Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

How Matt can't see big picture on policing riots

Action needed: Matt Baggott
Action needed: Matt Baggott

I have a friend who was invited along recently to a police station to "help with inquiries". Turns out he'd been "identified" from police photographs of flag protest participants.

Now the chances of this particular lad taking part in street disturbances, of any hue, are slimmer than a supermodel's sandwich filling. But he accepts the police have a job to do. It was a serious accusation. And he was happy to go along and help clear things up.

As soon as the investigating officer laid eyes upon him it was smiles all round: "It's not you."

Apparently there was a very obvious physical discrepancy which immediately ruled him out from being the bloke in the picture.

But here's the thing. There was a definite likeness. He saw it himself.

What if it had been less obvious that he just couldn't have been Flag Man in the picture? The police concede in such a situation a file might well have been sent to the PPS.

Just so you know. Since it could also be you ...

This does seem an odd way to go about policing. Photographing lawbreakers and then trying to identify them for prosecution in the aftermath.

The PSNI. The Polaroid Service of Northern Ireland?

In fairness, photographic evidence has helped convict numerous wrongdoers. So it does have a role to play. But is police camera ever a substitute for action? A snapshot of what I mean ...

A few weeks back I watched a bunch of yahoos strutting around Belfast along the middle of the main thoroughfares, halting traffic, bringing business to a standstill.

Police officers geared up as if for Armageddon watched forlornly from the pavements. They vastly outnumbered the yobby boys. Yet they just stood and watched and presumably videoed. Apart from stopping drivers exiting a local shopping centre, that seemed to be their orders.

They looked mortified. I was mortified for them.

These are outstandingly brave men and women who put their lives on the lines to uphold the law of the land for the rest of us. Watching them having to stand there being jeered at by thugs was shaming.

Does Matt Baggott actually get this picture? Mr Baggott currently appears to see his role as some sort of peace missionary on outreach to political parties and paramilitaries. (His most recent gig was preaching to the Sinn Fein faithful at a conference in the Europa.) But it's not just lights, camera the public want from a police chief.

People want to know why, as the Police Federation's chairman Terry Spence points out, officers are unable to take robust action.

Why they're being asked to just stand there and take it.

Not just on the sidelines. But all too often on the front line being hammered (literally) by both sides of sectarian and paramilitary scumbaggery.

In less than a year, 448 officers have been injured as a result of public disorder, 147 of them during the flag protests alone.

As Mr Spence says, they are being used as cannon fodder.

What if any one of those officers was your son or daughter? Your husband or wife?

Over the next few days police officers here are facing what is being described as their greatest challenge – the G8, the biggest policing operation in the history of this place.

A hell of a lot is being asked of them.

And there also remains the challenge of policing street disorder of the local variety.

Those injury statistics quoted by Mr Spence are beyond shameful.

He is right to question strategy. To highlight the deep public unease about what is seen as police tip-toeing around the UVF in east Belfast.

For now the G8 is the big picture. But – like those wanted pics of the flag protesters – there are other aspects of policing here that also need more focus.

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