Bigger is not necessarily better in counterterrorism

There are currently 43 policing regions in England and Wales, which are vastly different in terms of officer numbers, populations and geographical size. But this is set to change as Home Secretary Charles Clarke ordered that some smaller forces will merge, whether they want to or not, into larger regional organisations. According to Clarke, larger forces will have the capacity and specialist expertise to protect the public from more serious threats, such as organised crime and terrorism. However, not everyone is so confident that the Government's new model will work. Is bigger necessarily better? Sean Price, chief constable of Cleveland Police, is not so sure.

Cleveland is one of the country's smaller police regions. It has a population of around 550,000 and a total of 1,704 officers and 873 staff. Compare this with London, where some 35,000 officers police a population of about 7.5 million. Within Cleveland's force boundary are a nuclear reactor, extensive chemical works and one of the largest mines in Europe. Despite its small size, these important and potentially hazardous facilities mean that Cleveland Police faces challenges equivalent to those of much larger regions. And these challenges are being well met, according to Price.

He says: "Just because it is outside of London, it does not mean that [Cleveland Police] will be ignoring any of these sites, and this is true for all the police forces [in the UK].

"We look at the threat assessment, areas that may be likely targets, and look at the probability [of an attack]. We often work with industry and other forces and, in the case of the nuclear reactor, we work closely with the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, and we put in protective measures. I think every force across the country will have different levels of protection depending on the sites in their region."

Working and training closely with your local first responders is an absolute necessity and Cleveland Police makes no exception. Police, ambulance and fire services train together regularly and, over the past three years, have been called to deal with several hazardous material spills or potentially life-threatening fires. It is, according to Price, a tribute to the training, experience and capability of Cleveland's emergency services that these incidents were dealt with quickly and efficiently, with little or no disruption to local inhabitants and scarcely a flicker of interest in the media.

In November 2005, an exercise at the port of Teesport simulated the effects of an explosion on a freighter that sent a cloud of ricin over the area. Some 100 police officers, as well as 40 firefighters and a squad of paramedics and doctors, took part in the exercise and the operation was co-ordinated by ground commanders and officers at Cleveland Police's headquarters. Rescue personnel, equipped with decontamination equipment and chemical agent detectors, scoured the docks looking for traces of the ricin while decontamination tents were set up to clean the 'victims'.

Price is proud of his force's capabilities. He notes: "It is widely recognised that the emergency services in the region have an expertise in dealing with chemical and petroleum sites."

Community relations

While issues of resilience are all-important in a region with facilities such as those found in Cleveland, the worry of terrorism is present across the nation. There is no official record of any attacks or threats to Cleveland, but the presence of sites such as the nuclear reactor at Hartlepool means the police have to be diligent and aware to any threats.

This requires a close working relationship with industry. Cleveland Police has appointed a counterterrorist security adviser who consults on protection and prevention issues with sites possibly at risk. The officer is able to advise on security and architecture, where to place tankers, chemicals and CCTV cameras and how to draw up contingency plans. Both the nuclear and chemical industries regularly take part in joint-operation rehearsals with the police on call to help.

Price is concerned more with community relations. Middlesbrough, Stockton and Hartlepool all have significant Muslim communities. Cleveland has not suffered significant problems with right-wing groups, but the fear of such an escalation is persistent. Price explained how he has dealt with potential community tensions: "Following events such as the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, the onus is on provincial forces such as ourselves, which have a strong Muslim community, to make sure they feel safe and protected in an environment, where there will be some individuals who will use the excuse of the bombings to attack them." One way to do this is by carrying out lots of high-visibility patrolling in potential risk areas.

There were several incidents in Cleveland in the immediate aftermath of 7 July 2005 bombings when members of ethnic communities were attacked, but these were few in number and often alcohol-driven, rather than pre-mediated racist attacks.

The police also work closely with community leaders, both on an individual basis and in independent advisory groups, which makes it possible to discuss tensions or particular issues within an area. Price also noted that he could use the group to test any new policing plans for the region and gauge a likely response before they are enacted.

The merger

The Home Secretary has now announced the compulsory merger of the three northeastern police forces: Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria. Four months of consultation as to how this is to be achieved will be completed by July, when Clarke will present his plan before parliament and the new, regional police force will begin operations in April 2007.

Price disagrees with the merger. Explaining his opposition, he says: "I feel we still do not have the answers we need to a range of things. The first being funding where there is a significant gap in what we think will be needed for the merged forces. We have a figure of almost GBP40 million higher than that of the Home Office and there is no real explanation of exactly how that will be met."

Furthermore, there has been limited discussion as to what will happen to police staff, with some arguing that redundancies will be necessary, while some Government reports suggest more will be needed. But, as Price noted, with the government looking for the merged police force to make savings of over GBP9 million a year in staffing, additional recruits seem unlikely.

Finally, according to Price, the local population is against the merger. He claims its not just people refusing to evolve but a far-reaching opposition to losing their local police force and being part of something much greater. After all, he emphasises, take the negative reaction to a northeastern regional assembly, for example.

But this is not to say that Price and Cleveland are opposed to change. He explains: "We see the necessity of change. It is not as if we want to stay as we are. We presented options such as a plan to have broken the region into two forces; a merger with Durham police; greater collaboration between the three forces; and a federal approach, where we would share certain capabilities, such as in human resources and finance, but keeping the identify of the individual forces. All of these were offered and were potentially much cheaper than the merger option, but also give improvements in protective services such as counterterrorism and level two crime that are required."

He adds: "We would really like the Home Secretary to say that he needs to look at this again. I know my Police Authority has written to him and asked him to look at it again and wait a year before doing so, and they are considering a legal response. The authority has been advised that it can pursue a judicial review if that is what it wants to do. I believe there are grounds for it to be reviewed."

Price fears that a large regional force would affect the local accountability of police and that could potentially invite issues when dealing with local industry. He questioned whether the new force could adapt to change and meet local needs. Price pointed out that he can go out into the community and, if there is a problem, adapt his policing style or move resources accordingly. But, he worries, will the chief constable of a larger force be able to be so flexible and meet local concerns?

Price acknowledges that London's Metropolitan Police covers a far larger area with many more people, but emphasises the differences. He says: "For a number of years, people have discussed breaking the Met down and this is perhaps recognition that once you get beyond a certain size, it gets hard to have a local policing model.

"If you are head of a larger organisation, how do you keep your finger on the pulse of what is required and to see what is needed to change. I know how hard it is to change an organisation that only has 2,600 people. If you have an organisation of 40,000, this is obviously magnified. It is possible to deliver a service with that amount of people, and the Met is clearly doing it, but is it the service we want for the rest of the country? In the northeast, I have heard that we want smaller, more accountable forces rather than larger, more anonymous forces. Speaking personally, I would rather be the kind of chief constable who is hands on and on the ground rather than a faceless bureaucrat."

There has been much criticism that the recommendations of the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary's report, Closing the Gap. They have been rushed through too quickly and, according to Price, they have not been thought through sufficiently.

He says: "There is a way of being able to address these issues and give these groups what they want while also giving a better service. Is that not better than pushing for a model than no one actually wants?"

Sean Price was talking to Chris Pope, editor of Monitor

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