Chief Superintendent Emma Bond.
In this the second part of an in-depth interview with Derry's police commander, Chief Superintendent Emma Bond, she speaks to Derry News reporter Garrett Hargan about the ongoing operation against dissident republicans in the city, the Lyra McKee murder investigation, claims of heavy-handed police tactics and political policing and the role of the PSNI as lockdown restrictions are eased.
The PSNI has often referred to a ‘small group of violent dissident republicans’ in the city. How many individuals are actively involved in dissident republicanism in the city?
We take the position where we don’t think it’s helpful to get into specifics and numbers and I don’t want to overestimate the threat that violent dissident republicans pose nor underestimate it. I think what has to be acknowledged is that even a small number, there’s no doubt they’re a small minority within the community who don’t enjoy widespread support, but even a small number of reckless individuals can cause significant harm to communities.
We’ve seen that recklessness in terms of the Bishop Street bomb outside the courthouse (below) where the young people walked past a short time before. The finds that we had recently in Ballymagroarty in an area where children play and spend their time.
The issue for us is that there are individuals out there with a very clear intent to kill police officers, prison officers or other representatives from ‘Crown Forces’, I think is the way they refer to it, but the bit for us is that they have launched attacks which put their own communities at risk.
Would it be less than 20 or 30 individuals?
I’m not telling you, you’ll not get a number.
What is the PSNI doing to tackle dissident republicanism in the city?
I’m supported in my role by our colleagues within our crime operations branch who pursue the investigative opportunities. We’ll have searches, media campaigns, but primarily what we focus on is community policing. This goes back to the point that these individuals don’t have a significant degree of support. The way they seek to achieve their aims is through violent means and the risk they pose to communities gives us the greatest degree of concern.
By working with communities, by solving local problems in the police service I believe shows these individuals that, actually, there is no support. That we take any opportunity or sense that they have any support within communities which means they will almost wither on the vine and find that trying to achieve their aims through violent means is not taking them anywhere and potentially they may pursue a non-violent approach to achieve whatever aims they have.
That’s the focus for us, we will continue to exploit opportunities for search, for arrest and to disrupt their activities in any way we can. But primarily I believe you cannot do that in isolation of building confidence in local communities.
In the past year there have been three bombing incidents and eleven shooting incidents in Derry & Strabane. Casualties from paramilitary-style assaults have risen from 2 to 10. How can the PSNI address this issue and eradicate all paramilitary activity?
First and foremost, I don’t believe we can do it on our own. As an organisation we rely on information and respond to where people tell us the issues are. We quite often will hear a community say, ‘everyone knew’, or ‘it’s no surprise’ but actually it may have come as a surprise and we may not be aware.
In terms of being visible and if there are issues around anti-social behaviour or drugs that we’re the people the community feels confident in reporting it to. And that people see the justice system being effective, that they reported something to police and an outcome was achieved. It’s about empowering communities, for us to support them along with other agencies to address some of the underlying problems that are creating opportunities for these criminals to carry out heinous crimes, and particularly some against young people who in many cases are the victims of wider societal issues.
Do these groups have too much control in certain areas of the city?
I don’t know whether I’d describe it as too much control. The sentiment and sense I’ve got from the community since I arrived is that these individuals aren’t supported. That the wider community want to work with the police and have positive relationships. I’m conscious that sometimes establishing and building relationships is hard earned and very easy lost. So, I would say that maybe some of the individuals have the view that they have more influence than they readily have. The bit for us collectively, whether it’s with the Unity of Purpose group or agencies it’s getting to the point where people are confident enough to come out and speaking against individuals so there’s real visibility about how little support they actually have.
On the killing of journalist Lyra McKee, police recently linked a handgun to the crime, is the PSNI confident of securing a prosecution for murder?
The bit for us from a policing perspective is very much we gather the information then the Public Prosecution Service will ultimately make the decisions. I don’t want to in any way, it would be impossible for me to be definitive, I sincerely hope so, what I would seek to do is say that we’ll be doing absolutely everything that we can with a view to having whoever murdered Lyra McKee (pictured above) held accountable before the courts.
