Policing the roads of Britain is no easy task. With something like 40 million cars on British roads, the police have their hands full.
Depending on which figures you follow, the number of police officers in Wales and England has dropped by 15% since 2010, making it harder than ever.
Now factor in the lack of respect for the police from some sections of society, and then social media and peoples’ unquenching desire to berate and humiliate our police on any social media platform you can think of.
Catch a police car parked awkwardly? Post a pic on Facebook for some laughs, no thought given to why it might be there. See a police officer trying to calm down some abusive teenagers, getting pressured and threatened and daring to respond? What does the watching public do, step in and try to help? Nope, grab their phone and film it to get some likes on social media.
It’s a tough job. A huge amount of accountability, continuously squeezed budgets, effectively having their pay cut (years of no pay rise), abuse from the very same people you are trying to help…..why would you want to do it? Fortunately for us, people do. They put their lives on the line to try to make a difference and keep us safe.
Recently, I was lucky enough to be invited to join Northants Safer Roads Team (SRT) on an operation in and around the town. Now, you’re not going to say no to an opportunity like that.
The team is headed up by 2 full time PCs, Dave and PC Allsopp-Clarke. Both are very experienced officers and great people (PC Allsopp-Clarke happens to be a biker too, and yes I’m biased). Directly beneath them is Special Sergeant 3123 a.k.a Aaron, another top guy with 10+ years of experience. They look after a dedicated and well-trained team of specials, and together they police the roads of Northamptonshire. SRT has a diverse portfolio of responsibilities, and on the day I joined them, the aim was to throw a blanket of the town, and hit illegal motorists.
I met the team shortly after their morning briefing, as they headed out of the HQ. I had no idea what to expect, all I was told was it was an operation covering the town and surrounding areas. To me, that sounds like one of those things where the police all park up and flag down passing motorists. Pretty interesting stuff and I’m curious about what goes on in the heads of the people who think it’s ok to jump in a car with no insurance or tax, not wearing a seatbelt and over the limit. It’s surprisingly common it seems. Nope, that wasn’t it. We met up at Greggs for a quick coffee and to allocate resources (a.k.a dump me on some unsuspecting member of the team).
My designated driver for the day was Special Sergeant 3123, Aaron. His day job at the time was a dispatcher at Northamptonshire Police force control room. He is one of the guys who answer the phone when you call 999.
No sooner had we jumped in the car, a shout came across the radio informing us that a person of interest has been een in a stolen car on the other side of town. Straight away, it was blue lights and sirens, high speed across town. That woke me up I can tell you.
We’ve all pulled over in traffic as a police car has gone flying past us, disappearing off into the distance. On this day, I was in the passenger seat, and what an assault on the senses it is. I’m used to speed, I’m a keen biker and get to review all sorts of fast cars and bikes, but this was something else. I’ve been faster, but never in town.
We crossed town on a variety of roads from a dual carriageway to city streets, at serious speed. Traffic lights were crossed on the wrong side of the road under a red light, it was pretty wild but really impressive to watch first hand.
The car control and concentration is immense. Aaron was reading the road, way into the distance, making calculated moves in a heartbeat at high speed. Despite the high speed in a built-up area, the other traffic, traffic lights, roundabouts and a million other hazards, not once did it feel out of control. You would expect progress at this kind of speed to be very erratic, but it was smooth and flowing, very impressive.
As for the unmarked Ford Kuga we were in, well I feel a little sorry for it. As soon as the speed picked up, Aaron’s style of driving changed. Much more aggressive and much less mechanical sympathy. When accelerating, all of the revs are used in every gear, and Aaron would sit in the upper rev range, ready to accelerate, where you or I would change up. Brakes are used like you would in a race car. Approaching traffic lights, roundabouts and so on, the braking is left very late and is hard. It is extremely effective and fast. We crossed from one side of town to the other in minutes.
Remember also that while Aaron is driving like this, he is being bombarded by streams of information about where the target vehicle is, who the driver is, the suspect’s history, where Aaron’s colleagues are and much more.
In this case, we were looking for a man in a stolen white Renault Megane coupe who had entered the town to visit his ex-girlfriend. There was an assault and the suspect fled the scene. We heard over the radio that in a previous meeting with the police he had thrown a paving slab at one of them, so extreme caution was needed. The suspect was intoxicated too. The suspect was found after a chase and apprehended. Then it was back to the station for a breather. This kind of concentration and stress takes it’s toll, so the team take regular breaks.
In the car, there is so much information it makes your head spin. On a big screen on the dash, there are 2 streams of visual information. One stream comes from the ANPR cameras all over town. Yes, that’s right, you can run but you can’t hide. This stream is triggered if a vehicle has no tax, insurance, MOT or has another issue like it’s reported stolen or has a marker on it, denoting it is a vehicle of interest for another reason. This is all colour coded denoting the reason for its triggering, it displays the registration number and the make and colour.
The second stream is similar, but that’s triggered by the ANPR cameras on our car. In addition to this, there are 2 radio streams. One in the car, connected to the control room, and one on Aarons vest, where he can communicate with his colleagues on the ground.
That was a lot of information to decipher as you’re working. I didn’t realise how much information the SRT officers were being fed. Even with all of this information at their fingertips, there is another attribute that is just as important; Instinct. Nearly half on the motorists we stopped were stopped because Aaron’s vast experience told him something wasn’t right.
On one occasion, we were behind a black VW Golf in the town centre. The Golf was in a bit of a hurry, but nothing crazy. Aaron’s spidey senses were triggered so we followed the car. It was making strong progress and driving too fast for the conditions, so at a suitable moment, with the help of another SRT car, the Golf was stopped. It turned out the driver was not the owner and was not insured. For anyone who is tutting and thinking “so what, give him a break”. What happens when he T-bones you at the next set of traffic lights, uninsured?
After a series of stops, warning, fines issued and advice given, I was sad to have to go. It was a great day and very successful. Multiple vehicles were seized and illegal drivers arrested.
A few of the stand out things I took from the day were;
The SRT is a team. They support each other and have each other’s backs. It’s dangerous and things can change very quickly out there.
These officers are seriously well trained. The standard of driving is something else. They have spent years being trained, attending course after course and it shows.
The team made a big impact on the day. I was shocked at how many vehicles and drivers were taken off the road, making it safer for us.
They’re not on their own. I’d heard about a new guy on the block, Nick Adderley, Chief Constable for Northamptonshire Police. Rumour has it he’s a very well respected guy who has the respect of his colleagues. No one had a bad word to say about him, just praise and positive comments about what is to come from him. Oh, and he’s a biker so that’s a win in my book.
One final point. Most of the SRT are specials. That means volunteers. That means they put themselves in harm’s way for us, and don’t get paid. In a world where it’s becoming increasingly rare to see even a door being held open for someone, it’s humbling to see there are still people willing to give rather than take from society.
Since I joined the SRT for a day, 5 of the team have gone on to join the police force as regulars which is great news.
Now then, that must mean SRT need some replacements……….where are my driving glasses…..
*(most of the pictures were not from the day, but are taken from Northants SRT social media and do represent the work we did on the day)