Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Towns with very different challenges for police officers out on patrol

Focusing on neighbourhood policing, Deborah McAleese meets officers who have their own set of local priorities in Lurgan and north Down

Kilwilkie estate in Lurgan remains a place where, for some, hatred of the police is both historic and deep. Often when officers respond to a call in the area they come under attack from youths throwing bricks and bottles.

Earlier this year officers were attacked when they came to the aid of a colleague who had been stabbed in the back of the neck while responding to a domestic incident.

But the dangers have not stopped neighbourhood cops from going into the heart of the community, notoriously a dissident republican hotbed, to develop relationships and eradicate old suspicions.

Inside a community hall next door to Lurgan PSNI station a group of 11-13-year-olds from Kilwilkie are laughing with both neighbourhood and riot police. The children are there as part of a joint police and community initiative to try and break down barriers. They try on the protective clothing worn by riot police and play with their batons and riot shields.

A separate group of teens from the estate are being shown around the police station and its cells by another neighbourhood officer.

“It is about addressing the opinions of policing in Northern Ireland. It is lovely to see the neighbourhood officers out and about, people know they can approach them.

“We are trying to break down the barriers,” says Edel Foy, a community worker who has been working with police to deliver different initiatives.

“I haven’t had any hassle from the community. Parents are happy about it and very supportive. That’s not to say I might not get hassle at some stage from someone, but so far everyone is very supportive.”

Sergeant Duncan McBain of the Lurgan neighbourhood policing team is surrounded by a number of the children as soon as he walks into the hall.

“Duncan, Duncan, it’s nearly my birthday,” one young girl chants.

Sergeant McBain says: “We are trying to engage with young people to stop them getting involved in public disorder. We like to think that those we have engaged with do not get hauled into it.

“I see young people as the future. We are spending a lot of time with them. Anti-social behaviour is a big issue for a lot of people so it is relevant that we deal with the young people.”

There are a lot of misconceptions about Kilwilkie, he adds. “The majority of people in Kilwilkie want to move on. Some young people have drawn back from us because of pressure they got from people.

“Some people are afraid to call police because they are fearful of us going in and getting attacked.

“We want them to ring us. Some of the residents are living with constant anti-social behaviour outside their doors but they won’t phone us because they fear for us.”

Within some areas of Lurgan there is still a divide among communities, but neighbourhood teams are working with youths to try and address this.

“We face that every day — the fear of the other community. As neighbourhood officers, we see the past holding back the future in different places. Our role is engagement with the community.

“All we do is chip away and when we get a door open we try and push it a bit wider and try to progress,” Sergeant McBain says.

As well as youth engagment programmes to try and addess anti-social behaour and low level street crime, the neighbourhood teams have conducted a number of high visibility patrols targeting drug dealers and users. The officers were also recently involved in the detection of travelling teams of burglars responsible for a spate of robberies in the town.

“It’s demanding work and we expect a lot from the officers on the team. We try to facilitate public demands as much as we can. That has an impact on officers’ family lives, but they want to do it.

“There are more and more demands, people wanting us to attend different events. It is good that people want us, it is a great opportunity for us to deal with the public,” the sergeant adds.

‘We take it personally if something hurts this community’

It is shortly after midnight on a Friday morning and Inspector Julie Blain is on patrol in the Helen’s Bay area of north Down with her neighbourhood team.

They are on the hunt for a burglar who has targeted nine homes in the area over the past three weeks.

“One burglary is enough to concern the community, so that is enough to concern us,” Inspector Blain says.

A warning from another police crew is radioed through that the suspect could be heading in our direction.

Neighbourhood officer, Constable Chris Rose, pulls the police car into a lay-by, preparing to give chase.

After a few minutes a car drives slowly past and then reverses back towards the police vehicle. A female driver gets out and approaches the officers to tell them she has just spotted a man on a bicycle acting suspiciously close to the scene of the recent burglaries.

“That is an example of how the community can be our eyes and ears,” Inspector Blain says. “We want them to report anything suspicious to us. You never know how vital that piece of information is.”

We drive to the area where the woman said she had spotted the cyclist, but it’s deserted.

Later, another crew contacts Inspector Blain to advise her that the suspect has been spotted again. He drives past us on the road and we immediately give chase, but we fail to catch him.

However, two weeks of daily and nightly police patrols seem to be acting as a deterrent as the culprit has, so far, not returned to the area and there have been no further burglaries.

