Last week saw the anniversaries of two tragic events that will live in the memories of people across the United Kingdom for years to come.
It is 12 months since the horrible terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester killed 22 victims as well as the 22-year-old bomber. The attack was greeted with worldwide revulsion – how could 22 people who had simply gone to enjoy a special night of entertainment have their lives ended so cruelly?
As is often the case when terrorists attempt to create horror and fear within our communities, it is the response of those communities in the immediate aftermath that resonates.
I saw this myself in the days following the Manchester attack when I and my team were joined by other local politicians and partners at Princesshay in Exeter and Drake’s Circus in Plymouth to find out how people felt about seeing armed officers on the streets. It was clear the officers’ presence was reassuring, in fact our community was very supportive and willing to see more armed officers. Those who are law abiding seemed to have no concerns about it.
People simply refuse to cower in the face of terrorism – they have shown time and time again that acts of terror bring communities together and this was never better highlighted than in the way Manchester remembered its victims last Tuesday.
On the same day, much more close to home, people marked the 10th anniversary of the events which unfolded at the Giraffe restaurant in Exeter. On that late spring day a vulnerable man who had been radicalised, Nicky Reilly, attempted to blow up himself and others with a home-made device in the toilet of the well-known restaurant in Princesshay.
The device failed to detonate properly and the only injury was to the would-be bomber himself. The emergency service’s response on the day was quite rightly praised and it remains a stark reminder that, though Devon and Cornwall may not experience the same number of terrorist related acts, the threat level remains exactly the same here as in major metropolitan areas, so we must remain vigilant and be prepared.
It is important that we have enough trained officers and staff to play key roles in response to tragic incidents, wherever they occur. Currently, in Devon and Cornwall, armed officers and ARV crews patrol at key locations including major shopping centres, festivals and seasonal public events. Almost without exception when this happens it is not in reaction to any specific threat, they are there to help offer reassurance to the public, and to offer a highly-visible level of protection to our public. No doubt many of you will see them patrolling when you are out and about over the summer and if you do, please don’t be afraid to go and say ‘hello’ I am sure the officers would appreciate it.
In recent years Devon and Cornwall has significantly increased the number of armed officers it employs and there are now approaching 150. This means there are armed double-crewed cars in operation, keeping us all safe, 24 hours a day across the peninsula. But these officers are also often called upon to provide support to other forces when they have major events, so that means we do plan to increase the overall number and capability of armed officers and of Armed Response Vehicles (ARV units).
But it is important to understand that this process takes time. The high standard of training is non-negotiable and we expect those trained to use variety of weapons and tactics, from high-risk siege and terrorist response, to responding to organised crime groups and people with swords and other bladed weapons. It is also important that we don’t allow all the focus to be on reacting to terrorist acts when they happen. And that can’t just be by supporting important national pieces of work like the Government’s Prevent strategy which aims to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.
We must continue to invest in prevention and inclusion for all – to do everything we can to stop vulnerable individuals like Nicky Reilly being influenced or radicalised in the first place. Nicky himself was known to have learning difficulties and it’s important that individuals don’t feel excluded and see radicalisation as a route to belonging.
We also must celebrate the work taking place across Devon and Cornwall by the police’s diverse communities’ teams and involving all of our community to be proud of who they are and what they represent. Sergeants Sarah Jepp in Devon, Graham Little in Plymouth and Jules Jamaa Ben M’Hand in Cornwall and their teams work every day with our partners from local authorities, health providers, faith groups and charitable organisations to ensure that the police are better connected within those communities.
On that day in Plymouth last May, one of those who came to talk to us was Julie Padget from the city’s racial equality council. The result of that was the germ of an idea to work together to bring back the Plymouth Respect festival which hadn’t taken place for a number of years. Plymouth Respect is a free event that showcases Plymouth’s diversity with a variety of entertaining performers, delicious food, friendly street parades and interactive information stands. That germ has become a reality and the festival takes place on 14 July at the Guildhall.
It is one of a number of brilliant cultural events across our area this summer including the spectacular Exeter Respect, the increasingly influential North Devon Diversity Festival, the Every Women’s Hope Festival and the Diversity Food Festival in Truro.
I’ve mentioned before the Blue Light events we host too aimed at people with learning disabilities to better connect with policing. This year they will be held in Plymouth on 18 June, Wadebridge on 4 July, and Exeter on 15 August.
I hope to get to as many of these events as possible over the summer – my team will be at them all – they are truly joyous occasions.