Absolutely, we do sincerely hope that that’s the outcome we’ll be able to achieve. Obviously the finding of the weapon has been really significant for us in terms of that, the senior investigating officer has been absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of community support that has been shown, who said himself has been unprecedented. But there are still potentially people in the community who have information that might be beneficial to us and it’s really important we continue to work and try and build confidence.
Do police see the community response to the Lyra McKee case as a step forward in building a relationship between the police and community?
It absolutely has been, for anybody to bring a gun on to the street with innocent bystanders, to try and take the life of a police officer which is to be condemned, but to do it in a reckless manner where they endanger lives. We’ve talked before about the community being collateral damage. Firing a gun into a crowd of people, it was an outcome that could’ve been foreseen, it wasn’t an accident, it was a very deliberate act.
The public reaction, the reaction of her family and loves ones in terms of the paint on the walls (of Junior McDaid House), showing that they won’t be intimidated, that has brought about a step change. It’s important we learn from that, to take the time to understand what it is about how we deliver policing that poses difficulties for communities and how it’s difficult for us to sometimes meet the community’s needs all of the time. Through that shared understanding, we may never see things from the same perspective but it’s about appreciating each other’s perspective. We’re all working towards the same aims.
Over 1,000 stop and searches were carried out under the Justice and Security Act in the policing district last year. What would you say in response to dissident republicans in the city who feel they are excessively stopped and searched?
I’d say, the only reason the legislation and powers are there is because of the fact we’re operating in a ‘severe threat’ environment. So long as there are people actively involved in terrorism and criminality then we will continue as police to take every step that we can to ultimately try and prevent them or disrupting them from being able to take the life of a police officer, prison officer or any member of the community.
Use of the powers, as an organisation we are fully accountable, human rights are a key factor in how we deliver policing and we are accountable to the Policing Board, to oversight bodies, in terms of stop and search we have to continually, it’s not just a blanket approval for those powers, they have to be continually justified in the context of the issues we’re seeing. Officers are required to wear body-worn video so there’s internal scrutiny and accountability and if people are unhappy with policing there is the Police Ombudsman. It is a national and worldwide tactic and I don’t believe we are an organisation which is seen to abuse the powers.
Are there any no-go areas for police in Derry?
No, no. There are no no-go areas in the city at all. There may well be, depending on where we’re going and what we’re doing, what time of the day or night, we might have to give considerations to the style of policing. But there are no no-go areas in this city. And that’s as a result of what we’re hearing from elected and community representatives, people want us out and about to be visible. So, absolutely not, there are no no-go areas.
Would police ever enter for example, Creggan, on foot or bike?
Yes, there have been foot patrols, there have been cycle patrols on occasion. They’re maybe not done as frequently as other areas but our policing style will always start at a neighbourhood policing level, we try very hard, in the majority of occasions not to use armoured Land Rovers if we don’t have to, but again to be honest, a lot of how we police and go about things is considered in the context of not necessarily where it is, but the time of day, the kit that we maybe need to take in and the number of people that we may need to get in.
There are a whole range of considerations. But as I say the view very much for us is that maybe years before Creggan would’ve been regarded as an area that wasn’t receptive or open to policing in the same way as others. That’s not the sentiment that we get now and there’s very much a desire for us to make sure that policing we deliver in that area is the same as policing we deliver in any other part of the district.
Above: 14-year-old arrested by police in Creggan.
Community leaders have raised concerns about the PSNI Tactical Support Unit (TSU) entering Creggan in recent days to question 13-15 year olds, some of whom have complex needs. Can you say anything about those operations?
I know that there have been follow-up enquiries on the back of the Lyra McKee murder that have been carried out at the start of this week (June 22 and 23) and that’s been led by the investigations team. Certainly there has been work ongoing in terms of actively trying to achieve a successful prosecution of Lyra’s murderer. So there has been policing activity this week which hopefully provides some reassurance that despite being a year on from Lyra’s murder the investigation remains very much alive.
Is there a deliberate policy to profile young people or the Creggan community in general?
