September 24, 2022

Former Acting Met Commissioner Sir Steve House on policing events in London following Queen Elizabeth’s death


PERF members,

The eyes of the world turned to the United Kingdom on September 8 as news spread of Queen Elizabeth II’s death after almost 71 years as head of state.

While plans for the royal funeral were well in place, the Queen’s death presented historic circumstances with which law enforcement agencies needed to contend. Serving as acting commissioner of the Metropolitan Police until stepping down from the position on September 12, Sir Steve House spoke with me regarding the response to the Queen’s death and the events that followed.

Chuck Wexler: When Her Majesty died, where were you?

Sir Steve House: I was at work. We knew that there was something gravely wrong because we were starting to see movements from other members of the Royal Family. I got called down to speak to the commander who works closely with the Royal Family, and she was making phone calls to inform people that Her Majesty had died.

Wexler: How had you been planning for this event?

House: Operation London Bridge is the name of the operation, and it had been planned for many years and, obviously, refreshed and rethought and game-played numerous times to make sure that it was fit for the purpose and still up to up to the mark.

Wexler: Does this kind of plan involve the entire United Kingdom or is this predominantly London?

House: It does involve many parts of the U.K. because obviously Her Majesty was the monarch for the whole of the United Kingdom, and therefore everybody has a part to play. And as it happened, she died at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, so that brought Police Scotland into the game straightaway.

Wexler: Can you compare the preparations for this to anything else in recent U.K. history?

House: No, not really. I suppose you could go back to the London Olympics in 2012. In terms of royal events, you’d have to go all the way back to probably the coronation of the Queen back in 1953.

Wexler: So really, England hasn’t seen anything quite like this in some time?

House: The United Kingdom, not just England, hasn’t seen anything like this in many, many decades. Bear in mind that every single police officer in the U.K. swears an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty, the Queen. With the exception of very few that have now sworn it to the King, every police officer in the U.K. swore an oath of allegiance to Her Majesty, because she’d been on the throne so long and every police officer who works has sworn that allegiance.

Photo by Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk)

Wexler: In fact, you yourself have been knighted. Did you meet the Queen?

House: Actually, I wasn’t knighted by the Queen. I was knighted by Prince Charles, who’s now the King. I met the Queen on a couple of occasions, not for very long but brief conversations.

Wexler: Was the planning for something like this dependent upon the Royal Family’s wishes?

House: Yes. The Royal family’s wishes are definitely the core of all this. They decide what sort of funeral they want and what sort of events they want. So we spend a lot of time talking to the Royal household to make sure that they are happy. Basically, they tell us what they want to do, and we all put the security around it.

Wexler: When you thought ahead to this as a commissioner, what were your major concerns? What did you think your major challenges would be?

House: The major concerns were the scale of it and the fact that it goes on for the best part of two weeks. Therefore, we need an awful lot of resilience from the officers and staff. A lot of concern was about the number of VIPs coming into London. There were hundreds of VIPs coming, including obviously President Biden, who all have their own security expectations. We had to go to virtually every force in the U.K. to get the number of officers we needed to provide protection to the number of VIPs that came into the country.

Wexler: How did you balance the need for security with the people's desire to participate?

House:  Good question — I think, common sense. The vast majority of people who are anywhere near the events are there to show respect to Her Majesty and are not a threat. Therefore, we’ve got to try and make sure that they get as good a view as possible and get as much out of the day as they can, which is obviously what the Royal Family wanted as well — a national need to pay respect to Her Majesty, the Queen. Obviously, we do have a responsibility to make sure there is security around all events, and that’s what we worked hard to do. But you’re right. There’s a balance to be found there.

Wexler: Here in the United States, we have some 18,000 police agencies, and in the U.K., you have around 43 constabularies. Does it help when you’re trying to coordinate a national event to have those agencies able to work together?

House: There’s a very strong national network set up, which is coordinated at a national level by the National Police Chiefs’ Council. The Met is obviously the biggest player in this by a long way, but lots of forces play their part and coordination is very important.

Wexler: When you have an event like this, is the commissioner of the Met in charge?

House: No, we have a gold, silver, and bronze structure where the gold commander is in charge. Jane Connors, the temporary deputy assistant commissioner, who’s a specialist in public order and ceremonial events, was gold for the event.

Wexler: Would you take a minute for the American audience to explain what gold, silver, and bronze mean in this context?

House: Gold is the strategic commander. He or she sets strategy, making sure that the resources are available, and runs interference with other agencies. Silver is the operational commander, who is in charge of deployment of the assets and makes a lot of the operational decisions. And there are many bronzes, who are on-the-ground tactical commanders and are in charge of, for example, the public order asset, the firearms asset, the roads policing asset, the VIP protection.

Wexler: So this is really a playbook for a number of events like this?

House: Yes, we use a gold, silver, and bronze structure for virtually every public order event, every demonstration.

Wexler: You know, at some point in any major event, things happen that you didn’t anticipate. I saw that the line of people waiting to pay their respects was miles long. How was that managed?

House: We expected queues miles-long. It took about 30 hours at the longest point for people to get through the queue. We knew the level of public grief that would come out of all this. This was all anticipated, so we sent quite a few officers to walk up and down the queue to make sure people were OK. But this was a multi-agency effort, so an awful lot of other agencies were involved. Government agencies, and also, the mayor of London’s people were involved in making sure that people in the queue didn’t get too cold, making sure they had water, making sure they got warm enough clothing, that sort of thing.

Wexler: I’m sure that a command center was managing this. What can you tell me about it?

House: We have a building in central London, just south of the Thames, that includes a Special Operations Room and all large events are run from there. It’s a gymnasium-sized building, with a couple hundred people running the communications with the officers, running communications for the fire service, with the ambulance service, and with the mayor’s people in transport for London.

Wexler: Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you would like to add?

House: This was an opportunity for the Met in particular to show what we can do in these sorts of events. We’ve had an awful lot of positive feedback from government, from the media, and, most importantly, from the public in London. Most of the officers I spoke to were very proud to be taking part in the events. Sadly, it was a historic moment for the country.


Thank you to Sir Steve for taking the time to share his insights with PERF’s membership.  Click here to read an interview with Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham about his agency’s activities following the Queen’s death.