Out of the West

The PSNI told the Andersonstown News this week that they can’t supply figures for the number of times they have intervened in the recent past when confronted with illegal street drinking in West Belfast. Strange, that. The reason we asked is that just about every other command district has identified illegal al fresco boozing as a top priority.

For example, on a live radio broadcast from Bangor last week, a cop revealed that the PSNI had intervened on around 50 cases in recent months in a bid to beat the boozers. Pledging a crackdown on street corner gargling, PSNI District Commander for the Coleraine area, Superintendent Dawson Cotton, has made the battle against the boozers part of his policing plan for 2004/2005. He said recently, “Many residents and visitors to the Borough find on-street drinking offensive and drunkenness intimidating, particularly those who have young children with them. We have made reducing on-street drinking a priority and it is therefore important that everyone is aware that consuming alcohol in a prohibited area is an offence.” Dawson went on to outline some of the successes scored. He said that 12 street drinkers had been “identified, interviewed and now face prosecution” after a band parade in Coleraine in April. He added that during the Northwest 200 in May, that number soared to 102.

Fair play to Dawson, because I think that’s a good thing. I also think that the cops in West Belfast should be doing the same. Sadly, it seems that West Belfast is a place apart when it comes to policing because we’re not allowed a snapshot so that we can see how our Trevors are doing in comparison to Bangor or Coleraine. When we asked the cops to furnish comparable figure for the West Belfast command district, this is what we got: “On-street drinking is not a recordable offence, street drinking is dealt with by the local authority. The PSNI can provide details of where the breach occurred. The PSNI have no power to arrest adults or confiscate alcohol for public drinking and can only note the details where consumption is observed.” Something tells me that street drinking is not in the 2004/2005 policing plan for the West Belfast command area.

How this squares with Dawson’s revelation that his men have identified and interviewed so many is not entirely clear to me – perhaps someone at Grosvenor or Woodbourne will help me out on that one. The PSNI shrug their shoulders and tell this newspaper that they’re effectively powerless; Dawson sticks his chest out and regales the good people of the borough of Coleraine with tales of the derring-do of his officers in the face of the WKD-swigging hordes.

To make sense of it all, we went to Belfast City Council, to whom, if Squinter is making any sense of this particular PSNI soup, instances of on-street drinking are reported after identification and interview takes place. The A Council spokesperson tells us that each year there are some 350-400 successful prosecutions for on-street drinking. No figures are given for command areas, but the spokesperson adds “most complaints arise in south or north Belfast”. There’s a surprise. I’ve seen people drinking illegally on the streets more times than I’ve been harassed by the RUC (and that’s a lot), but I’ve never seen any of them being discommoded on their journey to alcopop oblivion by the Trevors.

And note the cute way that the PSNI gives itself an out in its statement when it says that “the PSNI have no power to arrest adults or confiscate alcohol for public drinking”. Of course, when the drinkers are minors, as they are with such depressing regularity, the Trevors have a perfect right – some would say a duty – to wade in, chuck the cases of WKD into the back of the Land Rover and take the drinker or drinkers either home or to a place of safety. Appropriate action can then be taken against the parents – once they come home, or come round, whatever’s first.

But this doesn’t happen either, which means, to repeat a point I made last week and which so many people, I’ve since learned, agree with very forcefully, there’s more chance of a stray pup finding a place of refuge for the night than an abandoned juvenile.

Oh, and if just one member of a group of, say, ten drinkers is found to be under 18, then the law says that the police are entitled to confiscate everybody’s drink, for the very good reason that over-18s are not allowed to debauch minors. That’s the parents’ job.

In New York, inner-city crime has been tackled with huge success in recent years. That’s thanks to the ‘Broken Windows’ approach to policing, which, briefly, is a zero-tolerance philosophy that argues where police turn a blind eye to ‘small things’ – broken windows, dumped cars, graffiti – then more serious crime, such as assaults, robbery and drug-dealing, rises exponentially. In West Belfast, if our ‘Broken Windows’ policy was to be a ‘Drunken Teens’ policy, if all agencies concerned were to treat underage and illegal street drinking as the springboard for weekend mayhem that it is and treat it with the seriousness it deserves, then perhaps people in places like the lower Falls would be able to claim back their lives. Instead, it’s left to a handful of unpaid, committed, utterly swamped community activists to do the job that we’re paying the cops to do.

Outside St Agnes’ Church, 11.55pm, Tuesday. Six Trevors are vigorously displaying zero tolerance of illegally-parked churchgoers, two of them in dayglo jackets, four in green jumpers and white shirts, they were putting a parking ticket on a single blue car. Not all of them, of course, that would be ridiculous. No, two were bent over the windscreen, wondering no doubt whether to stick it on the driver’s side or the passenger side, and the other four were standing in the middle of the road and it seemed to me that not even they knew what they were up to. Now I don’t intend to make any cheap points about the Trevors giving people parking tickets when death-drivers are running amok in front of audiences of underage street drinkers – I happen to think that if parking tickets weren’t handed out from time to time the place would turn into a bouncy castle. No, the cheap point that I intend to make is that the entire Limavady district command area – which has more square acres than China has people – is covered by six constables. In its policing plan for 2004/2005, the command district has promised to “increase the number of reports to Limavady Borough Council for breach of on-street drinking by-laws.”
Good luck to them.

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