‘Communities defeat terrorism’: Profile speak to Durham alumni police chiefs about recent terrorism threats, student crime and life as a Durham undergraduate


The recent terrorist attacks over the last three months have undoubtedly thrown the UK’s national security into a state of crisis. Britain has previously faced violence and chaos during the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 and during the London riots in 2012. In 2017 alone, has seen three terrorist attacks in as many months: two in London; one in Manchester.

At a time of heightened terror threat where properly funded police forces and counter terrorist organistions are paramount for national security, much has also been made of the budgetary cuts to the emergency services. Our security appears at risk and we rely on the police and anti-terrorism services that stand to protect the public.

Protecting the public is primarily what three Durham alumni are trying to do in their roles as police chiefs in their respective regions. Sara Thornton CBE QPM, Head of the National Police Chiefs Council, Simon Cole QPM, Chief Constable at Leicestershire, and Giles York QPM, Chief Constable of Sussex all attended Durham throughout the 1980s.

I was particularly interested in finding out about their memories of Durham and how the university had changed over last 30 years. Like many alumni, Durham University is remembered as a special place to study.

For Sara Thornton CBE the,“mix of history and change” was a “great recipe for success,” with many of the timeless features of Durham still featuring at the epicentre of the University and city as a whole. Past students are able to come back to Durham and remember their time here, but equally acknowledge the incredible changes that have occurred.

Chief Constable Giles York talked about significance to him of the of the ‘Durham bubble’ and the effects that this can have on students. “Students live a particularly privileged existence, especially in Durham due to the unique and exceptional mix of town and gown. They live in a small bubble of social life, study and sport.”

In relation to crime, students are no different from local residents and so increasing student numbers should not have an adverse effect on crime in Durham. Thornton argues for this point, suggesting that, “students are like the rest of the population  the vast majority are well behaved most of the time.

The criminologists call this normative compliance.” Students reflect society inside their own isolated bubble.

Cole, York, and Thornton all developed their interest in the police in contrasting ways. Leicestershire-based Chief Constable Simon Cole recalls he made his decision to pursue a career in the police during the summer half way through his time as an undergraduate at Durham.

“At the end of my second year I went inter-railing. We made it to Istanbul, via various rooftops and night trains. It was whilst travelling that I decided to explore Policing as a career.”

Similar to the current generation of students, Cole and Thornton felt a pressure to forge a career path quickly to get ahead of the game. For Cole along with Thornton, now Head of National Police Chief Council, career path was guided by a ‘familiarisation’ course, which usually lasted for two days and gave people a chance to try something new and test whether they were interested in that career. Thornton notes how, “it is sad those courses no longer exist and they’re a great loss.”

A principle challenge for modern day police forces is terrorist threats which compromise national security. The first of three terror attacks to occur this year in Britain involved the tragic death of PC Keith Palmer in Westminster and all three officers emphasised their feelings of pride with regard to what his actions stood for. York extended this sentiment to the wider police community as a whole.

“Everyday we ask police officers to put themselves in the way of harm, to cross the road towards those in society that so many would cross the road to get away from and increasingly to live their professional and home lives with unswerving values.” In a similar vein Cole, was quick to praise commitment of acting officers: “we are not perfect, who is? But every day we do things that make the world a better place.”

While our police forces and emergency services in general perform admirably and bravely when they are called upon, the larger issue is the increasing threat of terrorist attacks on national security. There is a growing call for a revaluation of an anti-terror strategy, a strategy to counter the attacks that we and many other countries have faced. One theme that emerged from the views of all three was the idea of communities collectively acting against terror.

For Thornton “communities defeat terrorism,” and the attitude that the public adopt in order to deal with the threat of terrorism quickly and effectively is essential. York argues that the only way we can deal with terrorism is, “by having absolute transparency and retaining the high trust the public do have for the police in the UK.” Terrorism is an issue that affects us all and we are all affected by its impacts. For these three officers, the only way to defeat it is to stay together and work together as a community.

The general election was initially an election centering around the issue of Brexit negotiations, but as a result of events, it quickly became the focus for key debates concerning the question of national security, which party was the most capable of protecting our country from terrorists threats, issues of police funding and role of ordinary people and communities. Thornton recognises this: “it may seem like nothing but they are a small piece of a very large jigsaw.”

They are the people who see their community and society operate each day. They are the people who know each other and know when something is wrong. They are the people who can stick together and prevent more monstrosities occurring. Togetherness and solidarity is key in these times where our day to day security is in jeopardy.

Photographs: Durham Constabulary 

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