Ten to Eight on a Thursday evening and a call comes through the radio: “Constable Chaos, can you attend the Bigtown Leisure Centre please, call from the manager, they’re trying to lock up for the night and there’s a group of youths there causing problems and refusing to leave …”
Being only a couple of minutes away I was more than happy to ‘pop along’. Anti Social Behaviour of course, is the big buzz word at the moment. There have been a small number of very high profile incidents where things have gone badly wrong and clearly police response to such matters has rightly been questioned. But, keeping things in perspective, 99.999% of reported ‘Anti Social Matters’ is of a much, much lower level and is dealt with promptly, correctly and to the satisfaction of those involved.
Arriving at the Leisure Centre, I wasn’t faced with a baying crowd of hooligans, causing mayhem and terror; in fact I wasn’t faced with anyone at all. I wandered into the reception and spoke with the girl at the desk, busy sat there filing her nails, chatting to someone who was evidently from the nature of the conversation not work related (unless the local council now runs courses on doing something with later in the evening your Labrador – maybe she meant to style ‘doggy paddle’ as in swimming, rather than ‘doggy style’ I don’t know ????
Having managed to attract the attention of said individual and asked the simple question “Manager about ?”, my new friend gave a ‘tut’, put down her nail file had said to her charmed and canine activity loving phone buddy “uh, ‘ang on, coppers here for summin’ now”. Charming, love you too ! And with that she pointed in the general direction of two doors on the opposite side of the reception area. “Don’t get up love” I said “I can see you’re busy, I’ll find him myself”.
Well he wasn’t in his office, or rather the toilet cubicle sized room with an old imitation wood filing cabinet and a desk and chair that came straight out of an old Dickens novel. I wandered down the corridor towards the swimming pool and found him and another member of staff staring aimlessly out of a window. “Ahh thanks for coming officer” he said as I approached – well at least someone’s glad to see me today. “What seems to be the problem” I asked as I walked up to the pair “didn’t see anyone out front causing a problem”.
“No” said the manager “they’re over there look, we’re wanting to lock up and they’re still playing football on the pitch – we’ve asked them to go but they won’t, they haven’t even paid you know, foul mouthed lot” For a moment I was slightly speechless. Let me explain why …..
Bigtown Leisure Centre has a swimming pool, two squash courts, a small gym, sauna and a room indie the building you can hire for kids parties and the like. Outside are two full size football pitches, a couple of five a side pitches and tennis courts. There are no walls or fences around the place and indeed there is a public footpath running right through the middle of the site.
The Leisure Centre is right next to North Park which is, as the name suggests, a public park, with large grassed areas, pond full of ducks, swans and other water life, flower beds, the obligatory fountain, kids paddling pool and a few kiddie playground ride items; seesaw, swings, climbing frame etc. Thing is, North Park does have a big wall and fence around it and, considering it is a public leisure place, the council insist in locking the gates at 7.00pm at night for half the year (and at 8.00pm in the height of summer). So the kids can’t go and play football in the park out of harms way – unless they scale an eight foot wall or spiky fence. And anyway, the Council have stuck signs up every ten feet saying ‘No Ball Games’, ‘Don’t Feed The Ducks’, ‘Be Happy and we’ll shoot you’ and stuff like that.
“Okay” I said to the manager “But they can’t pay can they”. The manager looked at me somewhat puzzled. “Well you’re closing up in ten minutes – if they pay that means you have to provide a service so you’ll all have to stay here until their time is up surely ?”. Ha – confused look back at me !
“Let me put it this way” I continued, “In ten minutes time you and all you staff will have gone home, correct ?”. “Yes”. “And” I went on, “there’s no way of closing off the pitches to stop anyone actually using them when you’re not here is there ?” “No, but that’s not the point ….” the manager protested. “And” I persevered “the Council haven’t actually put up any Keep Off or Don’t Use the Pitches when the Centre is closed signs have they ?” “No but they can’t use them if they haven’t paid, you need to do your job and get rid of them” the new strained manager virtually screamed at me. For some unknown reason I was becoming less and less enamoured with this person – he had clearly got anti-social skills of his own.
“I’ll go and have a word with them” I said “but to be fair there’s not a lot we can do, they’re not actually doing anything wrong in the big scheme of things”. So off I plodded, back past little Miss Nail File (who was still on the phone, the leisure centre’s phone by the way, not her own !!!) put of the building and around the side towards the football pitch where my latest quarry of evil bad-doers were milling around. As I walked past the side of the building I could see the manager and his colleague watching intently what I was going to do, from behind the safety of reinforced double glazing.
I walked over to the group of half a dozen lads, none of whom were abusive or particularly off with me, but then that can often be the case – give grief to the staff but when we turn up, butter wouldn’t melt. “You okay lads” I said to them generally “Yes sir” one of them piped up straight away, “hat’s wrong, have we got to go ?” he asked. Something didn’t seem 100% right to me straight away, the old ‘copper’s nose’ had clicked into gear. “Manager at the Leisure Centre says he’s trying to lock up and you guys won’t leave. Says you’ve been giving them some grief”.
“No one’s spoke to us” they all cried out in unison “no one’s been over here” said the lad who spoke to me first “we play footie on here most nights, it’s out of the way and there’s never been a problem. But if you want us to go we will”. Straight away, I knew THEY were telling the truth and maybe the staff at the Leisure Centre were perhaps not being entirely honest with me. I looked around to see that Mr Manager and his cohort were still there, staring across the grounds, obviously waiting for me to throw the bunch of miscreants, one by one, into the air with a soopa-doopa police ninja flying swat attack, tie them all together with their own shoelaces and cart them off to the dungeons, never to be seen again.
“Tell you what we’ll do” I said to the group. “You guys go and take five having a chat by the benches” pointing at two wooden benches along the public footpath that runs through the grounds. “They can’t moan about you being there. In ten minutes they’ll all be gone then carry on as you were, who’s going to know ?”
“You serious” the leader of the quizzed me. “Why not” I replied, “look, you’re not lurking round town drinking cheap lager and causing merry hell – for goodness sake the strongest thing any of you has got with you is a bottle of Dr Pepper !” That did in fairness raise a small laugh and mickey take of the said beverage holding youth. “You aren’t out mugging grannies or nicking cars, you are, wait for it, what’s the phrase …. playing football on a football pitch. Not exactly Ronnie Biggs are you, any of you ?”. “Who ?” was the reply.
“Don’t worry about it” I said as I left them be, and then one of the guys made possibly the most important comment I’ve heard from a member of the Bigtown youth in a long time “You’re alright you are officer”. Best compliment I’ve had in ages, I just smiled, said “Thanks” and walked off back towards the main building, noticing the manger was no longer stood at his observation post, neck strained like an on-guard meerkat just in case he had missed something.
In fact he was waiting for me as I rounded the corner back towards the front door of the complex building and where I’d parked the trusty panda. “They haven’t gone” he said. “No” I replied “they’re sat on the benches on the public footpath, nothing I can do about that, anyway, good evening”. With that the manager walked off muttering something to himself and I left to find ‘some proper police work to be getting on with’ as they say – there must be a mugger or burglar round the corner I can go and harass.
I wasn’t overly surprised when I got back into the nick to hand the car over to the night shift to find out from the Sarge that the delightful Leisure Centre had already rung up to complain about the way I’d dealt with his complaint. And I was even less surprised to be told that the skipper had quickly put him in his place.