Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

'Most people want the PSNI there... they are glad to see you'

'We have cross-community peeler and pizza nights'

A boy, not much older than three, lifts a stone and raises his arm to throw it at the police Land Rover as it drives into the street.

It is a hot evening. The air conditioning in the vehicle isn’t working and the heat is stifling.

An officer stops beside the child, opens his door and says: “You’re not going to throw that I hope, mucker.”

The little boy keeps the stone clutched in his hand, but does not throw it as the Land Rover drives away.

“The only reason they are throwing the stones is because they have seen generations before them throwing stones. When they see police they think it is OK to throw stones. They are shocked if they are chastised for it. They seem to think it is allowed,” says Constable Davy Patton, from the West Belfast Neighbourhood Policing Team.

The officers in the area can often come under assault, particularly when tensions are high.

“It does get frightening when you come under attack — especially when they try to pull the doors of the Land Rover open. It happened to a couple of officers recently. Some in the crowd are that mad with rage and adrenaline, if they pulled the doors open and got you out, you would be left in a very bad way,” adds Constable Patton.

“When the Land Rover is hit with petrol bombs the air inside is sucked out. You know you are OK, but when the air is sucked out it can get frightening,” his colleague, Constable Darren Quaile, says.

The officers are on patrol to keep an eye on the internment bonfires across the west of the city.

Earlier in the evening there had been a real sense of urgency within Grosvenor Road station as information came through about mounting tensions in some areas. Some Belfast City Council employees — who had gone in to clear a bonfire site — had been forced to withdraw after they were threatened by a crowd of youths.

The threat from dissident republicans and instances of public disorder in some parts make west Belfast one of the more challenging areas to police in Northern Ireland.

It is up to the neighbourhood teams to try and build relationships with the communities.

“Driving around in a Land Rover isn’t community engagement. We would like to be out the majority of time on foot.

“You get a feel for what the issues are, rather than just hearing it from community representatives.

“That is why we like going on foot patrol, going to the community meetings and calling into the schools,” says Constable Quaile.

‘It has been getting better, there are now more people working with us... it’s good’

He adds: “From a neighbourhood point of view, for our role, you are out and speaking to the community. The majority of the local people want you out there. I have no issues walking up the Falls Road. A lot of people are glad to see you.”

The officers have begun to see a positive change in attitudes towards the police within the area.

“It has definitely been getting better. There are more community groups and more people working with us. There are only so many times people can close the doors on you.

“The people I work with are really good. We have cross-community ‘peeler and pizza’ nights where we take pizza in to the young ones and chat with them,” adds Constable Quaile.

“We also go into the schools for open days. It is an opportunity to speak to the youngsters and their parents.

“A lot of parents would say ‘you are the first police officer I have ever spoken to’. It has now become run-of-the-mill going into the schools,” Constable Patton adds.

A short distance up the road at Woodbourne police station — which has been targeted a number of times by dissident republicans — more neighbourhood teams head out on patrol.

Some officers come under attack in the Suffolk and Lenadoon area, but after liaising with community representatives the trouble is brought quickly under control.

The Wolfe Tones are playing at Falls Park as part of the West Belfast Festival.

Sergeant Davy Byrne and his team pull up at the park in a Land Rover, having been invited by security and organisers for the first time ever.

They get out and speak to the security guards and take a walk around the park, stopping to chat to revellers.

“A lot of things go on in the background that the public doesn’t see. We liaise with the community representatives and we build up those relationships. There has to be that trust with police. It is a big step for the representatives to be seen to have a relationship with police.

“To be seen in Falls Park, because of the nature of the event, is a big step. It shows we are working together,” says Sergeant Byrne.

“It really has changed over the six years I have been here. The number of calls we are getting has increased, people are reporting more crimes. We do foot patrols in Lenadoon and we try to do it as often as possible,” he adds.

Sergeant Byrne says that versatility is needed by the neighbourhood teams.

“We can be doing all the nice things and then the next day we could be searching the houses of people that we may have had interactions with.

“Neighbourhood policing is like being a politician, trying to keep everyone on side,” he says.

The officers, who came on duty at 2pm, finished their shift at 4am the next morning. During that time pockets of violent clashes broke out at some bonfires and a fuel depot was set alight.

Just a few hours later they joined members of the community at a teddy bears’ picnic as part of the Feile.

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