Sunday, 19 June 2011

Policing Shepherd's Bush: My Saturday night

The china piggy bank was still smashed in pieces across the bed from where the burglar had scrambled through a third floor window to get into the flat and knocked it off the third floor window sill. We were on a follow-up visit to a young woman’s flat just off Uxbridge Road who’d left her place confidently but returned to find dirty trainer prints across the floor and the mess left by a thief. She was visibly shaken and, frankly, very scared. 

This was one of the reassurance visits that every victim of reported crime in Shepherd’s Bush can expect to receive from Police Community Support Officers, PCSOs, within days of the incident. It’s part of the investigation into the crime and we knocked on doors to see if anyone had heard or seen anything too but it is mainly aimed at making sure the victim is being looked after. A letter with a dedicated phone number is handed over along with advice on what’s likely to happen next. 

It was clear that this young woman was very shaken, and as far as she was concerned she wanted out of Shepherd’s Bush. “It’s too much” she said, recounting having been spat at and called various names involving sex that ended in “white girl” by gangs of lads on her way home. And now this. After a few minutes she grew visibly angry and added “but I can’t be living in fear like this, not in London. This sort of thing happens to a lot of people”. 

It was very clear to me that this short visit to the woman’s flat had made a difference, even if it didn’t either catch the thief or repair her sense of fear. She’d been listened to, and wasn’t just a statistic to the local police who spend most of their time quietly making Shepherd’s Bush a safer place to be. They’d be back, they said, and off we went. 

None of that exchange counted against any government performance statistics for the police but for that one victim it had been worthwhile. And that’s the point of the Safer Neighbourhood Team idea, a group of two sergeants, thirteen Constables and six PCSOs. In recent months Constable numbers have gone up from 10 but PCSOs have gone down from fifteen to six. These people spend all of their time, 24/7 on Thursday-Saturday and 18 hours a day the rest of the week, looking after W12. Special mention should also go to the six Special Constables, who work for free for the good of their community, who also work on the ward in support of the SNT and wider operations. Specials support the team daily especially at weekends. 

It was a privilege to spend a few hours with them on one Saturday night in the Bush, and this is just one account of what takes place during each extraordinary shift they put in.

First stop of the night shift - Shepherd's Bush Green
The night started with a stroll across the Green and before long it was clear that the Council’s determination to stamp out street drinking was being enforced rigorously. I saw tins of special brew being confiscated and poured away and men being searched for other substances. Everything was firm but fair, and resolutely polite in the face of some not-so-polite responses from those being searched. 

But we also came across the very human side of these people’s stories. These people mainly just want to sit on those benches and drink themselves into oblivion, mainly to forget. We met one emaciated looking man who explained to me that he was “dying”. He has terminal cancer and spends his time trying to forget. The humanity and respect with which he was dealt by the officers, who know him and most of the other regular drinkers on the green, was just as obvious as their determination to clear the local area of the problems that come with excessive alcohol use. 

Minutes later we were escorting one of the Green’s regulars into a van in handcuffs, for not having turned up in court at an earlier appointment. All of this took place in less than 20 minutes at the beginning of the shift. It was at that point we heard that three coach loads of people were on their way to the Wallkabout pub. The night was young. 

We moved from call to call in the van, which is a dilapidated old vehicle with no blue lights, answering everything from a group of lads seen possibly breaking into a car (they weren’t and it was their car anyway) through to visiting a hostel for young people playing loud music on Hetley Rd. The main point was not just to investigate but to be seen to investigate. These officers are aggressive. Aggressive in the sense that they want to talk to you and know how you see the world, the more they know about the community the more they can do for it. 

I even saw one of the sergeants comparing kebab outlets with the group of young lads who’d been questioned about the car, with both declaring that more research was clearly required on the matter. And they’d been seen by the community doing their jobs as well judging by the twitching net curtains dancing a jig in windows up and down the road. 

Back in the van, which is not either police or council funded and kept going on a wing and a prayer by the Shepherd’s Bush team, we moved from a violent man outside Bar FM to hopping out and talking to a young female beggar, who sometimes gets aggressive, outside Shepherd’s Bush tube who had two tins of aerosols up her sleeves. She too was well known, an addict that was a mother to children she would never see because they had to be taken away from her at birth due to her lifestyle. She has a lot to try and forget too. 

Then it was on to what was one of the last calls of the night and one which summed up, for me, the real value of having local teams that know the area intimately. 

A woman had been assaulted in a bar on the Edward Woods estate by a group of drunken young women. Despite speeding as fast as you can safely go in a van with no blue lights, donated to the police by the last Council administration in 2002 but which had its funding cut off by the same Council 18 months ago, we arrived just after the culprits had left. The bar woman had had vodka thrown in her face and her eyes were still stinging. She was clearly in shock and shaken, and had only worked at the bar for a couple of weeks. 

Edward Woods Estate
Off we went in pursuit into what was, by then, a dark and cold estate. A complete rabbit warren that would have been simply impossible to navigate unless you knew which block linked to which and where all the little alleyways were. The point was, these officers did. We’d located the three women within minutes by following some loud cackling – they were on a first level communal garden, which needed a special key to get through two doors and a fence, drinking vodka and juice and gyrating to music from a mobile phone. 

