Chief Supt David Smart, head of the Metropolitan Police’s Prevent programme, talks about the challenges of trying to stop the next terrorist attack.
My day starts at 5.30am. We have two children: one 13, the other 19, who’s at university. But we have also been fostering for the last couple of years. Currently, we are fostering a baby.
So before I leave for work I do my little bit to help. My job is to get the baby’s bottles ready.
I’m the National Co-ordinator for Prevent, which is at the heart of the government’s counter terrorism strategy. Our role is to prevent people going down a path of terrorism.
My work is quite removed from the front line, so doing the fostering I get to see the realities of how busy social services are at a working level. It keeps me connected.
In my work in the police force I’ve seen over many, many years the reality that not getting off to a good start in life affects people’s lives into adulthood. So giving any child a settled home is a good thing to do.
It may sound a little bit odd, but I like to get the slow train into work. It’s emptier. I get a seat. And it gives me time to think and pray.
I reflect on my day ahead and the needs of my family and my colleagues and I do pray for God’s wisdom and guidance, that I will say things that are wise.
Prevent gets criticised a lot. It’s easy to be anti-Prevent, but what are the alternatives? If it’s about looking out for vulnerable people and trying to help them not go down a path of oblivion, like travelling to Syria, is that not a good thing to do?
That said, some communities feel that Prevent has stigmatised them. If that’s what’s happened, we need to try and resolve that.
But when people say it should have a re-brand, I haven’t got time for that. We stopped 150 people going to Syria in 2016.
I am never off-call. Every morning when I wake up I check the news to see what’s happening. If there has been a terrorist incident my schedule will have changed and I will be in urgent meetings.
In the immediate aftermath of the Manchester bombing we had to put resources into place. I had video conferences with officers from Manchester and other places to make sure that the operation was resourced properly.
And we had to agree what messages to put out to the media. You can never give enough information. It’s a balance between satisfying their curiosity and not hampering the investigation.
After Manchester, everyone wanted to know the name of the bomber. There was a big clamour for information.
It’s also very important to take care of the welfare of the officers and give them the support they need.
Things like Manchester do affect my sleep. You are always asking yourself, “Was there any opportunity that we didn’t take up?” It’s not about trying to beat yourself up. If the problem was easy to solve, we would have done.
Manchester was a really shocking event for the public, but for those in counter terrorism we were genuinely shocked because it was children. No-one is a legitimate target, but the fact that children were involved was so shocking and it completely changed the mood in our area of business. It makes you more determined.
When someone drives a car over Westminster Bridge we can put barriers up to stop it happening again. But a concert venue? They are everywhere. Stopping things from happening is just part of the solution.
There’s lots of talk about lone wolves. The truth is that when someone carries out an act alone there’s a reasonable chance that there were people supporting them who knew they were going to do it.
Studies show that a person – it could be a neighbour, a partner, a teacher – often comes out later and says that they had concerns. They didn’t know that person was going to carry out an atrocity, but they had concerns. What Prevent encourages is if you have concerns, report them really, really early.
We get 20 referrals a day at Prevent. Every one has to be assessed for the help, support and intervention that’s possible. When something like Manchester happens, I can’t focus on the investigation, I have to focus on stopping other people being drawn in to radicalisation.
A typical day is in London. A big part of my role is working with the Home Office, schools and government departments.
I have lunch at my desk: I make a good salad. We share the cooking fifty-fifty. My wife does more in the week. But I do a mean roast lamb at the weekends.
On an average day, I leave here at 5.30pm. It’s a mindset, isn’t it? I have spent a lot of my career not doing that. Working long hours was expected. It didn’t matter what you were doing.
But I am always checking my emails. I tell my staff not to do it, but I do. I never switch my phone off. It doesn’t ring in the middle of the night any more as I’m not providing urgent, operational response. In the past it used to ring at night and I had to sleep in the spare room. Not now.
In the evenings, Dad’s taxi is required for tennis lessons or Guides. And the baby is always pleased to see me. At the weekend, I try to go to the gym and we go to church which is really important for us.
I’m a Crystal Palace fan. I have been since childhood. I get tickets every now and again. You never know what’s going to happen at the beginning of the season. Will you be relegated?
When I was on the beat, my beat included Kennington Oval. I’ve never been interested in cricket. I went to Lords once. We watched all day, and then they said it was a draw. What’s all that about?
Things are different when my daughter is home from university. She went to an Adele concert recently. It did go through my mind that this was just like an Ariana Grande concert. I woke up worrying about that.
Normally I never sleep until she’s home, and that night, it wasn’t until 2am. Thank goodness the baby is a good sleeper.
What I go to bed with is the question, “Am I doing enough to prevent the next atrocity?”
This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct edition of Idea magazine.