Towards the end of May I had the chance to go out on patrol with Greater Manchester Police around the Moss Side and Rusholme areas of South Manchester. It was part of their community reporter initiative, aiming to give local communities a clearer view of what local policing involves.
Like many other aspects of our society, peoples' view of the police can be subject to heavy bias from the media, and seems to be one of the hottest subjects to debate at 11pm in a pub. Whether it's being criticised for not taking action to remove people from the streets, or harrangued for taking a heavy handed approach to dealing with just kids it's hard to see where the truth might lie, and we can't just assume it's somewhere between the poles.
Getting a chance to experience police work first hand and talk to officers as a member of the community they're tasked with protecting was, therefore, a unique experience that I couldn't pass up. Adding to that, they sent a photographer around with us so you get a visual idea of the journey, and I was allowed to tweet on the day, and to write this report, without putting it past the officers first, so I'm reporting what I saw and heard.
The day began at Longsight Police Station at 7am, where I met PC and PCSO Lee (two guys, same name, confusing) who went through what we'd be doing, how they usually begin the day and how to stay safe (just in case). As we sat in the large work room, with members of the force assigned to various parts of the local area, I was interested to see how much discussion went on between the teams, especially how many ongoing relationships with both troubled or supportive members of the local community there were. This began what would be the overarching theme for the day, a focus on really getting to know the area, and a heavily intelligence led form of policing. PC Lee referred to this as the new policing (paraphrasing):
You can't police on your own, you need to be involved with community, housing associations and councils. A growing conern in cities is anti-social behaviour, and that requires a whole new type of policing.
Our first visit was to a property experiencing consistent anti-social behaviour from a local gang. The group were known to the police and they were keeping tabs on their movements in order to prevent them causing harm to members of the community. In particular they had worked with local minority community leaders who knew members of the gang in order to get families or friends more involved with helping to resolve the situation. We also inspected a site in the garage of an apartment block with evidence that it was being used for sex or possibly prostitution; a dirtier side of inner city police work. Some people might find police time wasted in inspecting the darker corners of a parking garage for used condoms, but such activities don't often turn up alone, and another main role of the police locally is to protect vulnerable people from exploitation.
Mosscare is a local housing association backed by churches, local shareholders and in part staffed by volunteers. As part of their efforts to know and get involved with the community the police visit the organisation's offices, and staff can talk to police with concerns about residents at risk or who may have caused problems for other tenants. Whilst we were visiting the police were discussing attending an event in a local park over the bank holiday weekend, supporting the organisation whilst also getting more chances to connect with local people. The force allows officers to be flexible with their shifts to make sure they can attend local meetings when they feel it's important.
The second local organisation we visited was the Docherty Project, part of the Great Places housing association. This project focuses on supporting those with alcohol dependency, providing a supportive environment to live and recover with support from peers and professionals. As well as one large property they also have several houses for those more self-sufficient, around the Moss Side and Rusholme areas. The officers talked to me about how they got involved with the project, particularly in preventing vulnerable people resident at the house from being exploited or abused by people they often knew from before entering the project. Whilst at the centre I got to witness this first hand, as some people were knocking on the outside door asking for a resident, whom the police suspected they intended to lure away and rob. PC Lee went to speak to them, telling us to wait inside; they got a fright when a police officer opened the door but sadly it was unlikely to deter them for long - as we left later on we spotted them with a number of others known to the police loitering outside shops on the curry mile.
I can guess that there must be a part to the officers that wants to take some of these less solubrious individuals and get them off the streets permenantly, and I'd point this out to those who may criticise officers for not taking such actions. The thin blue line is trodden carefully these days, with increased scrutiny on police response. This scrutiny is warranted as the police force hardly has an untarnished reputation in the last decades, but the restraint and detachment officers have to excercise definitely has a risk of making them seem uncaring.
Our day ended with a final look into the anti social gang, inspecting a house that had been occupied by the youths in recent weeks. The police can force landlords to secure empty properties to prevent this, and when we went to check there hadn't been further break ins we found rubbish and evidence of a small fire in the yard, but no damage to the boarding. There can be a certain sympathy towards squatters when homes are perceived as empty for no reason, a rich person's property or just a bad landlord; but when people who have homes break in to a property and are reported as setting fires in the upper rooms no local community can support their actions. Whatever your view on property rights the actions of these people puts everyone on the street at risk; fires in buildings can spread quickly along terraces, and the police continued their stance that protection of the overall community was their top priority.
As we arrived back to the car a group of women walking down the street approached us. One was carrying a child and they knew the officers. Lee had a short chat with one of the women, who was thanking him for something, and saying that their son was doing better now. Once in the car I got to hear more of the story; the woman's son had fallen in with a gang, and had been turning from a reasonable teenager into a dangerous adolescent, who'd had a few run-ins with the police. Maybe at one time he'd have ended up in jail, or been hounded and driven further into the gang culture. In this case, thanks to help from the officers both with how they approached him and how they worked with his family he had managed to move away, free from the negative influence of the gangs and even managed to get himself employment, which would help set him on a different path for the future.
We need our police. Yes, we need them to be monitored, regulated and held to account. Yes, we're going to hear more stories of mistakes or corruption by a small number of them. But what we really need is for them to continue being involved with communities, working with integrity, seeking to understand why these problems happen. We need to work with them; let them know what we care about, how we view their efforts and also to hear their perspective. By building trusting cooperative communities we can make a difference and improve life in our society.