Beats staying in with a curry…

A week or so ago, I was given the opportunity to go on patrol with my local police force in Manchester city centre. I have lived in Manchester for 26 years (which is quite a long time, because I’m 26) and in the city centre for 4 years.

Living in the city centre means you see police around. Quite a lot. In fact, you see police around so often that you end up almost taking them for granted. You know why they are there and what they are expected to do if “something” happens. I didn’t realise it, but that was pretty much my attitude; generally pro-police but never really gave them or what they do too much thought.

I heard about the opportunity to do community reporting during an episode of BBC 3’s People Like Us. Having grown up in and around Harpurhey, it was interesting to see what light the area would be cast in. A sensationalised light, apparently, though the show wasn’t a million miles away from what it’s like living there. This sensationalism did, however, inspire debate about area and the approach the producers had taken.

The police force for that area were very engaged with Twitter during each airing of the show. More widely, other police forces are beginning to make extensive and valuable use of Twitter and Facebook to engage with their local communities. During a Twitter chat with the Harpurhey police about People Like Us, @gmpolice tweeted about the opportunity to join the police for a shift with the option to live tweet/Facebook/App.net (OK, maybe not App.net… sorry, fellow ADNers!) what they were up to.

Quite clearly, the police are really embracing social media and the web. Some forces more enthusiastically than others and police in Greater Manchester (@gmpolice, @gmpmoston and @gmpcitycentre are great, and I’m sure the others in Manchester are too) are amongst the most active and helpful. Follow them on Twitter now.

Due to my local force being the city centre, I decided to apply to go on patrol with them and I was delighted to be accepted and a little surprised too. I was asked to provide my Twitter name and to report to Bootle St station in Manchester. I was out from 21:00 until 05:00 (the shift ended at 06:00 but I ducked out an hour early because I had to be up at 07:00!) on Friday 22nd March 2013. Friday nights in Manchester city centre are often illuminating at the best of times, so being able to experience it from the eyes of the people tasked with keeping the area safe was truly remarkable.

What follows is a retelling of the events I witnessed whilst out on patrol. Before heading out, I pretty much thought I knew what to expect. In fact, I had already decided that I knew what it would be like and going on patrol would just confirm that. Let’s check that out.

At 21:00, I was greeted by one of the @gmpcitycentre Inspectors. Just before meeting him, I was a little apprehensive about one thing… how would they feel about having someone tag along with them, watching everything they do? Would I prove to be a burden or someone to put up with? In fairness, I wouldn’t have blamed them. No doubt this reporting scheme was initially something suggested by management somewhere. Alas, the Inspector was very welcoming and from 21:00 right through until 05:00, made sure I was involved in every aspect of the patrol.

I spent the first hour with him in the office, where he detailed roughly what to expect from the evening, introductions to the people I’d be with for the shift and there was even a cup of tea, served in a “The Muppets” mug… I assume that was a coincidence!

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For what is such a high pressure job, I expected to find a very close-knit team who work for each other, to keep each other safe as well as the public and I expected them all to know each other very well. I was right. The team clearly care for each a great deal and work for each other. I was wrong about one thing, though – some of these police officers had never even met before.

At 22:00, officers were briefed on Operation Custodian, which is the name for police operations on Friday and Saturday evenings. Who to look out for, what to look out for and where to patrol at different times. A real team spirit was evident, but just as evident was the fact some were meeting for the first time. Considering the job they were about to head out onto the streets to do, I found it absolutely incredible that this was the case. Inspiring and incredible. Doing the job is challenging. To be paired with someone you’ve never met before in addition? In some ways, I suppose it’s unavoidable.

On Friday and Saturday evenings, the city centre requires a very high volume of police officers. This means officers from other local forces are drafted in to support. They can’t all know each other. This is a politics-free blog post, but for officers to do this job in the face of the cuts they’ve been victims of, this is the impact. This is what happens. Not enough officers so they put themselves on the line, side by side with people they barely know. Truly amazing people.

At 22:30, after the briefing, the officers headed out to patrol the city centre. I tagged along with the Inspector and two other, again very welcoming officers. We drove around the city centre for approximately 15 minutes before the first call came in; someone suspected of domestic assault had been spotted working in the area. One of the officers, with encyclopaedic knowledge of the area, managed to track down the suspect by asking some associated people. After establishing his whereabouts, we drove and he was promptly arrested. The interesting thing here is how well controlled everything was. This suspect wasn’t arrested off the back of one police officer knowing the area, it required precision timing and when we pulled up, another police car and a police van were already there. Very well oiled and very impressive.

Once that situation was cleared up, we drove around again for quite a while. There was a gap of about an hour before the police officers I was with were called into action again. This led to some interesting stories and observations. Coming in through the radio, there were plenty of updates about door staff being accused of all sorts of things. The most fanciful report of the evening came from a lady who claimed she was “being held hostage” by door staff at a local bar. Turns out she was being detained after assaulting someone! The Inspector then told me about their use of “section 27”.

