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London’s first female police chief looks to revamp the force amid increase in terrorism

London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick is seen in this June, 2017, file photo.

The Globe and Mail

When Cressida Dick took over as the head of London's Metropolitan Police last April, Britain was in the midst of a wave of terrorist attacks and she spent her first day as Commissioner attending the funeral of an officer knifed to death by a terrorist steps from Parliament.

Now after what she called a "ghastly" summer, Ms. Dick said the terrorism threat in London has moved to a higher level and it shows no signs of reversing. "This is not a small spike, this is a shift," Ms. Dick said during a meeting with foreign journalists on Wednesday. "For us, it is definitely a shift and it translates into greater workloads for our people. … It's translating for us now into something like a 30-per-cent increase in workload for [terrorism] teams."

The 57-year-old police chief, who barely met the 5-feet-4-inch height requirement when she became a police officer in 1983, is the first woman to lead the force in its 188-year history.

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She's also gay, holds degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, and is steeped in counterterrorism experience.

And yet despite her many years as the forces' senior counterterrorism officer, Ms. Dick said she has been shocked by the number of attacks in the country this year, which have killed 36 people, including one police officer, and left more than 200 injured. Three of the four attacks happened in London, all involving vehicles driving into crowds of people, and two other incidents have been labelled terrorism; a bomb on a subway car that failed to explode and a man caught outside Buckingham Palace with a large knife.

"I wish I could just undo all the events [and say] that they just never happened this year," Ms. Dick said. "It has been a ghastly time for the city and the country … Shocking things have happened, very sad things have happened."

She acknowledged that the police and intelligence agencies, including MI5, have come under increasing pressure to explain why so many attacks have occurred and whether any of them could have been prevented. A report released this week found that the investigative actions by the police and MI5 were largely effective but that "many learning points have emerged." The report, commissioned by the government, revealed that three of the six attackers were on MI5's radar and that one attack, a suicide bombing in Manchester at an Ariana Grande concert that killed 22 people, "might have been averted had the cards fallen differently." It added that security services have made 126 internal recommendations including better data analysis, greater sharing of intelligence with community groups and improved assessments of all terror threats.

Ms. Dick said she welcomed the recommendations and added that more needed to be done to counter the growing threat from home and abroad. She noted that nine plots have been thwarted since the first terrorist attack last March, including a plan revealed Wednesday to bomb No. 10 Downing Street and kill Prime Minister Theresa May. Another 600 active investigations are under way across the country focusing on 3,000 people of concern.

"There are a number of factors that have played into this [increase in terrorism]," she said, citing greater use of social media by terrorist groups as a key issue. However, each attack has been different enough that police and intelligence agencies have to devise new responses. "There are a whole series of things that we will be doing even better and slightly differently, God forbid, if we were to have another attack." But she bluntly added that "I don't think any responsible police chief in any city, certainly in the Western world, would say 'I can guarantee there will be no terrorist attack.' "

Ms. Dick said that while terrorism has stretched the force's resources this year, the police service has also had to deal with a massive investigation into the cause of the fire at the Grenfell Tower housing project last June that killed 71 people. Around 400 officers spent months combing through the debris to identify bodies and more than 200 officers are still working on the case, which has turned into a criminal investigation. "Clearly, the increased [terrorism] threat, increased tempo, puts increased strain on the system and requires even cleverer juggling [of resources]," she said.

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She's also trying to revamp the police force, making it more attractive to a broader mix of recruits and changing how officers view body cameras and tasers. Ms. Dick is a big proponent of both, saying that video cameras worn by officers help them gather evidence and that tasers are a proven deterrence. Tasers are "a very, very effective tool because for most people, not the determined terrorist attacker of course, but for most people, as soon as they see an officer draw a taser, they just stop," she said. When tasers have been drawn, they've only been fired 16 per cent of the time, she added. Along with tasers, Ms. Dick is also pushing for more officers to carry guns. London police are famous for not carrying weapons, but the service is moving toward a target of having 10 per cent of the 30,000 officers armed.

Ms. Dick said she doesn't dwell on the fact that she's the first woman to head the force, although she knows she has set an example. "I do recognize that for some young people, they may look at me in this job and they may feel a bit different for whatever reason," she said. "It might be because they're female, it might be something else. And they might say 'Well if she can do it, I can do it.' And if I can inspire people in that way, that's great. But in my daily job, I don't think about it." Then she smiled and added: "I'm just a person doing a job; a job that I love, that gets me out of bed incredibly happy every morning."

A London resident describes what she saw on the scene after attack on London Bridge and Borough Market.
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