Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

'Horror moment changed my life'

Let's call her Mary. As a front line police officer, she's been called many things over the past nine years - but names will never hurt her.

When Mary put on her uniform for night duty three years ago, there was nothing to suggest it would be anything other than a routine shift.

But that night - January 16, 2004 - she ended up in hospital with broken ribs, the victim of a vicious assault at the hands of a drunken thug.

It was a career changing experience. She was off work for eight months following the frenzied attack - and never returned to her previous job as a response officer.

Now, as part of the community police instead, the 35-year-old mother-of-one is among several neighbourhood officers who patrol the streets of Belfast.

But the memories of that fateful night - a night she believes is too blithely regarded as part and parcel of the job - remain fresh in her mind.

"A call came through around midnight," she said. "Someone wanted a person removed from their house, which would be a bread and butter call for us. You might get the odd scuffle, but there was no indication that this was going to be any different."

Arriving at the source of the call - an upstairs flat in the Willowfield area of east Belfast - she recalls there were three extremely drunk adults and a young child in a room full of glass and broken windows.

"The child's mother asked us to remove her boyfriend's male friend," she said. "He was absolutely intoxicated, but he agreed to leave. He grabbed his drink and his cigarettes. At that stage the situation was still amicable.

"Outside the flat, the guy then sat down on his backside and slid the entire length of the stairs. We were behind him and he accused us of pushing him."

When Mary, who attened the scene with a female partner, attempted to help the man to his feet, at first he verbally abused them. Then, suddenly, he " seemed to snap".

"He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me to the ground," she explained.

"Just in front of the building, next to the concrete path, there was a small flower bed with a metal rail around it. He pulled me onto that.

"My left ribcage hit it straight away and I knew I was badly injured. I couldn't breathe. But he kept on kicking me and punching me and flailing around."

In addition to cuts and bruises, Mary ended up with three broken ribs. One was broken in two places and she narrowly escaped a punctured lung. To this day she is still receiving physiotheraphy for her injuries.

"The assault still crosses my mind," she said.

"I'm left with scars. I have a distorted rib and I don't know if it's going to be like that permanently."

She added: "When they're full of drink and drugs and dear knows what they just don't stop. They just keep going."

Mary's female colleague, who tried to intervene that night, also suffered bruising to the head, face and chest. As a result of the attack, she was medically removed from the job - after 10 years' service.

"All I could think about when I was lying in the Ulster Hospital were my husband and our two-and-a-half-year-old son, who were at home in bed," said Mary.

"Later, when I was slipping in and out of sleep, I could see his (the attacker's) face. When something like that happens, you re-run it.

"He was in his late 30s, early 40s, slim, with dark hair. He wasn't particualry aggressive looking. He was a pitiful sort of a creature with a drink problem."

Mary's attacker was sentenced to nine months in prison. But as he had already served three in remand, he spent only six months behind bars.

"I think the judicial system is a farce," she said.

"At the end of the day if a member of the public was assaulted it would be treated a lot more seriously.

"We're just a number. The law doesn't protect us at all. Assaulting a police officer used to be a serious offence, nowadays it's just a sport.

"For the average officer, getting assaulted is treated as part of the job. It's just expected."

"When you're training, no-one ever says what it's like out on the streets. They don't tell you that people won't like you.

"I've been hit, kicked and spat at. There have been bottles, bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs thrown at me and once, during a public order disturbance, someone fired a gun. I only found out afterwards that they were blanks."

So, does she constantly fear for her safety on the job?

"On a day to day basis you just get on with it," she replied.

"But I do think about my child a lot and keeping me safe is what he needs.

"When something was happening - a car chase, or people attacking our Land Rover - I didn't think about it, but afterwards, I realised, in some cases, I could have died."

She added: "I think things are getting better. But when officers are still getting shot in the back it shows you there are still problems. And it makes a bit of a mockery of peace."

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