Recent events in London and the terrible attack in Las Vegas this week have brought the issue of major attacks in public places into sharp focus. Lincolnshire Police, like other forces, is constantly preparing for a major incident and reporter Chrissie Redford took part in one of the force’s training days which look at how such an attack unfolds and how emergency services respond...
Screams echoed through the auditorium as video footage of men and women running terrified through a shopping mall revealed the chilling aftermath of two explosions.
Lincolnshire Police had turned the tables on the region’s media in a two-hour All Communitites Together (ACT) Now exercise that put the Press in the driving seat of an investigation of terror suspects.
Representatives from TV, radio as well as your local newspaper were fuelled with coffee, gingernuts and mints as we discussed what we would do with intelligence that an extreme group called Action UK was operating in a town called Sandford and had purchased a large quantity of peroxide – the main ingredient for home-made explosives.
The fictitious town had an international airport, a large railway station, a busy shopping mall and a premier league football stadium – all ideal targets for terrorists wishing to harm as many people as possible.
Within hours, further intelligence gave us the name and address of the leader of the extreme group.
I was ready to get a warrant to search the premises and bring the leader in, but it wasn’t that easy.
“We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,“ explained PC Riz Chothia, PREVENT officer for East Midlands Special Operations Unit – Special Branch, who was leading our exercise.
We were encouraged to consider the questions every investigation team is faced with before taking action. How credible is the source? Was the tip-off malicious reporting? The suspect might be a hairdresser with shops at the other locations. If he is a member of an extremist group, what kind is it? Extremist groups are not all political. Are the local Neighbourhood Policing Team aware of anything suspicious happening in the street where the suspect lives?
On this occasion, the answers did not come quickly enough.
Three people died and 127 persons were seriously injured when two explosive devices were detonated in Sandford’s busy shopping mall, less that 24 hours after we, as investigators, received the intelligence.
There was ‘death, destruction and damage’ and the police were faced with a lot of anger from the public - and tough questions from the ‘media’.
Why didn’t the police take action earlier? Two members of the Press taking part in the exercise volunteered to take to the stage as senior officers to answer these questions.
“We wanted them to squirm,” admitted PC Chothia, as many members of the public taking part in similar exercises had done before. After all, how can you explain not acting soon enough to stop an incident on which people die when you have the name of a suspect? And how much at this early stage can you say that is informative but does not cause panic or distress?
However, with one of members of the Press on stage a previous public relations officer, she knew exactly what we as Press would expect to hear from the police at this stage.
PC Chothia said: “We’d offer reassurance that tangible action is being taken and report how many have been hurt and injured.
“We’d want information and video clips from the public and ask for co-operation is we closed a road because we would need to do that.
“We’d also ask people to be more vigilant.”
Our operation then became an investigation into an incident. CCTV had identified three suspects and we had the addresses.
Special forces were brought in for a major operation around 5am the following morning to search the suspects’ homes while many were still in slumber to cause the least disruption.
Neighbours each side were awoken and given just three minutes to leave, with evacuation centres set up with the help of the local authority, before special forces and dogs swooped in.
We had them. The suspects were arrested and empty peroxide bottles seized. But it didn’t end with suspects being arrested and jailed.
Afterwards complaints were received about the police’s ‘heavy-handedness’ during the raids, with a 79-year-old woman among those arrested and children on the premises.
We are told specialist officers would have been among the team to deal with this.
PC Chothia said: “The challenge is when to take action. If it’s too early we may not be in a position to make an arrest. If we take action too late, like in this instance, we risk an explosion.”
Following the exercise, Assistant Chief Constable Shaun West said Lincolnshire Police took the national risk of of terrorism seriously.
He said: “Following the attacks Manchester Arena and Parsons Green underground in London, when the Prime Minister increased the risk to critical, we put protective guard in place in areas of large population throughout the county.
“The armed officers from the Civil Nuclear Constabulary who came here were used to guarding nuclear fields and submarines.
“I briefed them personally to make sure they offered the public reassurance and you may have seen the ‘selfies’ of members of the public with them that were posted.
“The feedback from the public has been tremendous. The vast majority see it for what it is - a message that ‘we are in safe hands’.”
l If you suspect anything the anti-terrorist hotline is 0800 789321.
District councils also have Emergency Plans in place to deliver services during a major incident.
Information on this is available at:
- East Lindsey - www.e-lindsey.gov.uk
- Boston Borough - www.boston.gov.uk
- North Kesteven - hwww.n-kesteven.gov.uk