After much protestations of innocence one of the women was arrested and taken off to sober up and be interviewed in the morning. There followed at least an hour of statement taking back at the pub and it was here that the reality of the paperwork curse really hit home. Sergeant Finbar King explained that after every arrest in a case like this statements need not only to be taken but at almost every stage of the subsequent process the police are required to get involved, frequently performing roles that have little to do with actual policing and more to do with the criminal justice system, such as enforcing conditions given as part of a formal caution. 

When we left the pub the victim was still shaken but she too had been listened to, they’d be back to see her and the person that had allegedly carried out the assault had been caught. There is simply no way they would have been had the officers not known that estate backwards. 

Back at the station the team explained how they’d seen street robberies and other acts of petty crime fall dramatically in the last four years. They were clearly proud of the impact they’d already had and were some of the most dedicated people I think I have ever come across. These same people had only the day before taken part in a chase of a suspect that ended up with the discovery of a handgun. All on our behalf and with their resources shrinking at every turn. Let me give you a taste of what those cuts look like:

Those special keys that got them through the doors on the Edward Woods estate? They had to buy them themselves with their own money. That falling apart van? The door almost came off its hinges when we opened it back at the station. It now receives no Council funding and limited police funding for maintenance because of the unique way in which it was donated by the last Council administration in 2002 – but it is clearly an essential piece of kit. We simply wouldn't not have been able to put that many officers into the Edward Woods estate to deal with the incident we needed without it. 

And we were also accompanied by a Special Constable – in other words a volunteer police officer who works for no pay – who had just spent his entire annual leave allocation on mandatory training at Hendon police college in order to put himself potentially in harms way on our streets, on our behalf. Think of him next time you moan about a pay rise. 

I find this starving of resources for people that are willing to do a job for our streets, dealing with utmost humanity to a terminally ill alcoholic on the Green one minute and then a lippy violent drunk the next, not to mention the paperwork and the potential for knives and other dangers, an absolute scandal. More on that to come, I intend to take it up with the Council. 

But in the meantime ask yourself what you can do, too. In the light of the killing on Lakeside Road just weeks ago many of you were very critical of the police – and so they should be criticised when they get things wrong. But only a very few of those voicing the criticisms actually went to their local neighbourhood watch, which is the best way you can support these local officers doing their best. 

One of the young PCSOs, who had dealt so sensitively with the shaken burglary victim, told me that he’d organised a meeting recently for four roads with some of the most active and vocal residents groups in our Borough, including Pennard and Macfarlane Roads. Only 10 people had turned up. We can do better than that, Shepherd’s Bush. 

Find out more about Neighbourhood Watch here

And say hello to the next police officer you see – they really are busting a gut to make the Bush a better place.  


  1. Brilliant article. Some top-class journalism. I can see this being an award winning blog, Mr Underwood - assuming it isn't already.

    Anyhow, good to see the "Big Society" in action. Freely volunteering police officers working with cuts in government resources. He must, at times, wonder why he still bothers when the government undervalues the team so much!

    Thank you again for this insight into the team's work.

  2. Fabulous, and thank you for this. Your blog makes SB a better place too.

  3. Great work, Chris.

  4. Agree with all of the above comments. Great bit of journalism. Too often the police are portrayed as the 'bad guys'. Chris has shown us all their human side.

    I was brought up to support and respect authority, and so I am passing that down to my son. I shall show him this article to highlight the work they are doing at a community level, much of which is unreported by the mainstream media.

  5. Great article, Chris- really good to see that there can be honest journalism amongst the plethora of speculative rubbish that the media is now overcrowded with. This is the type of article that needs to be in the lime light. What it shows is one of many frustrating examples of government beaurocracy allowing work for the good of society to happen unrecognised and continue to run without the financial support that it desperately requires from the council. Anyone who has watched 'The Wire' TV series will know how this ends - these hard working PCSOs are the McNultys and Freamons of Baltimore!!

  6. While you are talking to the council you may care to point out that the police radios do not work in tower blocks such as at the Edward Woods and William Church estates and so PCs can become isolated without the ability to call for back up. This seems ridiculous in this day and age.

  7. As someone who actually lives in Baltimore I can assure you The Wire is all too real! This is a great article Chris. Crime is indeed everywhere and articles like this give a glimpse of the people behind the headlines.

  8. This is proper frontline journalism. I enjoyed reading it.
    What I dont understand is how the real heroes (the saferneighbour team) get treated as poor cousins. I've seen big police range rovers and super fast sports cars with blue lights. How can the police and council leave them with a tin can when a proper vehicle would be more effective.
    I can say I like bobbies walking but I'd also like one of these heroes cjarging up to my door quickly if I had an issue.
    I think the neighbour police are a great idea and I'd still like to see more. I think they have a sensible and appropriate approach to todays problems.
    Keep up the writing Chris. Top class and fun to read.

  9. Great article Chris. I used to work on the team myself and know all about the van or should I say "Mobile Office"! Being a passenger in the back is an experience with Fin at the wheel too.

    Sounds like nothing has changed since I left but it's great that you can see what a fantastic job is done on limted resources (not to mention the paperwork, red-tape, etc etc).

    Keep up the great work Chris!

  10. Fin King is an excellent Police Officer,a true gentleman and a very caring person.