Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Understaffed, lonely, checking under the car for bombs - what it's like policing the Irish border

As Chief Constable George Hamilton settles in to the PSNI hot seat, a rank-and-file officer paints a stark picture of what it's like policing the border... in his own words

Chief Constable George Hamilton took up his new post this week. His officers who patrol border areas have to be on their guard always as anti-police feelings still run high in some places along frontier

Briefing time again. It takes me two hours every day to get there. It would be handy to live within 10 miles of the station, but that doesn't happen for police based in border areas.

Before I leave for work I shower, shave, check my kit, have a cuppa, check kit again and put my gun on. We carry a firearm 24/7. Well, we're supposed to. Some officers choose not to, but I do. Maybe it's my paranoia.

I go out to my car but I don't climb straight in. I get down on my hands and knees, in all weathers, to have a good look at the underside of my car for any explosive devices.

I drive to work with the radio on, listening intently for anything on the news that might upset my routine on my patch, or have us holding a point for hours.

At the briefing I look around the room and notice we are again at least two officers short of minimum manning. That's no real change.

Crews are assigned and vehicles kitted out. In our kit we carry first aid kits, defibrillators, food for 24 hours, batteries for torches, spare batteries for radios, patrol paperwork, a BlackBerry and charging cable, water, breakdown kits, ballistic body armour and our rifles. We are eventually ready to be of use to the public we serve.

As we set off in the car the radio chatters away. Call-signs all over the sub-district are being tasked to calls. Some are routine calls and some are not.

It is a warm day and in the car the temperature begins to rise. Our body armour is heavy and uncomfortable. I reach to turn the air-conditioning on but the air coming out is warm.

I'd love to take my tie off to get some air about me but we are not permitted to remove them – even if we desperately need to cool down.

I know of officers who, unable to stick the heat in the car in these conditions, have forgone the tie only to find themselves called in front of a superintendent to explain why.

We arrive at our call-out, a road traffic collision, to see at least one vehicle with its entire front pushed into the front seats. Fire crews are busy cutting and power tools are whirring.

I approach and ask what I can do to help and I am directed to a car on its roof. Inside, a small girl is whimpering in the back, asking if her mammy is okay. I take her hand in mine. It could have been my daughter's hand.

I can see a fireman holding the unconscious mother's head. I ask the little girl if she feels okay, or if she is sore anywhere. She tells me her back hurts, but she wants out of the car.

After what seems like hours, but is probably only a matter of minutes, the ambulance arrives and the paramedics take control of the injured.

Out come our sketch pads, pencils – pens don't work in the rain – tape measures, flashing blue lights, Road Closed signs and yellow coats. Traffic points are mounted by other call-signs and our investigations begin.

We are told that colleagues from a different sub-district 25 miles away are en route to assist. We have no more assets and we don't have enough to sort the RTC (road traffic collision) safely.

We single-crew positions until extra help arrives. When you work on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it can be an extremely lonely place.

By the time we visit the injured, breathalyse two parties, complete our collision file and reopen the road, it is lunchtime. I would love nothing more than a chip from one of the fast food outlets in the border town in which I work but I know that's not going to happen. It has changed here in Northern Ireland for the better, but not enough in some places.

We are unable to go for any food or shopping in the town where I work. I don't want the business owners to be accused of being police touts or police lovers. It would make life too difficult for them.

They have more than enough to worry about during these austere times without we PSNI officers making their lives any more difficult.

Most of the people I police are decent, law-abiding, upstanding members of Northern Ireland society and they are genuine in their desire to live as normal a life as possible.

However, sadly, we have a small number intent to stop any progress. Their actions make my job impossible at times.

As I finally sit at my desk for my lunch I read through the police emails clogging up my inbox. "Would the owner of ABC1234 stop parking in the superintendent's car parking space at XYZ station." "Would all officers please note the default uniform for parades over the summer is white shirt, tie, yellow coat and ballistic body armour over the top. Forage caps must be worn at all times."

Nice to see that the well-looked-after bosses, with their tea, coffee, biscuits, toilets and water, are so in touch with those of us sweating at the coal face.

As I turn to start to eat, another 999 call comes in.

Lunch can wait.

As told to Deborah McAleese

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