Irish officer learns about policing in Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury police got some reinforcements last week from an unlikely source — Ireland.
Actually, Constable Gavin Todd of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) wasn’t there to participate as much as to observe.
Todd’s four-day visit to Middlebury was courtesy of the International Police Association (IPA), an organization that sponsors exchanges between police departments throughout the world in an effort to foster friendship and co-operation among law enforcement officials.
This was Todd’s second visit to the U.S. through the IPA. He visited a police force in New Jersey around three years ago, and had met Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley during one of the chief’s frequent trips to Ireland. So when the IPA asked Todd where he’d like to be sent this time, Middlebury, Vt., was his top choice.
“It’s very rural and similar to home,” he said of Addison County’s rural, green landscape. He acknowledged the Green Mountain State is a lot more forested and hilly than the Emerald Isle.
During his stay, Todd shadowed Middlebury police officers and toured the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford. He saw many similarities between U.S. and Irish policing and training.
Officers in Northern Ireland carry side arms for protection, as do Vermont police forces. They wear body cameras and body armor. They have access to rifles.
But unlike most U.S. police organizations, the PSNI has many armored vehicles to reflect the sometimes-hostile areas they must patrol.
Todd, 35, was particularly impressed with the comportment of the troopers-in-training at the academy.
“The officers are all instilled with then need to be courteous, mannerly — that respect is there,” he said.
He’s also envious of those who get to work and train amid the scenic backdrop of the Vermont Police Academy.
“It’s quite a picturesque environment,” he said, contrasting it with the training academy back home, a former catering college in urban Belfast.
“Ours is a lot more concrete.”
He joined the PSNI at age 18 in 2003, just two years after it succeeded Northern Ireland’s previous police agency, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Whereas Vermont is served by multiple police agencies — including the Vermont State Police, multiple sheriffs’ departments and various municipal police forces — the PSNI is responsible for the entire country of approximately 1.8 million people. The force is made up of around 6,700 officers who are assigned among jurisdictions that include three “areas” and 11 districts.
Todd is based in the Antrim policing neighborhood, an area located just outside of Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. He has served as a full-time instructor for the past 10 years, teaching new and established officers disciplines including hand-to-hand defense skills, taking a suspect into custody, and conducting warrant searches.
Another one of Todd’s specialties: “Public order training.” In simple terms, he teaches officers how to handle or disperse boisterous crowds where violence and/or rioting might be imminent.
“It might be drunken people, or people looking for a fight — right the way up to people throwing bricks, stones or Molotov cocktails,” Todd said.
In the most serious cases, PSNI officials can deploy water canons, and Todd teaches officers how to use them.
CHANGE IN ATTITUDE
He spent his first five years with the PSNI enforcing laws in the northern part of Belfast.
“It was a difficult area to police, but it was a good area to (get experience), because I to had to learn very quickly,” Todd said of the flare-ups of street violence with the urban landscape of the nation’s capital.
But like his colleagues, Todd was, over time, able to build relationships with folks in his coverage area. He found that while many Belfast residents were reluctant to cooperate with police on the streets, they were supportive when visited behind closed doors.
“They couldn’t speak to you (in the open) because of fears of reprisals or repercussions from elements that live within that area, but once you went inside their houses, they were very nice to you,” Todd recalled. “It was tough as a young officer to deal with that.”
Created in 1921, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Its history has tragically been marked by division and violence between Protestant and Catholic factions, but the violence had declined substantially during the past few decades, according to Todd.
“There’s a perception it’s still very bad over there, but it’s not,” he said. “There are still bad elements within the community on both sides that still want to do me harm, do other security officers harm, but (the cases) are nowhere near as many now.”
That’s because police have gradually gained more trust within neighborhoods they wouldn’t have dared enter during the 1970s and 1980s, according to Todd.
“Now, in a lot of those communities, we’re able to put community police officers,” Todd said. “We get a lot of cross-community support now, which helps us in detecting crime. That’s what’s helped move things on. Politically, people who would’ve disagreed with us have come on board now.”
The nature of unrest in today’s Northern Ireland is more complex than is was several decades ago, when it could usually be ascribed to religious division, Todd noted.
Much of the trouble can now be traced to small groups of criminal vigilantes, some of whom try to curry favor with the population by “disciplining” ne’er-do-wells in neighborhoods, according to Todd.
“For example, if a young person within that community had been stealing cars, to make the community like them, they would have gone and taken that young person and said to them, ‘Meet us in the following alleyway tomorrow evening,’” Todd said. “They would have turned up the following evening and given (the youth) a punishment beating, or shot them through the thighs or maybe the elbows.”
The vigilantes — which during the last century would have been called “terrorist groups,” thus garnered support from citizens who perceived them as a more credible deterrent to neighborhood crime than the PSNI.
“But the police couldn’t do anything, because no one was giving them information to be able to do something,” Todd said.
It was also not unusual a few decades ago for citizens to call police into their neighborhood on a fake call and then ambush them, he noted. This forced authorities to become wary in terms of assessing whether a call for service was legitimate.
“Because of the slow response times, the public’s confidence in us would’ve dropped and whenever these other groups would come in and do their vigilante stuff; the community thought, ‘We like this,’” Todd explained. “That’s been a continual battle to try and rectify that. But we’ve got a lot more community confidence in us now; we can now go into those areas, and there are community police officers dedicated to those ‘more hard to reach’ areas. They’re now starting to see us produce results, so they’re less likely to turn to these vigilantes.
“They still like to think of themselves as ‘important,’ like a terrorist organization, but they’re not really,” he added.
Todd has been in more than a few scrapes during his policing career, most of them occurring during what’s known in Northern Ireland as “parade season.” Typically lasting from April to the beginning of September, it’s marked by many celebratory parades, mostly organized by Protestants. The biggest one, known as the Orange march, takes place on July 12. It celebrates Prince William of Orange’s victory over King James II in the Battle of Boyne in 1690.
Problem is, the traditional Protestant parade routes have in some cases veered into Catholic neighborhoods, thus creating resentment and unrest, according to Todd.
“The demographics of areas have changed,” Todd said. “And the Catholics have said, ‘We don’t want you marching through our area with this stuff. And that’s where the conflicts come, and then we get deployed to keep the two sides apart.”
It used to be that police had authority over the parade routes. An independent parades commission now makes those calls, which has taken heat off the PSNI.
“There are hundreds of these parades and the vast majority of them pass off without any incident whatsoever,” Todd stressed. “It’s a small, select few that still cause some problems.”
While Todd is now primarily based in a training facility, he’s occasionally in demand in the field when a PSNI commander needs tactical support and/or advice at a crime scene or major public gathering.
“I’m there to give them options, in relation to what they can do,” he said.
Hanley has enjoyed Todd’s visit.
“There’s a collegiality — it’s ‘hands across the water,’” Hanley said. “We’re all doing the same job. And it gives folks here a different perspective.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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