Fireworks, drunken revellers and a housefire - all in a night’s work for neighbourhood police

A HOUSE fire, illegal fireworks seizures, teenagers looking for trouble and drunken town centre revellers.

Throw in an assortment of fancy dress costumes and you might have some idea of what Halloween night is like for the 14 police officers attempting to keep law and order in Banbridge on one of the busiest nights of the year.

Before we set off in the jeep with the crew I ask Sergeant Billy Stewart from the Banbridge and Gilford Neighbourhood Policing Team what I should expect from the eight-hour shift ahead of us.

He laughs and tells me the nature of the job means there is no such thing as a typical night, so while he has briefed his team and has a strategy to a certain extent, the officers will very much “take it as it comes”.

“We make plans but the best-laid plans can go awry,” adds Sergeant Stewart, who has served with the police service for 25 years. As a local man he is well-known in the area and speaks with a genuine passion for neighbourhood policing in his home town.

The eight full-time officers within Sergeant Stewart’s team are supplemented by six part-time officers - the extra hands are needed in the run-up to Halloween with regular patrols being scheduled in the week leading up to the night itself.

A former officer within the then Mobile Support Unit - effectively the riot police - Sergeant Stewart remembers Halloweens gone by when he stood in Church Square with fireworks coming up the street sideways towards him. Things have calmed since then he tells me, nonetheless touching the wooden table in front of him.

When it’s time to set off, one crew is dispatched to patrol the Gilford, Laurencetown, Scarva and Loughbrickland areas for the duration of the shift while two separate crews patrol Banbridge town centre and the outlying areas.

When asked about how well-resourced he feels this area is, Sergeant Stewart admits he would “of course” like more officers but added that those working in the area at the minute are doing a thorough job.

“Do we need more (officers)? I would say not,” he said. “Do we have enough police to police what we have? Yeah, I would say from my looking at it yes we do. If we had more people we could become probably more pro-active and that would be of benefit.”

At around 7pm I head to Edenderry with Sergeant Stewart, Constable Freda Wylie and Constable Chris Mulholland to see how the young people there are getting on with the Nomad Football Cage which is stationed there for the next two hours.

Around 20 youths are present at the cage - a diversionary activity funded by the Community Safety Partnership and run by Youth for Christ - some playing football, and others just hanging around.

It’s a chance for young people to engage with police, says Sergeant Stewart. A part-time colleague, Constable Paul O’Loughlin says this aspect of his job is most rewarding.

“Neighbourhood is much more about getting to the bottom of things and getting them fixed,” he says. “It’s about having a profile with the kids, meeting the young people.”

Some three hours later, after a call about a house in the area being attacked with eggs, a local man points to the presence of the cage. He is annoyed at a group of young people who he says are terrorising the area with anti-social behaviour. A number of people are standing outside their houses as we arrive on the scene to calm tensions and listen to local concerns.

This type of neighbourly dispute is something Sergeant Stewart’s team is often called to, and he tells me some areas can be more challenging than others.

Community Safety Manager Alison Beattie explained the rationale behind the cage.

“We often receive complaints that young people are causing anti-social behaviour and have nothing to do,” she explained. “The idea behind the football cage is to provide a safe environment to give the young people an opportunity to come together and to be engaged in a more positive way. In some areas it has worked particularly well wherein members of the local community and all ages get involved and use it as a way to build positive relations between the ages and foster a greater sense of community spirit.”

Later into the evening the crew responds to call-outs in the town and outlying areas. Soon we’re heading towards the Parish Centre on the Scarva Road where we meet the other town crew which has seized illegal fireworks from a hedge. The young people to whom the rockets and bangers belong dumped the stash and scattered just as police arrived.

Sergeant Stewart said the groundwork done by police in the weeks before Halloween helped to limit the amount of illegal fireworks that made it onto the streets.

Minutes later we’re en route to Tesco where the manager has reported two fireworks being thrown into the front entrance of the store. He describes a group of around six or seven youths - one in particular who is known to police and is said to have verbally abused the manager when asked to leave the shop.

During a walkabout in Rathfriland Street at around 9.30pm we happen upon three girls aged in their early teens. Again some are known to police - their names are noted and Sergeant Ferguson says they can be added to non-incident reports back at the station.

The girls’ reaction is not one of fear when police approach - rather one of annoyance that their evening has been interrupted by the short exchange.

Shortly after this meeting the crew heads to the scene of some criminal damage at a house in Kenlis Street.

The occupant, a young Polish woman, is visibly shaken up as she recounts hearing a noise at her front door only to find that a firework had been placed in her letterbox.

The woman, who said she is afraid because it is just herself and her eight-year-old daughter living in the house, is assured by Sergeant Stewart and Constable Wylie that they will be patrolling the area until around 3am.

Later we drive around the Circular Road to check a report of a farmhouse being targeted with fireworks. No possible culprits are spotted but we do, to our surprise, see field gates hanging sideways from telegraph poles - a rural Halloween pastime perhaps.

After a break back at the station to re-fuel the crew takes up position outside the Coach nightclub in Church Square, ready for the partygoers to spill onto the streets.

Already, before the clock has even struck 1am, the street is full of revellers including Mr T, Marilyn Monroe, catwoman and Scooby Doo to name but a few.

We join Simon and John, two of the Community Safety Wardens, as more people emerge from the club.

Some young people approach the officers to chat and even have photographs taken with them. But, while engaging in – mainly nonsensical- conversation the officers are constantly on the look-out for anyone in need of help, and skirmishes that could turn into full-scale fights.

At around 2am, as people disperse from Church Square, the crew gets a call to a house fire in Pinley Meadows.

And so they set off with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Sergeant Stewart later informs me the crews got back to the station at 4am to complete their paperwork for the evening.

The long hours, challenging situations and sometimes negative reaction police officers get may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, as Sergeant Stewart tells me, it’s most definitely his.

“You don’t do this job unless you have a passion for it,” he said. “Getting out and speaking to the community - that’s what I love about this job. If someone asked me would I want to be doing anything else? No way.”