Belfast lives up to its reputation as one of UK's safest
As the PSNI ramps up patrols for the party season, Deborah McAleese joins officers keeping revellers out of harm's way
It may have been one of the busiest party nights of the year, but Belfast certainly lived up to its accolade of being one of the safest cities in the UK.
A Friday night in December on patrol with the PSNI and the most notable events of the evening were a drunken scuffle outside a bar, a man sleeping against a lamp post and a reveller begging officers to take him home as he couldn't get a taxi.
By 3am on Saturday morning, there had been six reported assaults and two incidents of disorderly behaviour related to the night time economy.
"As weekend nights go, this was a pretty good one," said Chief Inspector Robert Murdie, as he checked the night's crime figures
The South Belfast commander is in charge of the PSNI's enhanced 'Get Home Safe' policing operation which was launched at the start of December to try and keep Christmas revellers safe and prevent any crime surges.
To deal with the increased footfall of partygoers throughout the Christmas period, Mr Murdie has doubled the number of officers who usually patrol the city centre on Friday and Saturday nights.
Most of this specific policing operation is centred around the night time hot spots, such as the Cathedral Quarter, Shaftesbury Square, the University area and the Odyssey between the key hours of 11pm and 3am.
Before heading out on their patrols officers have already made contact with door staff and bar managers to get an idea of where the busy hotspots this evening are.
It is 11pm and first stop is the busy Shaftesbury Square area which has a high concentration of bars and is popular with students. The throngs of revellers are full of Christmas cheer and are being well managed by door staff who have been enforcing a strict ID policy and refusing entry to anyone intoxicated.
Around 20 minutes later a bar manager tells officers there is some bother at the side of his premises. A scuffle had just broken out between a man and some security staff.
Two neighbourhood officers quickly intervene and within minutes have calmed the situation down. As officers speak to witnesses, two Tactical Support Groups and several more response officers arrive in the area to monitor the situation.
Despite this being a relatively minor incident, the officers do not get finished at the scene for another 40 minutes due to the laborious task of recording a detailed account of the incident, taking witness statements and contact details for any follow-up investigation.
"When dealing with potentially violent incidents, there are different methods of restraint. The first is talk people down, which is what happens in this case, second is the use of handcuffs and leg restraints and third is CS spray and batons but that is very rare," says Mr Murdie.
He adds: "We are very lucky in Belfast. We have very few incidents of knives or weapons being about the night time economy. But people punching the heads of each other is the problem."
It is 12.10am and our patrol takes a drive past the Botanic Inn. The revellers are all still in jovial spirits with their bobbled hats and snowmen jumpers. Ten minutes later and we arrive at the Odyssey which is closed up for the night. But there is a party going on outside as large crowds of teenagers pitch their tents at the front to be first in line for One Direction tickets when the box office opens.
It is 12.30am and getting close to kicking out time, so our patrol heads to the Cathedral Quarter, the emergent night time hot spot.
One young woman is sitting on the ground, but her friends come over and help her up.
Another man, unsteady on his feet, is being helped into a taxi by his friend.
The temperature has plummeted below freezing and by 1am there is a surge of revellers desperate for a taxi home. By 1.45pm the police presence is very visible, especially around packed fast food outlets and busy taxi ranks.
A young man in his early 20s, desperate to get home, walks over to our patrol vehicle and knocks on the window.
"Can you give me a lift home? I can't get a taxi. I'll do something for you to arrest me. What do I have to do to get arrested. Just tell me and I'll do it," he begs the officer.
He is directed to a nearby taxi rank and advised to wait there in the queue.
"The big problem is transport provision. Other European cities would have bus networks and rail networks to get people home. In Belfast, people are dependent on taxis. A lot of our operation at around 1.30am and 2am is to make sure people can get lifts home. We would sometimes direct them to the SOS Bus if they are really stuck. We can't give people lifts home," Mr Murdie says.
The policing operation then switches to the "vulnerable corridors", like the back streets and dimly lit areas. Officers patrol these areas until early morning to make sure anyone walking home alone is not subject to a violent attack.
By the end of the shift, there have been six assaults and two disorderly behaviour incidents. Three people have been arrested and taken to the custody suite at Musgrave Street Police Station.
It may be the most technologically advanced custody suite in Europe, but it is still not somewhere you want to wake up with a hangover.
"We have people waking up the next morning with a very sore head and feeling very annoyed at themselves. That's not where they'd planned to end their Christmas night out," says Mr Murdie.