Leading Article: Policing the Square Mile

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be a cruel irony if the final casualty of Saturday's Bishopsgate bomb were to be the City of London Police itself. Yet exactly this prospect is raised by the latest round of claims and counter-claims as to how an attack on such a strategic site should have been possible and what might have been done to prevent it. The attack on the City police is a puzzling one: there is little evidence that the fight against the IRA would be better prosecuted were the separate force for the capital's financial district, with its own picturesque history stretching back a century and a half, to be lost in a merger with the Metropolitan Police.

Of the questions that need to be answered in the investigations of the Bishopsgate bomb, many will put the City police on the spot. Was it right to allow a heavy truck painted in regimental IRA blue to sit for so long on a double yellow line on a Saturday morning? Might more have been done to evacuate the inhabitants of the nearby buildings once the police suspected that the truck might harbour a bomb? Could the bomb even have been defused before it went off, had the police response been quick enough?

The City police's critics go further, however. Observing that the force, with fewer than 850 officers, is one of the country's smallest, they complain that it has a greater ratio of chiefs to Indians than good management requires. Seen from New Scotland Yard in particular, the City police seems a tempting target for takeover.

But policing the City is a specialised job. The Square Mile is unique in Britain in having 60 times as many inhabitants during the daytime as at night, which means that the mixture of crimes the force has to fight is an unusual one. The City police also has a less lamentable reputation than most forces in fighting fraud. It is good at putting many of its officers visibly on the streets. And it is overseen by a committee of the City Corporation's Court of Common Council, which is already similar to the police committees the Home Secretary would like to see put in place up and down the country. Businessmen are not merely represented on it; they dominate. Many of the committee's members could justify their seats two or three times over - as locals, as business people and as members of the local magistracy.

Whatever procedural improvements emerge from the bomb's aftermath - and some of them are likely to include tighter restrictions on weekend parking in the Square Mile - the sad fact is that every security chain will always have a weakest link, and that is where terrorists will aim. Even Israel, a country where almost the entire adult population is conscripted for regular military service, where armed soldiers are a familiar sight on buses, and where anyone suspicious can be required to produce identification, has been unable to prevent terrorists from setting bombs at the heart of its cities.

What can be done is to try to improve to the utmost the existing mechanisms for fighting the IRA. The Government is understandably cagey about the details of how British anti-terrorist activities work; but whispers from within the various police forces and the intelligence services suggest that rivalry and lack of communication are still hampering the response. A unified anti-terrorist force - a single source of expertise with a single chain of command - would eliminate at least some of these problems.