander in an elite organisation, who have had to deal with the constant deadly threat of Islamic Terrorism in France. He consciously and courageously made his decision for the service of others, which brought about an end to the deadly siege that had occurred. He paid the ultimate sacrifice. Likewise, although in very different circumstances, Police Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey, whilst on duty in Salisbury, instinctively reacted to help the Skripal family of father and daughter, unknowingly contaminating himself with deadly nerve agent. He could not have known that he was dealing with corrupt and out of control state actors intent on murder on foreign soil, but he reacted in the way he had been trained. No doubt he saved the lives of the Skripals, yet very nearly ended his own.

The two incidents were very different in their nature, but both required the police officers to make rapid decisions and to act; to combine their training with their instinct and their selfless commitment to do the right thing. They were not alone in what our security services, in particular our respective police forces, have to deal with on a daily basis in Britain and France. So much is expected of our police forces, dealing with everything from community relations, theft, vandalism, drugs, public disorder, traffic offences, domestic violence, cyber attacks and of course, terrorism in all its forms. No one day can be the same on patrol and police officers must deal with the boredom of the mundane, to the moments of sheer terror where their lives are put at risk, or where split second life or death decisions have to be made. No more so is this apparent than with British Police firearms officers, who must take instant decisions in uncertain and dangerous situations and then answer to an investigative body. The job of any police force is thus getting much harder, as they bridge the gap between civil policing and low end military conflict. In Britain it is claimed that there may be a further 14 suspicious deaths of Russian nationals that need further investigation. Just ‘doing your job’ has become more dangerous and complex, yet it is clear that the police will need more resources and support to cope with the growing threats.

Anyone who has served in the British Military over the past 30 years, will fully understand this dynamic, where the military have come from the other end of the spectrum of violence. In war, whilst obeying both the Geneva Convention and the Law of Armed Conflict might be relatively simple, commanders have had to understand and interpret different and changing ‘rules of engagement’ and to separate the civilian from the insurgent (often blurred) and to apply what has been termed ‘courageous restraint’ in not using lethal force, even if it possibly puts the soldier and his comrades in more danger. Where the soldier has had to understand how to apply limited military force in a civilian environment, so too the police are learning to apply their police role in a more paramilitary context. The truncheon is replaced by the assault rifle, yet civil law remains the same. However, the decision making often comes with more risk and greater consequences. Split second decisions without a clear picture of the situation have to be made and may have life long consequences. Furthermore, the decisions made in the heat of the moment may not be understood by a complaints board that will see any action through the eyes of civil law and from the comfortable position of a boardroom and in hindsight. The recent report from the Manchester bombing in 2017 is another such example of difficult decisions in complex situations, where willing fire and rescue crews were incorrectly kept away from the incident for too long.

As the UK and Europe strive to maintain public order and preserve civil liberties at a time of ever increasing threats and internal economic and social strife, so there is a need for governments to recognise the importance of the new roles for the police and how they will need to be supported and funded to adapt to new threats. This will include changes to the selection, education and training of the police and they will need agile and adaptive rules of engagement that are fit for the emerging threats. Perhaps France is ahead of Britain to tackle the new threats, with organisations such as the Gendarmerie Nationale. No doubt there will be a financial cost to the required change and there will be debates to be had about the role of the police in the emerging environment of the 21st Century. The UK Government’s recently published National Security Capability Review is a good start, but the intent needs to be followed through with resources and action.

I named this article ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, as I observed a link of how two ancient cities in France and Britain had been the scenes of acts of modern day terrorism, that most people would not have thought possible thirty years ago. Yet they have happened, and were it not for the police bravery shown, more people are likely to have been killed or injured. Most importantly, we, the public, and our governments, need to support our respective police forces. It is a very thin blue line and we should not forget the sacrifices they make for us all on a daily basis.

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