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Sniffing out trouble with Cumbria's police dogs
The weekend leading up to Christmas is traditionally the busiest of the year for the police, who are out in force dealing with drunken and rowdy revellers on the streets of towns and cities up and down the country. Reporter Hannah Upton joined Kendal officers on Saturday night on an operation to tackle the use of controlled drugs in the town.
JOINING Kendal police officers the night after Festive, or ‘Black Eye’, Friday is like the calm after the storm. While there are only two cells occupied now, last night there was a queue at the custody door and three arrestees had to be moved to Barrow.
Just two cells in the whole county were available by the end of the night.
But it is now much quieter in the centre, which is better for the police sniffer dogs who will take part in tonight’s planned operation to find controlled drugs in pubs.
After their briefing, a team of more than a dozen officers arrive at Market Place in marked vehicles.
It catches the attention of passing revellers, proving the point of Sgt John Stephens, leading the operation, that it is as much about public perception that they could turn up at any moment, as it is about specifically finding drugs.
Two plain-clothed officers called ‘spotters’ enter the pubs first. Their job is to watch for any suspicious behaviour, or anyone who scarpers as soon as the dog and officers come in.
Other officers stay at the exits to watch for ‘runners’.
Tonight there are checks in four pubs, though Sgt Stephens is keen to stress that it is the customers who are under scrutiny, not the licensees.
Police dogs Alfie and Buzz, two eager Spaniels, are trained to ‘make indications’ to their handlers by sitting down in front of people who carry a scent of drugs.
Officers also use special wipes to test for traces of cocaine in the toilets, which show up as blue streaks.
Every pub tests positive, and although he is not entirely surprised, it prompts Sgt Stephens to check a wipe on a desk back at the police station to ensure they are not defective - this one is clear.
“We find that licensees are very receptive and want us in their pubs,” he said.
“But there is an obligation for them to be proactive and do as much as they can to deter drug use. It is also a reassurance for the community.”
He speaks to each of the licensees about their findings, and some ask what more they can do to make it more difficult for drug users.
With cocaine use alone apparently so prolific, it is a difficult problem to eradicate.
In Wetherspoons on Allhallows Lane, manager Dan Simpson is advised to remove toilet seat lids as they provide a handy flat surface for preparing drugs.
He is keen to engage with police officers and says staff are constantly alert and proactive.
“We do toilet checks every half hour all day long and it is incorporated into management and staff training,” he said.
“I spent the last 10 years working in Manchester so Kendal is quite a stark difference and we have very little trouble generally.
“But we do as much as we can to stop controlled drugs in here and I've got no problem at all with the sniffer dogs coming through.”
Dog Alfie indicates four customers in Wetherspoons may have drugs. After being searched, one is found with a packet of white powder and he is arrested.
He will spend the night in a cell at Kendal police station while he sobers up for interview and the powder is tested.
Pub staff also report one man leaving as soon as the team entered, returning after they have left.
He is taken outside to be searched and though nothing is found, he is given a stern talking to.
Handler PC Glenn Myerscough who covers the south of the county said: “We are booked in to come and do operations like this in Kendal, but also in the little village pubs. There is no difference really; I think Kendal has the same issues with drugs as the cities and those quiet rural places.”
With the operation a success, it is back to the station for a debriefing. Officers discuss their methods and suggest ways of improving the process for next time in collaboration with the dog team.
Down in the cells, the man found earlier with white powder is keen to prove he is sober so he can go home, but he will be kept in for the night.
A custody officer watches him and two others on CCTV monitors to make sure they do not try and self-harm.
She shows me some bruises on her wrist and arm, the lasting marks of what she describes as the 'worst Black Eye Friday' she can remember in years.
A man ‘high on plant food’ - the drug on mephedrone, was spinning round his cell like a Tasmanian devil, she says.
“I could see he was trying to strangle himself,” she said. “He was in a suicide jacket and I knew he would just pass out if he kept going. But that doesn’t mean you sit back and wait for it to happen. In 12 years I’ve only had to manhandle someone about four or five times. But he was just sky-high.
“Plant food is actually one of the worst things I have seen in this job, and how big it has got in the last few years, it’s frightening.
“The next morning he was a completely lovely bloke, so different to how he had been.
“Everything is on CCTV for both ours and their protection. Sometimes you get people waking up covered in bruises in the morning and have no idea how they were in the night until you show them the footage.”
After an exhausting Festive Friday - some officers had to work through to 8am after clocking on at tea time to mop up the aftermath of the trouble - Kendal police are now gearing up for what is expected to be a busy New Year’s Eve.
Inspector Paul Latham from the South Cumbria neighbourhood policing team says there will be another big police presence, with officers out on the street maintaining a presence.
“Our mantra across the county really is to deal with things on a low level, to nip it in the bud before anything escalates,” he said.
“That can mean you end up with full cells but quite often if someone causing trouble is asked to leave the town centre they just go round the corner and kick off.
“There is an emphasis on dealing with them as soon as possible, rather than waiting for a fight to happen.”
“Our advice as always is enjoy yourself but stick to reasonable behaviour. Unfortunately it is the minority who spoil it for everyone else.”