Another New Year’s Eve spent out on patrol. This has been a bit of tradition for me since about 1996 and something which on the whole I always enjoy. Policing has developed in many ways but the core is being out there on operational duty serving the public on what we now call the ‘front line’. Over the years policing New Year’s Eve has not changed that much although it goes on a bit longer because of extended licensing hours. Most of policing on New Year’s Eve is about people who have drunk too much and are acting stupidly but there is always the aspect that at important times of the year when people spend more time together emotions become heightened and things are said and done with drink that are often bitterly regretted in the cold light of New Year’s Day.
This year I was out on patrol with the response team in Oldham going from incident to incident from 10pm till about 4.30am. I was impressed by the number of police officers and Special Constables on duty but the sheer number of incidents quickly uses them up. There is huge strain on our staff who answer the calls and have to deploy staff to incidents. Between midnight and 4am we recorded more than 1200 incidents and dealt with more by advice over the phone. It was also a very busy night in the custody centres with our cells close to capacity.
The night started with a report of a young child in the street in pyjamas and then moved on to various disturbances, fights in pubs and domestic abuse incidents. We went a couple of times to a house where a party was been hosted by a couple of young people who seemed to have invited around 50 of their mates. The parents had gone off to London and would have a shock on their return given the state of the carpets and the front lawn. The party goers were a bit rowdy as 50 people in a house will be but all dispersed peacefully.
One call was to a man who said he was suicidal following a row with his girlfriend and was heading to a motorway bridge. We are getting a number of calls like this at the moment and again times like New Year’s Eve can heighten emotions. We eventually found which bridge he was talking about and managed to move him away from the bridge. There then followed a process of negotiation with the mental health team as to whether they could help and also a conversation with his girlfriend to see whether the relationship could be repaired. This all takes time on a busy evening but at its heart is a vulnerable person going through a crisis. The officers have to be sure that he is okay before he is left or we will be blamed should a tragedy occur afterwards. One consideration is do you shut the motorway. This is not easy to do. The motorway is a dangerous place and motorway officers are thin on the ground at the best of times. Thankfully we did not have to do it on this occasion.
Another call took us to a house where the son of the family was demanding entry but his parents did not want him in because of previous violence and a complex family relationship. The son was found hiding in the back garden nursing a large bottle of cider at 3am. You could feel the pain of the parents that things had come to this but the lad was sent on his way to hopefully find some space on the floor of a mate’s house.
On the way back from that job we came across an altercation outside a pizza takeaway. There were various young people scantily clad given the cold weather and one in tears. One lad was identified as the aggressor and was crouched down in an alley feeling sorry for himself. One girl said she had been pushed and a lad said he had been punched although he had no injury. It seemed to have started from one lad being over attentive to one of the girls and then stumbling into her which others had misinterpreted. None of those involved wanted to make a complaint about the situation if that meant making a statement and going to court. All had been drinking and seemed to know one another. This sort of incident shows the day to day reality of policing. Is this a crime, is it anti-social behaviour or is it just one of those things which happens when people have been drinking too much and over react and misinterpret what they see? The matter should technically be recorded as an assault, paperwork filled in and then recorded as undetected as no one wanted to complain or you could just quieten things down, move people on and take the “aggressor” down the road so there was no danger of a recurrence. I think I know what the public think is the common sense thing to do. Some of it is about what we call the ‘attitude test’. If someone continues to be aggressive and fails to take this warning they will end up being arrested. Sadly, there are too many idiots who through drink don’t take the warning. At the end of the day officers do not like to see basically decent young lads getting a criminal record through the strength of emotion created by drinking and girls on New Year’s Eve.
Of course in an ideal world there should be a zero tolerance to any violence and to anyone behaving in a disorderly fashion. But the reason I go out on patrol on New Year’s Eve and on many other occasions during the year is to be reminded of the reality of the prevailing culture on the street and of what can be achieved by the thin blue line working with society as it is not how we would wish it to be. It is easy for some newspapers to print shocking photographs of late night scenes in town centres but the fact is lots of people do like going out drinking on nights like New Year’s Eve and the vast majority do so sensibly. Successive governments have found it impossible to control the drinking culture in this country or the willingness of the alcohol industry to sell alcohol which is relatively cheaper and stronger than it used to be. The best the police can hope to do is to keep a lid on it and make sure that those who go into town and centres to drink do so in a safe and mainly law abiding fashion. It is completely unrealistic to expect that the atmosphere and standards of behaviour in town centres will be the same at 3am as at 3 pm and indeed those that go there at those times don’t expect that. There has to be common sense and a certain degree of tolerance which is what good policing has always been about.
Happy New Year.
Sir Peter Fahy