No, absolutely not. The piece for us is very much to understand Creggan, to even not judge it as a single community. There are a whole lot of communities in terms of age group, gender, employed or unemployed, people with families or not. The important thing for us is to understand who makes up the community in Creggan. Through engagement, visible neighbourhood policing finding out what are the issues that matter most and how we provide that reassurance.
There certainly is no profiling. Recognising the fact we’re in a ‘severe threat’ there will be individuals that we will know and will be of interest. But just because there are some individuals who have a dislike for police that it means the whole of Creggan, that is not our position, and as I’ve said the overwhelming sentiment from communities, including Creggan, is a desire to work with local police officers to address local problems here.
The PSNI has been criticised in that area for being too heavy handed, entering with numerous Land Rovers and assault rifles to carry out raids. How can the police gain the trust of these communities?
We’re aware of that feedback through the PCSP and independent and elected representatives that sit on it. A key piece from our perspective is first of all to listen to those concerns to understand why they exist. And to get to that position of helping people to understand why we’ve done it that way. We have no desire in any way to deliver policing that imposes, that feels aggressive or is perceived to be aggressive or intrusive within local communities.
We want policing to be seen as accessible, responsive and very local. It’s about sitting down, having an understanding and being able to work with communities to get to a point where young people don’t see us as target practice. It is down to establishing and building that trust. For me as Commander and colleagues to push boundaries of how we’ve done things, take not reckless risk, but informed and calculated risk around trying things with the community in a position of understanding and respect.
We know going in with armoured Land Rovers and ballistic body armour and rifles is not an inclusive policing style, and to be fair what I would say is it’s not the dominant policing style that you would see if you were to go round the city. We’ve people out regularly on foot and cycles patrols in high visibility gear and our livery vehicles much more visible around the city. We’re trying to make sure policing here is as normalised as you’d expect in any other big city.
Do you see how coming in with Land Rovers and weapons could be perceived negatively by the community?
Absolutely, yeah, I can. We’re not in any way ignorant to the challenges and issues there have been in terms of the history of Derry City and the issue with police and everything else. Of course we understand, but as I say, we give the wider community an assurance that we will never go in in a policing way with a view to deliberately antagonise or cause offence or annoyance. We will always think, do we need to do this late at night or early in the morning when kids are still in a house. We ask whether we have to go in in a Land Rover and challenge ourselves on every occasion.
We have to be open to learning where there are opportunities for us to do things differently. Any style people feel is imposing or reflective of the past or whatever else is not the place we want to be. We want to move beyond that place. To build confidence that that ‘severe threat’ does not exist and people with the intent to use violent means desist or follow political means. That’s what dictates what we do.
Officers would be seen cycling in different areas, would it be fair to say you don’t see that in Creggan because there is a perceived threat?
That is a consideration but that’s not to say that we wouldn’t be in it at any particular point of time or day. Neighbourhood policing teams have been supporting a lot of the health regulation guidance around COVID-19. They’re back substantively into their roles but it’s about making sure there coats are as visible in Creggan as any other part of the city.
How would you respond to the common community claim that it is political policing as opposed to community policing?
I would refute that, genuinely, as District Commander I am wholeheartedly, as are the people who work with me, wholeheartedly have the view to deliver community policing. We take whatever opportunities are there and will seek out new opportunities but I don’t think you can ignore the fact there are a few individuals who are intent on trying to damage the relationship that communities have with their police service and as I’ve said absolutely we look for opportunities in terms of arrests and preventing them from committing their terrorist acts but the best way I do that is through local policing and solving local problems.
Have additional resources been directed to community policing and what are some of the achievements in that regard?
Our Chief Constable Simon Byrne has a very clear passion for neighbourhood policing and made the organisational commitment of increasing numbers by 400. Locally within the district we’ve made a commitment to increase our neighbourhood policing numbers by 96. Currently we have 91 of those 96 posts filled. We’re in the process of finalising the last of those. So yes, we have made an investment because we recognise that through problem-solving we can be much more focused on prevention instead of reacting to issues all the time.
All neighbourhood officers have responsibility for a specific ward across the council area to be that key point of contact. Because of the COVID-19 issues we had our neighbourhood officers very much focused on our response to the health regulations. Some neighbourhood policing teams self-funded community care packages for local communities.
