Diplomat interviews Chief Superintendent of the Diplomatic Protection Group, Elaine van-Orden
1. When were you appointed Chief Superintendent of the Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG)? Is there anything particularly interesting or surprising you have found about the role so far?
Well I started as Chief Superintendent of the DPG in February this year. My previous job as Public Order Commander fits in quite nicely as we often dealt with protests outside diplomatic missions, but I’m now on the other side, having to explain public order legislation. Some countries struggle with the concept, which can be challenging. For example, sometimes a mission doesn’t understand why we can’t move protestors or why we don’t take certain action that they would take in their own countries. Today, the Human Rights Act very much governs our actions in the UK and we must be diplomatic when managing these scenarios.
2. What can an ambassador expect from the DPG if there are people protesting outside their Mission?
We would probably have a policing presence there depending on who the group is. Some groups are very peaceful and will protest silently, and often there is no need for the police. But if there is some form of controversy around what they are protesting about then we have a policing presence there to prevent crime, because that’s our role: to prevent crime and disorder. From the DPG’s perspective, we must maintain the security and integrity of the buildings that we protect.
3. Did your upbringing influence your choice of career? Have any of your family members had a background with the Metropolitan police?
No. I was raised in Devon, and I applied to my local police force. But at just 18 years old, I was too young (they wanted life experience), so I applied to the Metropolitan Police in London. It was a really good move for me because I love the vibrant city life and everything that goes on here.
4. In a nutshell, can you explain what exactly the work of the DPG involves?
We look after diplomatic missions, making sure that the legislation is upheld in terms of maintaining their integrity, keeping in mind that the Vienna Convention prevents us from just going into missions when we choose. But it’s really important to develop those day-to-day relationships as well. So if diplomats have concerns, they can come to us and we can help them to resolve those issues.
We have about 200 missions/sites that we look after in London, and provide static armed policing for about nine major sites. If something happens around the world that dictates a certain risk, then we provide a policing presence for reassurance, and to make sure there are no issues.
Each of the embassies or missions are defined within a region and I’ve got a Sector Inspector looking after each of those areas. The Sector Inspector and their team are responsible for relationship building with the key contact within the mission.
In terms of armed policing, those include sites like 10 Downing Street, because of the risk to the Prime Minister, as well as the US and Israeli Embassies, due to the threat perceived to those particular diplomatic missions. We also provide parts of Westminster with armed protection; it’s a high profile and vulnerable area where there are a lot of people coming and going, and of course influential people as well.
5. How do you decide the level of risk or is it the mission themself that decides?
The Home Office, the FCO and the DPG are responsible for identifying threats to a particular mission, and have a say as to who needs protection and to what level. But in terms of world events, we will certainly instigate protection ourselves even if we haven’t been told to. Following a spate of spontaneous protests at the Egyptian Embassy, we have officers there at the moment. As soon as something gets flagged up that might concern us or the mission, we will put someone in there, monitor the scenario, and then obviously remove protection if it’s not necessary. The missions are our customers really, and we must provide them with a certain level of service.
A lot of the missions don’t want a lot of dealings with the police; there’s no cause to, and they get on with their day-to-day business.
6. Is the DPG involved at the Ecuadorian Embassy with regards to Julian Assange?
Yes, but we are purely there because he’s in an embassy, and it’s our responsibility to look after the embassy. In terms of the individual concerned, that’s a completely separate matter which is dealt with on different levels within the Home Office and the Police.
7. What do you think is DPG’s greatest challenge?
It’s really just making sure that we can provide the best service possible, with the ever-increasing demands that are upon us. In terms of financing, obviously there is always that pressure for improvement with less money.
We must make sure that the service delivery doesn’t drop, to ensure that our missions continue to see police vehicles out there as regularly as they used to. We must also continue to build up better relationships with the missions, making sure that we have that top level of interaction.
8. Does the DPG get involved with events outside London like the Commonwealth Games?
We have had a specific role at the Commonwealth Games as Residential Protection Officers, providing overnight protection for the VIPs and dignitaries. As one of our day-to-day roles, when high-profile dignitaries stay overnight in residential locations we provide overnight protection for them. And we are sending officers to the upcoming NATO conference in Wales to do just that. Again, that’s a massive commitment for us because I can’t afford to allow levels of service to drop in London.
9. What do you think has been the most memorable day or event of your career to date? (Good or bad.)
Most of the most memorable moments would have been my public order work. I was fortunate enough to be the person in charge of the Olympic Torch Relay as it made its way round London. Dealing with Buckingham Palace and the Mall for the Royal Wedding was also interesting.
On the flip side, I have also dealt with some of the most challenging and difficult events including the 7/7 bombings. I was one of the first Commanders on scene down at Aldgate after the first bomb went off. This was hugely memorable in terms of witnessing such devastation and the impact the day’s events had on people’s lives.