A female PSNI riot officer has spoken of the terror of facing hate-filled mobs during some of Northern Ireland's worst public order incidents.
In a remarkable series of interviews the officer, and five of her colleagues in the specialist Tactical Support Group (TSG), revealed the human cost of holding the line when violence erupts on our streets.
The issue has been thrown into the spotlight after a series of tense parading situations over the summer during which scores of police officers were injured.
In one particularly intense episode of rioting over three nights last month, 62 cops were hurt during trouble in the Denmark Street and Carlisle Circus areas of north Belfast after a contentious parade.
In their interviews with the Belfast Telegraph the officers, who spoke anonymously to protect their identities, revealed what it is like standing on the frontline during disorder such as last month’s, and the effect it can have on their families. One of them, a 33-year-old female officer, has been at the forefront of many of the worst riots in Northern Ireland in recent years, including Ardoyne in 2009 and 2010, when she and her colleagues came under particularly sustained and brutal attack.
During those riots a female colleague was seriously injured when a concrete slab was dropped onto her head from a rooftop.
“I find standing on the actual line is the scary bit — when they are right up on your line pulling your shields,” the officer said. “You look out and you just see the hatred. If they got hold of you they would just pull you into the crowd.
“You have to be careful not to over-think it, as that is all you would be thinking about. You have to concentrate to keep yourself, your colleagues, the crowd and the rioters safe.”
She is one of 41 female TSG officers working across Northern Ireland. There are currently 453 full-time TSG officers who are highly trained in public order policing. They are also the officers who carry out specialist searches, counter-terrorism work and provide assistance to response and neighbourhood officers.
“Just because we are female, we don't expect to be treated any differently to the men. The only time (the rioters) realise you're female is if they come up really close or if they hear me speak. They target us the same way they target the men,” added the officer.
She also revealed how her mother can become distressed when she hears that disorder has erupted and that her daughter is most likely in the middle of it.
“I have a very supportive family but my mum would be the biggest worrier. Mummy sees a picture in the papers of a female officer from behind with a blonde ponytail and she immediately thinks it's me,” she said.
Female TSG officers have to undergo the same level of training as their male colleagues and wear the same protective body armour — which weighs four stone.
Chief Inspector Graham Dodds, who is in charge of Northern Ireland's TSG units, said: “Girls have to pass exactly the same physical standards as men.
“There is no difference between the male and female officers. It is a very equal working environment; they all have to do the same training.”
One of the biggest risks the officers face on the frontline is coming under gunfire.
“You're out on the shield line, you hear the shots, you know they are not fireworks ... everyone grabs everybody and you get under cover. The adrenaline gets you moving, but once (it) goes down it hits you — ‘we are getting shot at, one of us could be killed,” another of the officers, a 45-year-old dad-of-two, said.
‘We have a job to do and we must do it’
Officer A: 33-year-old female. Single.
I find standing on the actual line is the scary bit — when they are right up on your line, pulling your shields. You look out and you can just see the hatred. If they got hold of you they would just pull you into the crowd.
There are ones there about 10 years of age. They are just watching what the older ones are doing and then they do exactly the same.
A brick thrown by a 10-year-old close up hurts as much as a brick thrown by an older person.
You just look at the youngsters and think: “Look at the size of you, you literally come to my hip. Where are your mother and father?”
I never think: “Why am I doing this?” We have a job to do and we just go and do it.
I’m not the only female, there are a couple of other girls in the unit. I don’t expect to be treated any differently from the men.
When you look at the deployment you can’t distinguish who is male or who is female. The only time the ones doing the riot realise you’re female is if they come up really close and they really look at you. Or if they hear me speak. They target us just the same way as they target the men.
I would drive the Land Rovers sometimes. What is frustrating for me is when the rioters get on your vehicle, they climb right up onto the bonnet and you can’t really move very fast if at all. If they fell off you’re going to get the blame.
I have a very supportive family. My mum would be the biggest worrier. Mum sees a picture in the papers of a female officer from behind with a blonde ponytail and she immediately thinks it’s me.
There was one of a girl recently and my mum saw it and was straight on the phone asking if I was okay. She would worry.
