Strolling along the beach in Portrush on a warm, sunny evening, the town’s neighbourhood officers admit they are often teased by their PSNI colleagues about their “easy number”.
“Well, it is a nice place to work, isn’t it? I really enjoy it here. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard,” Constable Stevie Burns says.
As they walk towards the famous Barry’s Amusements everyone is pleased to see them.
Families, young children, teenagers and pensioners all happily chat to them.
“Normally we would go out on foot patrol, walk about and chat to people. We would just go and sit with them and talk.
“The public really appreciate us talking with them.
“‘Neighbourhood’ is interacting, going around the youth clubs and community groups, doing things with the young people and the community. You can actually see the difference that you can make,” Constable Burns adds.
Inspector Paul McCracken, who has been a police officer for more than two decades, says that what his neighbourhood officers are doing in the area is the most normal style of policing he has experienced in his 23-year career.
“It is a fantastic place to work because of the variety. You are dealing with decent people, people are glad to see us,” says Inspector McCracken.
He adds: “Tensions can heighten a little around the summer with flags, but there is no real antagonism.
“We do not have any interface issues. This area is probably one of the best places to work in Northern Ireland as far as normality is. If you can’t do neighbourhood policing here, where can you do it?”
While officers may not have to deal with the same level of danger and hostility that some of their colleagues do in other parts of Northern Ireland, they still have their challenges.
Inside Portrush police station is a large map of the areas covered by the neighbourhood team.
Some parts of the map are circled in red, apparently indicating where some of the area’s main criminals and troublemakers are currently residing or operating from.
“We have the same problems as other towns across Northern Ireland. We had a problem with burglaries, and for a while a big problem with metal thefts, so we put in anti-burglary patrols.
“The neighbourhood officers would have identified the areas and tried to be proactive to patrol these. But sometimes it was a bit like a needle in a haystack.
“The criminals are always trying to outsmart us so we always have to try and keep one step ahead. But we have seen a definite reduction in burglaries,” Inspector McCracken explains.
“Our efforts are targeting the prolific offenders through the repeat offender team. That comes back to officers knowing who is who in the area,” he adds.
“They know who handles the stolen goods, the sex offenders, the vulnerable people and the elderly. They start to build up a picture of their area.”
There are two seasons in Portrush, summer and winter, Inspector McCracken says.
The summer is the busy tourist season and the officers conduct high visibility patrols to provide reassurance to holidaymakers.
In the winter the students move into the Portrush and Portstewart areas and some can become a cause of concern for the permanent residents.
“All that many of the students want to do is party and that affects life for the permanent residents. Five years ago we had a lot of problems with anti-social behaviour and late night parties. But we started doing joint patrols with the council and Housing Executive and we have received a lot of great feedback from the local community,” says Inspector McCracken.
On the nights that are perceived to be an issue, enforcement officers from the council and university representatives patrol with police officers until 3am or 4am.
The officers say it is important to them to keep doing the best job they can to make sure that people coming to the area have a good and safe time.
“The importance from a neighbourhood point of view is having an ownership or a desire to make a difference in the area. It is that desire to make a difference for the people that live here. We need to have that personal interest. You cannot be in this job and just go through the motions. I want my beat officers to care about their area and the people that live there,” says Inspector McCracken.
The ‘thank you’ notes from kids take pride of place in the station
Once he was targeted by rioters throwing petrol bombs and missiles on the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.
Now Sergeant Andy Hood and his neighbourhood team are regularly welcomed by the community there while out on their neighbourhood beats.
“We are now able to walk up the Garvaghy Road and chat to people.
“It is all very positive,” Sergeant Hood says.
“We helped to get a boxing club up and running in the Garvaghy Road area after the young people told us they had nothing to do.
“Now, when they see us, they say hello.
“That would have been one of our harder-to-reach areas.
“There was a time there would be a battle if the police car went up the Garvaghy Road. Now we are happy to go out on the beat there,” he adds.
“I have no issue with my team going up.
“The amount of time stones are thrown at the police car is minimal because we are building up contacts with the young people.”
The local neighbourhood team is passionate about their work with the younger people across the town.
They have organised many engagement programmes for them and would often join in activities with them, such as midnight soccer, boxercise and even Zumba classes.
“If a police car drives past the centre the young people will look into it to see if it is someone they recognise,” says Andrew McCreery, from the Craigavon Intercultural Programme.
“If they are looking into the police car to see which of us is in it, there is a connection there.”
“If they used to throw stones, they are not going to do it if there is a chance it could be someone they know,” adds Constable Colin Clarke.
Community concerns raised with the neighbourhood team include drugs, burglaries and the fear of crime.
A number of brothels have also been springing up in the town recently.
“We are not just here as a smiley face. Neighbourhood policing teams go out for the search and arrests to show the community we are effective officers who are going to protect them.
“We are involved in the real crime issues,” says Inspector Phil Shepherd.
A trophy presented to the team after they won the UK Neighbourhood Policing Team of the Year title in 2009 is on display back at the station.
But it is not as prominently — or as proudly — displayed as a number of touching ‘thank you’ notes sent in to the officers by some of the local schoolchildren.
‘To police. Thank you for doing your deadly job. Have a good day,’ one child wrote.
Another child said: ‘Thank you for saving people’s lives and not getting them killed.’
And one boy wrote: ‘Thank you for doing your super hard job because it is very dangerous. Good day captain.’
Officers’ efforts have helped to ease tensions
Following the death of Catholic community worker Kevin McDaid, who was viciously beaten by a loyalist mob, Coleraine was plagued with sectarian attacks.
The dad-of-four died of a heart attack while being punched and kicked by the gang outside his door in the Heights estate.
The reverberations of his death in 2009 began to play out through young people in the town, many becoming involved in sectarian violence.
But through the hard work of the town’s neighbourhood officers there has been a marked decrease in the number of sectarian and anti-social crimes.
“The behaviour which had started with adults changed so we had a lot of sectarian assaults, fighting and tension between young people in the town.
“The manslaughter of Kevin McDaid caused a lot of sectarian problems in the town and that played out in the town centre,” says Inspector Catherine Magee, who heads up the Coleraine neighbourhood policing team.
“Given the resourcing we had, I thought that we needed to work collaboratively to tackle these problems. I found that we were dealing with problems in other areas like Garvagh and outlining estates in Greenmount and Windy Hall,” she adds.
Inspector Magee received funding from the Assets Recovery Incentivisation Scheme (ARIS), which is money seized from organised criminals, and joined up with a number of community groups to develop a youth engagement programme for the young people in the town.
“We ran a sports, arts and citizenship project because we thought it was very important that the young people should be given the opportunity to create their own identity and work towards positive outcomes.
“We have worked very hard with town centre retailers, churches, school principals, to make sure we were creating a positive, shared space for everybody to use.
“We have been working very hard on ‘one punch’ campaigns, challenging behaviour and making sure that we do have the right people in the right place. There has definitely been a reduction in the level of anti-social behaviour and the number of sectarian assaults in the town,” she says.
The work of a neighbourhood officer is “critical” to address the issues affecting the town, such as sectarian attacks, drug dealing, substance misuse, alcohol misuse,” Inspector Magee says.
She adds: “Neighbourhood officers are the officers who have the time to problem solve, to go into people’s homes, to listen to the complexity of problems in people’s lives and deal with people on a very personal level.
“All my officers can go into their areas and perform single beat officer patrol. For 11th night bonfires neighbourhood sergeants cycled around the estates.
“Neighbourhood policing is accepted and welcomed in Coleraine. The community want more. The challenge is trying to meet that demand.”