Theft, car chases, and weapon searches do not generally make for a “quiet” evening – but that’s all in a night’s work for Hackney’s Rapid Response team. “We say it’s a “Q” night though,” laughs Sergeant Perversi, not wanting to tempt fate with the possibility of a quiet evening.
Sgt Perversi, PC Imran Hansraj, PC Sarah Murphy and PCSO Terry English are in their van and prepared for a standard November evening patrol. The officers chat in a calm and cheery manner, but the shields visible in the back of the van are a stark reminder of the volatile nature of their patch.
With high street crime levels, gang related violence, and increasing extremes of urban squalor and gentrification, Hackney is a challenging area for bobbies on the beat.
The borough’s infamous ‘’Murder Mile’’ remains in London folklore and the area made national news in 2011 for the part it played in the riots that rocked the capital. Channel Four’s gritty gangland drama, Top Boy, has brought the Hackney’s underground crime network to audiences across the UK. How much of this can be squeezed in to a four hour patrol?
We exit the high metal gates of Shoreditch police station, and after just five minutes on the road the radios crackle into life. “Hold on” says Perversi, “We’re going to go to a burglary.” The sirens crank up and the radios the team have strapped to their person buzz with details of the suspect’s appearance.
“What it sounds like now is that someone’s taken someone’s bag and cycled off with it,” Perversi explains. The team have to think fast, piecing together abstract nuggets of information to create a coherent image of what has happened, and who they might be looking for.
“That’s what its like” says Perversi. “You could be thinking ‘what am I going to do when I get home tonight’ and then BANG” – he points to his radio – “you’ve got an I-call.”
All eyes are glued to the windows, keeping a keen lookout for the cycle thief. “Even though I’ve got blue lights on people still don’t move,” sighs Perversi, frustrated by the slow traffic flow. “This is Clarence road, one of the major places where we had riots” he explains. “I was dressed in full riot kit doing short shield charges up this road getting petrol bombs thrown at me – and bricks – but if you look at it now, you couldn’t tell.”
Barely anyone is walking the pavements, but Perversi is right: despite the falling darkness, it doesn’t seem threatening – the glowing streetlights almost look peaceful.
Since the 2011 riots, Hackney police have expanded their efforts to engage with the community, with manned contact points and regular meetings for local residents. “Youth engagement is exactly what it says on the tin” says Perversi. “If we see a group of kids we’ll chat with them to show them that we’re not robots and get to know them. And if we see a couple of them whizzing along the pavements on their bikes we’ll stop them and talk to them.”
“We could give them a ticket,” he adds, “but if we do that to a kid, does that alienate us from the kid? Does that turn them against us? – One day that kid might see something and think I need to tell the police, but he’s not going to if he’s had a negative experience of us.’ On cue, we pass a group of young boys goofing around and ambling along the pavement. PC Hansraj waves and the boys wave back. One of them turns the camera phone on the van as it crawls slowly past.
PC Hansraj joined the team three months ago. He says that he is “brand spanking new,” but it’s clear he’s already developed a sentimental attachment to the borough. “Unfortunately the name of Hackney seems to get a bad press,” he says, as he tells me about the riots around the Pembury estate and the troubled areas in London Fields.
“We chat with the youngsters – usually about computer games like Grand Theft Autio, and about Top Boy” he says. “And they say, ‘it’s not much like Top Boy is it?’ – Top Boy is a drama at the end of the day, but there are real social issues in this area. It’s great getting out there and speaking to people and dealing with their issues.”
PC Hansraj explains that it is difficult for gang members to leave crime behind, especially as many are recruited in their early teens. “There are a lot of 14-19-year-olds,” he says, “with elders and brothers at the top of the hierarchy.”
“After we arrest people we have triage sessions where they can come in and actually talk about what’s going on and our weapons amnesty is one way to offer gang members a way out. We’re putting out weapons bins on the locals estates at the moment – such as the Kingsmead estate and the Pembury estate, to basically say that anyone can put their knives and weapons away.”
We pull up outside the Homerton Hospital patrol base, which lies opposite Banister House, an ex-local authority housing estate. “This is quite a problematic estate, you get a lot of kids smoking drugs, letting off fireworks and running amok,” says Perversi.
The van doors slide open and the distinctive smell of fireworks lingers in the air. Spent cartridges litter the floor as we enter the estate. “Don’t worry: if something happens and we have to run I will hang back with you.” This is not as reassuring as it was intended to be.
A playground fort stands proudly in the heart of the estate, but as we approach the team point out that it reeks of cannabis. Closer still and floor crunches with broken glass. If it weren’t for the chirpy gaggle of mums and children that passes noisily by, the scene could easily be a still from HBO’s gritty American crime drama, “The Wire”.
“It can’t be used by children anymore because it’s the perfect look out point for local gangs,” says Perversi. Hanraj says that – like in ‘The Wire’ – most organised gangs in Hackney are involved in drug rackets. “Cannabis is a big one,” he says, “and that runs right through all sections of society, not just gangs.”
PC Murphy peers into a cubbyhole beneath the wooden structure. “We often find knives stashed here,” she explains. “I know people say postcode territories,” says Perversi, “but it does literally come down to which estate you’re from. If you’re walking through an estate in London and you’re not from that part of town and you get a bunch of lads walking up to you, it could all go very wrong very quickly.”
After a swift circuit of the estate we are back in the van, and set off once more. The brightly lit lively scenes on Kingsland Road starkly contrast the urban decay of the Banister House playground. It’s not a wild night out, largely because it’s a weeknight, but many people gather outside pubs and bars, evidently with money to spend. But the bustling economy of the “Shoreditch Triangle” – the area between Old Street, Great Eastern Street and Shoreditch High Street, I’m told – attracts a different kind of criminal activity, and also requires a lot of policing.
“There’s quite a lots of class A down round Shoreditch,” says Perversi. “You’ve got lots of clubs, a big night time economy, and a lot of people coming and going, so its very appealing for drug dealers. You also get a lot of guys and girls coming out of the clubs with their IPhones and their Galaxy SIIII’s in their hand lit up like a Christmas tree,” he adds. “The people that are doing the robberies or the street theft, they know that it is easy pickings.”
We pull up at a set of red lights and a dark blue people carrier suddenly jumps across. The atmosphere in the van changes as the team exchanges looks, “did you see that?” says Perversi. “Fasten your seatbelts guys,” he shouts.
The siren starts to blare and the carrier speeds off: a sure-fire confirmation of something dodgy. Perversi shares the details of the pursuit via his radio. The suspect vehicle is half the van’s size and our hefty bulk struggles to keep up.
The people carrier wheels round corners leading us down the backstreets towards Hackney’s border with Tower Hamlets. Helpful pedestrians yell out directions and point out where the car screeched past, but eventually a reluctant Perversi lifts his foot off the accelerator. “We’ve lost him” he says.
The patrol nearly over, we drive back to Old Street station. On the way a radio message tells us that the people carrier was stolen from Enfield. “No wonder the driver was so keen to get away – that will turn up burned out somewhere tomorrow,” says Perversi.
Out of the van, and returning to monotonous civilian life, and the blood is still coursing through my veins. This exhilaration is in part fuelled by the adrenalin of the car chase, but also by the air of danger that was apparent when we patrolled through gang territory.
But the overwhelming sensations felt after the ride out are due to the team’s uplifting strength of character and sincere sense of duty to local residents. Their faith in the community and belief that only understanding can reduce and prevent future crime is both heart-rending and reassuring. If this was a “quiet” night on patrol in Hackney, not many people would be up to handling a busy one.