‘It’s noisy and chaotic but there is also calm’
Officer B: A 46-year-old father of a 15-year-old boy
My lad has become much more aware of what is going on. He knows if there is disorder the likelihood is I will be involved. I find myself more and more having to reassure him.
It is the job of my team to restore order and hopefully make a positive contribution. If we weren’t there, those communities would descend into even more serious disorder.
We are all very well aware of the dangers. The PSNI is policing some of the most serious disorder in the UK and our officers are being subjected to very violent attack.
I have never once heard any officer saying: “No, I’m not doing that, it is too dangerous.”
In the middle of a disorder situation it is extremely noisy. You are hearing fireworks going off, masonry and bricks banging off shields, people shouting at each other, the water cannon may be being deployed, a radio transmission in your ear.
But despite the noise and chaos, you have a unit. It is almost calm and is extremely disciplined, a team effort.
‘I fear for my family if I’m ever recognised’
Officer C: A 36-year-old married father of a boy (4) and two-year-old girl
My four-year-old boy just started primary school in September. That was the time of the trouble in north Belfast and I was at Denmark Street. I missed his first day. That was hard.
My worst fear is being recognised when I’m out with my family. One person I arrested I bumped into in Belfast and I thought to myself: “It’s all right me here on my own, but what if I was here with my wife and kids and he decided to get his own back on me?” During disorder in 2010 one of the officers I was with got shot with a sawn-off shotgun. He got shot in the arm, but luckily was OK. I remember at that time I felt my nerves twitching, when it hit home that I could be seriously hurt.
My wife is in the job, too, but it is still difficult for her when she hears on the news that shots have been fired at police.
It is hard to send text messages when you are in the middle of all that, but when I get a chance I try to text my wife to let her know I am all right.
‘Once in that uniform, you’re target for hate’
Officer D: A 28-year-old married father with a three-year-old daughter and newborn baby son
It is hard leaving my family behind when I know I am going out to disorder. When it is over the summer (long hours are) nearly a given. You have to put up with it, but it does have a big impact on family life.
My first public order situation was in 2010. I had only been in TSG for one year and I hadn’t been in that sort of situation before. It was very difficult... all the training you get is to just stand there. They were right up on us. They were trying to pull the shields off us. That fear is always there — what If I get grabbed and get sucked in here?
I had never seen such rioting before. It was the hatred; there was so much hatred. They didn’t know me, but they hated me. I could have walked past them in Tesco the next day no problem, but at that moment I was wearing a police uniform and they hated me. You are trying to make an improvement in the community but for one, two three days those people really hate you and want to hurt you.
‘We’re trained to hold the line... and we do’
Officer E: 45-year-old father of two teenagers
I’m married 20 years, my wife hasn’t known any different, really; neither have the kids. But whenever they see the serious public disorder on the TV they do get concerned about me going out. They are always on my mind. The likes of Denmark Street (in north Belfast last month) we were all on rest days and we got the call to come in on the Sunday night. I never saw my kids again until Thursday night.
We are trained to hold the line despite coming under violent attack. Take for example Ardoyne in 2010, we had huge crowds in front of us at the shops and we had protesters sitting on the road behind us.
We were getting so much incoming, big metal spikes being rammed into us, there were fireworks, petrol bombs, and we stood there. Discipline takes over. That’s what you are trained for. Of course there is fear, there is a crowd of hundreds trying to do you damage, but you just have to put your training into force. We work as a team, we train as a team.
‘It’s sad to see young kids trying to kill us’
Officer F: 37-year-old. Married father of a four-year-old and six-year-old.
It’s sad looking out and seeing that the people trying to kill us are young kids.
I was injured at Denmark Street (north Belfast) on the Monday night (last month). I remember the crew was in front of me and telling them to get back. I took a step back and that was it — bang — a massive impact to my head.
I was put in an ambulance and I was taken to the Royal. I have been off work ever since.
When you get hit on the head you can really feel it. The helmet protects your head but if you are hit on the head with a brick your head vibrates
My parents are pensioners, they are really upset about it. They are asking me “what are you doing that for?”, and telling me to get into something else.
It is harder for the ones at home than it is for us. When we are out doing the job we are concentrating on what we have to do. But your family are the ones sitting at home watching the news and wondering if that is you who has been hurt.