Sunday, March 4, 2007

Visiting the Police

I've been feeling a little under the weather these last few days-- achey, tired, and interested in very little that does not start with s and rhyme with 'sleep.' If it seems like I've been neglecting to keep up here, that's why.

In any case...

We visited a police station on Monday. The station itself is on the waterside. On the drive over there, our guide, a very friendly plainclothes officer who's been policing in Northern Ireland for something like fifteen years, gave us an overview of the PSNI's local structure (PSNI stands for Police Service of Northern Ireland). Basically, they go for a two-sided system. The first is 'community policing,' which involves having officers on the beat who really know their area and the people who live there. These officers are supposed to be approachable neighborhood fixtures that everyone knows by name. The second part of their work is more traditional police who respond to calls as they come in-- the sort of policing that I'm used to dealing with back home.

The first thing that stuck me abou the station was the station itself. It's a fairly new, large construction designed to withstand pretty much everything short of nuclear fallout. As we approached, only the guard station and a communications and surveilance tower was visible over the high brick-and-sloping-steel walls. We passed through gigantic blast doors, and then a checkpoint with a barrier, before passing into an open carpark. The building inside was solid and thick-walled, with small windows that only ever open a few inches and thick, blast-resistant exterior doors.

We began our tour in the carpark, with a look at the department's various vehicles. These range from unmarked cars with lights and sirens hidden under the front grilles to armored vans with quarter-inch, spaced-steel plating, with a few 'normal' police vehicles in between (all of which also have light armor, such as bulletproof glass and reenforced exteriors).

The biggest car he showed us, aformentioned heavily-armored van, is chiefly engaged in riot policing these days. As of our Monday visit, there had been nightly riots along an interface area near the station for the last several days. The van was a little the worse for wear. There was damage to the paint job caused by petrol bombs (people apparantly add sugar to them to make them sticky), bits of garbage still stuck to it, and someone had actually managed to crack the armor over one headlight by chucking-- I don't know what to call it, because 'brick' doesn't really convey the size of the thing. It looked like part of a pillar.

But the most annoying thing, according to our guide, was the paint. People throw paint at the cars ('they must not like our color scheme,' he joked), and it's apparantly really annoying when they manage to get it onto the windshield, as it impairs driving. Everything else, he said, was little more than a nuisance. He pointed out, though, that while the heavily-armored van could go into riots and come out needing no more than a £2 paint job, they keep their more 'normal' vehicles far away from that kind of conflict. Even though they're armored, the damages could quickly ammount to a thousand or more pounds.

What he said upset him most about the rioting was that they're a resource-sinc. The PSNI is responsible for normal policing as well as peacekeeping, and the latter often takes up too much of their resources. While his team was dealing with these riots, an elderly couple had their home invaded. The burglers tied them up and stole pretty much all they had-- which ammounted to £20 and a bus pass. The police got the call, but they had no one to send, because they were busy dealing with teenagers who were using their armored van for target practice.

After the carpark tour, he took us in to the station itself. The blast doors are surprisingly well counterbalanced. They apparantly weigh thousands of pounds a piece, but you wouldn't know it to open them. Inside, we took a tour of the cells and the interrogation rooms, where we met the officer responsible for insuring the rights of 'detained persons' (the phraze 'prisoner' is no longer operative). His full-time job is making sure the police at that station respect the rights of civilians. Every arrest has to be justified to him, and he oversees the welfare of everyone being detained and interrogated there. He answers up the line to the police omsbudsman-- basically internal affairs on crack.

I know there's a lot of well-documented issues with police in Northern Ireland prior to the Good Friday Agreement, but having met the officers and seen the way they conduct their business, I have to say I fully believe the PSNI's claim to being the most accountable police force in the world.

Honestly, based on what I saw, if I had to be in police custody, I'd rather be in custody here than back home-- I think American police could stand to take a page or two from PSNI policy. For instance, one of the rights arrested persons in Northern Ireland have is access to the PSNI protocol book. They're allowed to have it in front of them during all interrogations, and allowed to consult it at any time, so that if they feel that their rights are being infringed upon they can cite it line and verse. I thought that was an extremely good idea.

Another thing that really impressed me about the station was it's committment to diversity, and not just the religious kind. Their female officers, and even their openly gay ones, are considered just a part of the team. The way they speak about and interact with each other made it very clear that this concept of equality wasn't just some notion forced upon them in the interest of political correctness, the way it is in many parts of the states. They're proud of being enlightened about diversity. Talking to them, you get the sense that it's really important to them.

But while the police have made a lot of progress, our guide told us that problems with community relations still exist. One officer at the station, a woman from a staunchly republican area of Belfast, got a phonecall one night telling her that she was 'no longer welcome' in her home neighborhood because of her status as a police officer. Several of their Catholic officers come from the republic itself to work in Northern Ireland, rather than from the local community. Our guide (who I'm declining to name because of these very issues) lamented the shortage of local people that really make 'community policing' work. For his own part, he has policies set up in his own family (like avoiding routines) to keep them safe from paramilitaries.

He ended the tour with a Q&A session, in which he talked about his work with local schoolchildren. It's kind of a DARE program combined with general crime-deterrant education. After that, he drove us back to the cityside and dropped us off at school with his contact information in case we have any further questions. I took a handful of pamphlets with me when I left, and I've been looking them over since. The whole experience was really interesting.

1 comment:

Jediowl said...

I know I would be very dilatory about joining the police if I were a nationalist. I like my head where it is, thanks.

All through the troubles the IRA murdered Nationalists who were in the police or positions of authority in the British system, and then Sinn Fein whinges that the establishment is 100% "protestant". That sound you here up at Magee is my head meeting my monitor...