Slaying the myths about Prevent

Slaying the myths about Prevent

Slaying the myths about Prevent by Superintendent Paul Betts, Head of Prevent, Protect & Prepare, West Midlands CTU

This is a piece I couldn’t have dreamed of writing a year ago. In senior policing you tend to get ‘appointed’ to roles, rather than necessarily applying for them. A year ago I had just been told I was to join the West Midlands CTU as Head of Prevent, Protect and Prepare. To be honest, I was a little overwhelmed at this in the way that makes you go – what? Me? Really? It wasn’t the scale of the job that was a bit scary. I had to think long and hard about my own values, given all I knew (very little) about Prevent as a much maligned, and often described as, ‘toxic brand’.


My career history demonstrates that I am committed to social justice. Before this appointment, I’d spent the last three years as Head of offender Management and Youth Justice and was particularly proud of the progress we’d made on not criminalising vulnerable people, particularly women and children, who presented to us as ‘offenders’ but instead getting them the right support to help them out of negative spirals in their lives. Prevent – from what I knew from the media – felt like I might be being asked to work against my core values and I found this troubling.


I determined when walking my dog 12 months ago (always a great space to think – walking the dog – don’t you find?), that I would approach my new role with an open and inquiring mind. Political violence is a bad thing, stopping terrorism was something I could sign up to. The strange mythical beast named ‘Prevent’ was something I would need to scrutinise to work out whether I could equally support – and lead it.

The mythical beast analogy is a good one – and deliberately chosen. I’d heard the tales we all have about the beast. These are powerful tales indeed. Prevent – ‘spies in mosques’, it’s ‘Islamophobic’, ‘students not suspects’, ‘terrorist houses’ and so on go the stories. If this was Prevent then clearly I might struggle. And I repeat, I was worried. BUT – and it’s a big BUT – I needn’t have been. The reality of all I have seen in Prevent during the last year is something quite, quite different.


You see, over the early weeks and months of 2017 I learned more about Prevent. I took the time to find out what was actually going on in the delivery of the strategy. What this meant to health workers, social workers, teachers, police officers and academics being asked to discharge their Prevent duty. I also deliberately went and spoke to former terrorists, civil society groups and the community about what Prevent meant for them, and what were the issues as they saw things? Rather than a discussion on how can we implement the Prevent duty, I found that by beginning this dialogue with a question, ‘how do we collectively work to keep everyone safe for terrorism?’ – we developed some really strong ideas. People were universally grateful of the chance to speak up about their experiences, or what they’d heard about Prevent, and help us shape delivery in our region.


Stories are really important. They help us make sense of a complex and messy world. It struck me that the anti-Prevent story has the advantage of clarity and is easily understood – it’s about spying in mosques, right? Wrong. But there is a challenge on the clarity of the ‘Prevent’ story. It was less obvious what we were asking people to do, what Prevent meant on the ground, and how it might be interpreted by practitioners and perceived by communities. We have worked up our own story of Prevent in the West Midlands, which I can fully sign up to. Telling our Prevent story is the main reason I agreed to write this blog. It’s important people understand, clearly and simply, the reality of Prevent, and specifically the role of CT policing in Prevent.


For WMCTU then, Prevent has become about five things which I share here with you. First, we safeguard vulnerable people. We deal with a range of people committed to harming others through terrorist acts within CT policing. This is our reality. It is not well understood, but a number of terrorists have families, children, and older adults, might hold positions of influence in community organisations and so forth. In CT Prevent, we are at the forefront of managing that risk on behalf of CT policing. My teams engage with social care to ensure those exposed to risks from associating with terrorists are appropriately safeguarded and supported.


Second, we receive referrals from a range of places about people who others are concerned about. Where we asses people as fitting the criteria for local authorities’ ‘Channel’ programmes they go into that scheme – or we manage them directly where they do not meet the criteria for Channel. Many people referred are vulnerable by age, mental health, learning disability or their social situation. Our aim is not to convict them for terrorism – and never should it be in my view – our aim is to reduce the risk they pose to themselves and others. We work across a range of partner organisations to help people. Cases I have seen in the last year have required autism assessments, housing provision, counselling for drug or alcohol issues, help with debt, and some significant mental health assessments and interventions. We have received feedback in the past year from families thankful we have stopped their children from travelling to war zones, especially Syria, and on how their lonely, withdrawn teenager – obsessed with Nazi ideology – has changed into an engaged young person, enrolled at college and looking forward to a positive future. These are the actual stories of Prevent.


Third, Prevent supports families affected by their loved ones being detained under terrorism legislation. We supply ‘contact officers’ to help support families through a very stressful period – often an extended period – to help explain legal processes, support them with employers, schools, accommodation where the investigations displace them from their homes, and so on. This is a really important function performed by Prevent officers to help retain trust and confidence in our processes of those closest to terrorist investigations.

Fourth, we use the deep partnership engagement we need to deliver our roles to ensure we manage the consequences of terrorist policing action in communities. We invest a great deal of time to produce nuanced assessments of the likelihood of making arrests for terrorism cases, and ensuring key people are briefed transparently to understand the risks we are dealing with, and why the action people see us take is necessary. This may take the form of us briefing key individuals in that area to ensure people living and working locally have correct information.


Finally, and possibly most importantly, we are trying to improve community resilience. “Communities defeat terrorism” is a key headline but implementing that feels like it’s a big concept to grasp. Certainly we all need to understand the threat from terrorism, how ideologies can influence young and vulnerable people, and ensure people have the confidence to report any of these concerns into us. Our take here though is that we need to improve social fabrics, invest time and money with local policing and local authority colleagues with communities to build strength. It strikes us that terrorism seldom finds a home in a cohesive, engaged society, where everyone feels they have a stake. The more we can do across agencies to improve this, over the long term, feels like a very useful investment of our time.


So, here it is, in public and in print; the ‘story’ of Prevent from the West Midlands CTU. I hope it helps to slay that mythical beast, or at least contribute to the debate. Prevent for WMCTU is a five point plan I can get behind – clear and unambiguous. As part of our ‘community resilience building’, we have ‘upped’ our communications with people on Prevent, joining the debate, and this blog is a part of that. So now when I walk the dog, I am no long concerned about any compromise to my values. I am proud of the work we are doing here – and right across the country – to safeguard people from the risks of terrorism and the contribution we make to keeping the public safe.


Paul Betts


Head of Prevent, Protect and Prepare, West Midlands CTU