Police are currently awaiting fingerprint and DNA analysis results in the hope that they can bring charges.

“We are part of this community. If something hurts the community — burglaries, anti-social behaviour — it hurts us and we take it personally.” It was Inspector Blain’s team who arrested Bangor woman Carol Ann McKnight, who stole mementoes from graves at Clandeboye cemetery — including those of children and babies — to decorate her own garden at Henderson Avenue in Carnalea.

“Forty thefts in total were reported to the cemetery. It was community intelligence built up by the neighbourhood officers that helped us.

“It was about building up a picture, the type of person who would do this, their motive, the proximity of houses to the cemetery.

“It is all about the local knowledge of your area.

“It is not driving along with your eyes closed. It is stopping and talking to people,” Inspector Blain explains.

Before joining the neighbourhood policing team in north Down, Inspector Blain was a neighbourhood officer in the high crime areas of north and west Belfast.

She was also the officer who set up the PSNI’s auto crime team to tackle hijackings and joyriding in west Belfast.

“There are very different issues here than there would be in north and west Belfast, but the neighbourhood policing ethos will always be the same,” Inspector Blain says.

“We will protect our communities and do all that we can.”

She adds: “There is a higher level of normality of policing in north Down. We are lucky because the community likes us being here. We need to be there for our community. If we are not there that could turn them off.

“If someone rings in, we make sure they get a response.”

Inspector Blain says that neighbourhood officers go beyond what is expected of them.

“We were out at a house and we discovered three Staffordshire bull terriers in a very poor state at the house.

“They were emaciated, malnourished.

“The owner was taken to court and the officer dealing with it began to search to re-home the dogs. The dogs have now been rehomed and they are doing great.

“It’s all in the day’s work of a neighbourhood officer,” Inspector Blain adds.

How ‘Phil the cop’ makes a difference to life on the estate

Constable Phil Johnston drives into a Bangor housing estate and spots a young boy who is known to police playing football with a group of youths.

The boy runs over when he spots Constable Johnston.

“Are you behaving yourself?” Constable Johnston asks him.

“Yes, for once. But a man down there said he was going to call the police on us just ’cos our ball keeps going into his garden when we’re taking penalties,” the young boy answers.

“What about I get you a foam ball and then you won’t cause any damage. I’ll throw one down later today,” the officer tells him.

“Great”, the young boy says, and runs off beaming.

In another estate in the town Constable Johnston stops to chat with a 21 year-old ex-offender who has drug convictions.

For six years the man was hooked on ‘blues’ — the street name for diazepam — so he started dealing to fund his habit.

It was not until he almost died after taking 80 blues within the space of two hours that he decided to turn his life around and engage with police.

“Now I would have a relationship with the neighbourhood team. Before I was staying away from them. Now I know they are not bad people and are just trying to help,” Ivan says.

A short distance up the road, Constable Johnston joins a planned drugs search of a house.

A quantity of cannabis is found, but the resident of the house disappeared just moments before police arrived. A warm cup of tea is still sitting on the table and the key is in the front door.

“A neighbourhood officer is very much at the heart of the community. It is very rewarding when someone has the confidence to come and say to you there is a problem with drugs, solvent abuse or drink driving and that person is caught. It gives the community confidence in you. They trust you,” says Constable Johnston.

“Phil is very good. We are ringing him at all sorts of strange times. The kids call him ‘Phil the cop’. Community policing is working here. It has made a really good change to the area,” says Isabelle Hamilton, chairwoman of Bloomfield Community Association, where Constable Johnston has joined youth workers, politicians and community representatives to discuss local concerns.

In the nearby Rathgill estate Karen Worrall, a community development worker at Rathgill Community Association, says the support of the neighbourhood officers is invaluable.

“I have always had a good personal relationship with the community officers. They give us a lot of support. I even phoned police when I caught my young lad smoking cannabis,” Karen adds.

Constable Johnston drives to two houses that are currently lying empty because the owners are on holiday. As part of a vacant property scheme set up by the neighbourhood policing team in north Down, the owners had asked police to keep an eye on their homes while they were away.

He checks the house is secure and then pops a personal note saying ‘I called to check your house. Hope you had a good holiday’ through the letterbox.

“People talk about the old days when the bobby on the beat knew everyone’s name and everyone knew them. That is neighbourhood policing and that’s the way it needs to be. Sometimes we use Ulsterbus rather than the police vehicles. It is a good way of getting to know the community,” he adds.

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