Whatever the legislation says, the use of section 27 by police shows one thing; police don’t want to arbitrarily arrest you. They don’t want to cause you harm. They want to keep their cities safe. They want to keep their local residents safe. Essentially, they’re on your side. Section 27 affords police (or more importantly, you) the opportunity to walk away from a potentially explosive situation instead of being subjected to arrest. Instead of that, people are ordered to leave the city centre. Their progress out of the centre is monitored by CCTV. Situations are diffused before reaching boiling point. I can already hear the arguments against section 27 and its potential misuses etc. This isn’t about that. What struck me most was the officers’ thoughts on why they value it. If an arrest can be avoided, they will try to avoid it.

After the quiet hour had passed, there was a fairly major fighting incident at a bar on Deansgate Locks that involved a number of people. When we pulled up, someone had been arrested at the scene for an unrelated offence (drunk and disorderly) and was being spoken to in a police van. The officers spoke with the man who was essentially told if he co-operates he may be released. After a few minutes, the man had been “dearrested” and ordered to leave the centre using section 27. No needless arrest carried through, police time freed up and he was spared a night in the cells. Good news all around. Incidentally, right next to that man in the back of the police van was another man suspected of burglary. He certainly wasn’t released under section 27! This isn’t about cutting corners or taking the soft approach, it’s about being sensible and making the best use of available resources.

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All the while, there was the incident that the police initially attended for; the fight at the bar. I mentioned earlier about the level of control exercised by the police in a fairly straight-forward arrest. That was impressive, however, the way this incident was dealt with was exceptionally impressive. Armed police, the Tactical Aid Unit and regular police all attended the scene and arrived at close intervals. Every officer was well briefed and ready to deal with what they found. Several offenders were being restrained by the police, with one of them resorting to shouting racial abuse at seemingly everyone with his friends rallying around other officers shouting largely benign, drunk nonsense. On one hand, you’ve got an idiot shouting racist taunts whilst being restrained and on the other, his friends shouting pseudo-law.

All the while, every officer involved kept their cool. In the face of a fairly hostile audience, they kept their composure and did their job. This is where my expectations fell apart; I expected the police to be shouted at. What I didn’t expect was how I’d feel about it when viewing it from the eyes of the police. It can be vicious and even I felt angry; god knows how the the officers involved remained calm. Their patience is seemingly endless.

The incident, attended by several police units, involving several offenders and people hanging on to them, was dealt with in just minutes. The police presence was clearly very reassuring to the public.

The Inspector mentioned some of the tougher parts of the job. It’s a job that in so many situations, the police are in a no win world. When they engage with people on Twitter, some Twitter heroes tell them to go and solve crimes instead. If they remain quiet, they’re told they’re not engaging with the community. Friday night showed some of the bleaker parts too. The feeling of being in a no-win situation was perfectly highlighted by two prostitutes in the early hours; the police drove by and asked if they were OK. The reply from the prostitutes was reasonably amiable, however, they were more interested in establishing whether or not the police were sticking around. The police are expected to protect prostitutes, the prostitutes rightly want some protection but at the same time, police presence scares away potential punters. No win.

There were also some comedy gems, though. They told me a story about how someone was once arrested for saying, “Help! This doorman! He’s nicked my drugs!” … That feeling you get when you wish you hadn’t said something? I imagine you’ve got nothing on that guy. Whilst driving around, one chap took grave exception to the police car so decided to offer it out for a fight. Not the officers, it seemed like the car itself and upset him. Mind you, it was a Skoda.

It was very clear by this point that the police in the city centre are clearly very efficient and very effective, which kind of casts them in a cold light and that couldn’t be further from reality. At around 03:00 on Deansgate Locks, a young lady, aged 18, was stood shivering on the street. She was wearing a fairly light dress and the wind was causing her considerable trouble. It was absolutely freezing. The officers decided to pull up and ask her what she was doing stood alone, in freezing weather, on Deansgate. Turns out she was waiting for her Dad to collect her because her friends had gone to a house party that she didn’t like the sound of. We in the back budged up to let her in so she could wait in safety and in the warmth. No paperwork, no numbers – just the police doing their best to protect her.

The final couple of hours passed by without any great incident… mostly. In my job, and probably yours as well, by the time the end of the day rolls around (say, about half an hour to go) we can probably start thinking of what we’re up to after work. We probably start winding down. By around 04:45, I actually started doing that. I was thinking that the centre was emptying, it’s been quiet anyway… and allowed myself to relax a little bit. 10 minutes later there’s a fight kicking off outside a taxi rank. Bloody typical. Once again, the police took control of the situation and everyone left the situation placated.

In all, 12 people spent the night in the cells that evening. That’s quite a high number, almost unusual. Especially so because it was a relatively quiet night.

It’s difficult to determine exactly what I took from the experience of being with the police. However, I suppose it boils down to one thing; the police are there for you. It made me realise that when I see a police officer walking by, they aren’t there by accident never to be seen again. They are patrolling and will be back at that same spot again and again and again to make sure the area is safe. We have all heard stories about the police. Sod the stories. I can only speak with any authority from the tiny snapshot that I got, but the officers I met exercised control, patience and genuine empathy. Muppet mug aside, of course.

I personally won’t be taking the police for granted anymore. They do a very difficult job, usually in very difficult circumstances and usually get it right.

I will likely do another blog post on this. There were plenty of stories that I was told that I haven’t covered here yet. Thanks for reading and give the @gmpcitycentre and @gmpolice a follow. If you have any questions about this blog, follow me on Twitter and App.net @pixelatedcoffee.

Too long, didn’t read? The police are brilliant.


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