December 6 2013 Latest news:
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
We had walked deserted streets, almost deserted parks and dropped into pubs, many surprisingly quiet.
And we had scratched our heads over the curious case of a car transporter, a parked van with the driver surrounded by fluffy toys and young Lithuanian drinking vodka in a public place.
For nearly six hours we had laughed with, walked with, driven with, and watched a team of four Wisbech specials (unpaid police officers) go about their business to make the Fens that bit safer.
As the shift drew to a close we drank our first coffee of a long evening and prepared to return to Wisbech Police Station to allow the weary team – that included by day a bank worker, a supply teacher and an admin worker- to head off home.
Sergeant Steve Clark was in the driving seat and about to return, I thought, to the police station but it was not to be.
We pulled into a car park, checked out the white van driver with his fluffy toys, drove into town, again, and helped two young Lithuanians the worse for drink to stagger uneventfully off home and away from harms way, and then prepared for one last tour of the side roads.
It was a decision that for one young man, sat outside his home and cosying up in his parked car to his girl friend, was to spell disaster.
As our van drove down the narrow street one of the eagle eyed specials spotted the car was parked on white zig zag lines and noticing the driver at the wheel pulled over to point out what appeared a simple misdemeanour.
What began, though, as a routine check escalated into something altogether more serious as a breathalyser revealed him to be nearly twice over the legal limit.
His unhappiness at a law which can see a driver arrested even though he had only been seated in the car for warmth and privacy to be with his girl friend was all too obvious to see.
The closure of cells at Wisbech meant the arrested man had to be taken to Kings Lynn Investigation Centre, booked in, charged and it was two of our team who had to undertake both the journey and the ensuing paperwork.
The detail of the case, quite properly, cannot be reported but what was extraordinary was how the quiet bank worker and the recently qualified teacher found a resource of authority and aplomb to handle an escalating exchange of words and behaviour.
As we made our way back to our cars it was 1.30am and time for my photographer Steve and I to reflect on this increasingly useful, cost effective and rather British way of policing our streets.
Sgt Steve Clark has been a special for seven years, and by day has another job which he prefers not to mention but both his professional and part time work are a substantial departure from the life he once enjoyed as a Lincolnshire sub postmaster.
“I joined because I wanted it to be safe for my kids and my missus to be safe in the park,” he says. “I used to moan about the town and then decided to get up and do something about it.” He followed a family tradition of becoming a special but had previously thought it not for him.
Bank worker Dan Merrington has been a special for two years and does six or seven shifts a month although promotion in his day job has shelved his one time ambition to join the regular police force.
His Friday nights before becoming a special used to be home with his girl friend but he, too, shared with her the need to do something to help. He lives in Peterborough, is normally working as a special in March, but for this night had joined the Wisbech team to help with Operation Titan.
That’s the campaign to remove many of the anti social behaviour elements from the streets, to clamp down on drinking in public, and to catch under age drinkers in the pubs. The success figures speak for themselves.
In a seven week period through August and September the Wisbech specials covered 166 shifts, attended 161 incidents, made seven arrests and helped in 13 other arrests.
They also, and they did on the night we accompanied them, cheerfully but firmly invite miscreants drinking vodka in Wisbech Park to pour the contents of their bottle away (in the case we witnessed a litre of vodka) and to rub salt into the wound invited the offender to put the empty bottle in a bin.
Routine seems the mantra of the team but it is effective – the pub landlords we met enjoyed knowing the police were in town, door security staff at one pub felt the town was better because of them, and, had we met passers by, it is certain they would have said the same.
Cambridgeshire Police now has 259 specials with 40 of them based in Fenland and Sgt Clark says they tend to slot into one of three categories.
“There is those attracted by the notion of flashing blue lights who have possibly watched Cop Squad on TV. They tend to disappear though into the moonlight. Then there are those who use it as a stepping stone to the regular police force and finally there are those who are what I’d term career specials,” he says.
His team that night, like every time they go on duty, have identical equipment to regular officers, with parva spray, handcuffs, lapel video cameras and a baton to ensure they are adequately prepared and protected.
Sgt Clark says they can and do enjoy discretion over the actions they take, saving one recent couple from public embarrassment after giving them a ticking off only for enjoying a rather too intimate relationship in one of the town’s park.
They have a stock of anecdotes too, of the offences they deal with, Sgt Clark recounting the tale of earlier this month when he spotted an Audi towing a trailer through town, with the owner’s 15 year old son spread eagled over a mattress on the trailer to stop it falling off.
“They were from Portugal and neither father nor son thought they were doing anything wrong,” he said.
Likewise the man they arrested for domestic violence who also thought he had nothing wrong.
“He said he’d only hit his partner the once,” said Sgt Clark.
On our night with the specials we came across a Lithuanian man with a cat he had picked up in the Market Place and had stuffed it under his coat to take home.
“He likes me,” the man told officers as they helped him unbutton his coat to allow the cat to run off.
Much of our evening was spent trying to unravel the curious case of the transporter, parked in Enterprise Way, and containing six or seven scrap cars and a £40,000 BMW.
Fuel cans scattered at the front of the lorry aroused suspicion, shopping in the rear of the BMW seemed odd, to say the least, and a call to headquarters – and a three way conservation between a police interpreter, the Lithuanian driver and a special- only partially helped to explain precisely what was happening.
Hours later, though, innocence was firmly established, and the apparent complexity of the intertwining family, business and cultural arrangements appeared explanation enough.
It was for us a snap shot of life after hours in Wisbech but a positive experience at that.
Among all races a good natured feel existed and ought to be reflected better in dispelling many of the misconceptions for which Wisbech has become, sadly, known.
For the likes of Sgt Clark and his crew there is a definite certainty in knowing they make a difference. A sense of humour also seems to help.
One of his colleagues still cringes and smiles in equal measure at their recent experience of sitting in the front of their vehicle when two ‘guests’ opened the back and climbed in.
“I no speak English – you will take me home,” one told them. It took some convincing, and some moments, to explain that although they are specials they are not that special.