These teams will allow us to be more targeted and allow us to take drugs off the street to try and ensure we address anti-social behaviour, that we’re preventing older members of the community falling foul to scams or burglaries or rogue trader type incidents. We’re hoping people will feel more connected because they will know who their local police officer is. We want to get to a place where people can know officers by name in their area. See it as part of the community that that they want to be part of that to help, either voluntary or neighbourhood watch, or take the step to choose policing as a career. It’s relatively early days but we’re hopeful and know communities enjoy and want to see neighbourhood policing return.
How has lockdown affected crime in the city?
With pubs and bars closed the night-time economy has obviously disappeared. Alcohol-related incidents that you might’ve seen associated with that in terms of anti-social behaviour or assaults have gone. We haven’t had shop-lifting or theft offences with retail businesses closed. Because people were spending more time in their homes burglary offences were reduced as well.
With people spending more time on computers we’ve seen more online scams by emails, criminals trying to get people to buy Amazon or Tesco vouchers, people claiming to be from HMRC. So we’ve started to see a re-emergence of those, particularly against older members of the community.
Over the past number of weeks crime trends have started to re-emerge and almost reflect what we would regard as pre-lockdown levels. To some extent it feels like we’re back to a degree of relative business as usual. There are more people out and about a lot more traffic on the road. We did see an increasing number of people detected for drink-driving, part of that might be because we weren’t attending as many other calls.
Increased drinking at home has been a contributory factor around the increased number of domestic reports we’ve got and that’s obviously a concern for us. Across NI we have seen increases but we’ve seen particular increases in Derry City and Strabane. They appear to be higher here. But I suppose what is encouraging is the numbers of reports of incidents coming into us in Derry and Strabane is higher than the service average which makes me think the work we’re doing with Women’s Aid, Men’s Advisory Project and others is starting to pay dividends with people feeling able to come forward with what would be traditionally regarded as a hidden crime.
About a quarter of victims of domestic abuse that we’re seeing are men which is encouraging in some respects to see in the sense that people think domestic abuse is something just women suffer from. Quite often we’ll have people in, not just same sex relationships, but in heterosexual relationships were men find themselves victims. Domestic violence has been a key area of focus for us over the lockdown period.
Derry was the first area where officers wore body worn cameras, has the use of this equipment helped police to secure prosecutions?
Body worn video has been really, really key. The benefit is the court and prosecutor is getting a first-hand account and seeing the injuries. If there has been damaged caused in a home or things have been thrown about. It’s that old adage of ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. The footage provides supporting evidence whereas before you often relied on one person’s word against the other. Body-worn cameras are now routinely used and we encourage its use in as many and all circumstances that we possibly can. It also ensures accountability and that policing standards are maintained.
How will the role of police change as restrictions are now eased?
Businesses are beginning to reopen, the sad thing to hear is that people are being made redundant or about to lose businesses. There’s a concern as to how people are going to feed their families if they haven’t got wages coming in, might that manifest itself in terms of instances of petty crime. That’s work we need to do with partner agencies. There have been asks at Stormont around school meals and the impact of Coronavirus will be longer lasting.
In terms of licensed premises opening I’m not convinced we’ll have the same night-time economy. People are only able to go places that serve food to have a drink, albeit you can drink as long as somewhere has an outside, time limitations, pre-booking.
What we saw in the district was the community took a really responsible approach and I have no reason to suspect that reasonable approach won’t continue. With bars and licensed premises, I wouldn’t say our issues in the district are really significant. People in the main come out and enjoy themselves. You have the odd alcohol related incident and we’ll continue to have that but people h=may not have the same disposable income and may change their drinking habits.
Do you anticipate any issues as we move out of lockdown and pubs reopen with enforcing Coronavirus regulations?
People have been really responsible, and we’ve got business owners and licensees who are trying to make a living. None of us want to see ourselves in a second wave, regressing and having to re-impose lockdown. People here are taking a really pragmatic, risk-based approach. I don’t envisage any issues but if we have one or two individuals who make eejits of themselves it’s no different to any other time and we’ll take a common-sense approach.
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