Updated: Jun 7, 2019
On the dock with TSG officers
I spent the day with the Marine unit with the Met Police, and it was just as exciting as it sounds.
Based in Wapping, I spent about two hours navigating the London Underground and Overground networks to reach a non-descript Victorian building on the south bank of the Thames. It took me about 10 minutes just to figure out how to get in, I must have either looked very suspicious or incredibly naïve, entering my first police station.
Within the marine department, I was going to be spending time with the counter-terrorism team. The squad, almost all of whom were the size and build of rugby players, warmly welcomed me and I felt like I had jumped straight into a police drama TV series. There was an awful lot of team banter, plans for operations covering the walls, and about six separate offers for a very milky cuppa.
A constable showed me around the station, taking me down to the docks to see the numerous high-speed boats that were bobbing around and reeling off marine policing trivia – this was England's first recognised preventive police unit, don’t you know.
I then hopped in the back of a police van (I won’t pretend that I didn’t find it incredibly exciting) and headed up with two constables to a central command centre to sit in on their briefing to a larger, land-based counter-terrorism unit which would be joining the marine counter-terrorism team for the day.
En route, I started to ask what it’s like to work in counter-terrorism, especially after the recent attacks we’ve experienced in London and Manchester. There is, of course, a huge amount of training, intelligence gathering and analysis that goes on behind the scenes. Part of this is for officers to learn to ‘people-watch’ effectively - how to pinpoint individuals who are acting suspiciously in crowded public locations. However, I also learned that this doesn’t always lead to catching terrorists. It turns out that terrorists and people who are guiltily having affairs and are nervously waiting for their lovers act in a surprisingly similar way…
The operation for the day had two goals - partly to engage with the public on counter-terror issues to reassure and educate, and partly to deter any individuals looking to cause harm, by placing a highly visible police presence on and around the river.
The units were split in half. One group were tasked with talking to the public along Southbank and the others were given the far more arduous job of being whizzed from the London Eye to the Millennium Dome and back at full tilt.
Wanting to have the opportunity to speak openly with the officers about their careers and life in the police, I was with the half of the unit based on the boat, so spent most of the afternoon on a high-speed cruise.
The team’s views on life as a police officer were refreshingly candid and decidedly mixed. Many felt that whilst there was the potential for a fulfilling career where you have the opportunity to make a continuing positive impact on communities, it was frequently held back by the constant cuts to the police force. The stress and strain which politics had placed on policing was often making the job one long, demoralising slog. This was exactly what I was hoping not to hear, but was what I’d expected.
Along with many other public sector services, these conversations were the front line impact of increasingly unpopular policies. Issues such as the massive rise in gun and knife crime (up 42% and 24% respectively in a single year), acid attacks, gang violence and policies on the limited legal protection of police officers chasing vehicles came up again and again. The officers I spoke to seemed desperate to do more to protect the public, but felt that in the current circumstances, it was not always easy to do so.
As we neared the dock, they gave the positives too by reiterating just how rewarding being a police officer can be. The amount of time you spend working in close quarters and in stressful situations with your unit means that they become your family away from home, and the bond between them was obvious by the cheery banter. Making London a safer place and protecting the most vulnerable in society is an intensely fulfilling way to spend your working life and the officers were rightly proud of that. Ultimately, it was more about taking a longer-term view of having a positive impact, rather than getting caught up in the political frustrations of the day.
One thing that strongly came across was that no two days are the same – the level of variety working in the police meant that there seemed to never be a dull day in the office. This is one of the benefits of having a more active and less desk-bound job. Several of the officers I spoke to had intentionally decided to remain as constables rather than aim for promotion as they loved the practical side of policing the streets and didn’t want to focus on the managerial aspects that seniority brings. Whilst they certainly would have had the experience and ability to work in higher ranking roles, I had a huge amount of respect for that level of self-aware decision-making, and that the police as an organisation was accepting of it, rather than pushing them upwards.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the marine and counter-terror units – so much so that I tried out two other placements with the police. One was with the Dogs Unit and one with Police Now, the Police’s equivalent of a graduate scheme. More to follow on those soon…!