Saturday, 5 September 2009

Hats with attitude divide the Isle of Arran

Placing his peaked cap carefully on his head, Sergeant Bob Mackay, the senior officer in Arran’s tiny police force, is wearing a weary smile. “You cannot tilt this hat aggressively,” he says. “It has a non-tilt mechanism.”

If there is an air of resignation about Sgt MacKay, it is understandable. A week ago, under the headline, “Police accused of ‘not smiling enough’”, he and his squad of four officers were lambasted in the Arran Banner newspaper by Campbell Laing, the chairman of the island’s community council. Prominent among the charges was “the aggressive way they wear their hats” - though surely this could hardly apply to the peaked cap now sitting benignly atop Sergeant McKay’s ruddy face.

“People are telling me that the hostile nature of the police and their finger -pointing attitude is unwelcome,” Mr Laing told the council at their August meeting. “You know what my background is and I do not think this aggressive style of policing is justified. How hard would it be for officers to smile?”

Allegations of authoritarianism seem incongruous. True, Sgt Mackay and his colleagues come equipped with all the disturbing accoutrements of modern policing: pinned to his body armour is a canister of CS gas, a walkie-talkie, a baton and handcuffs.

But this is Arran (population: 5,000) , marketed as “Scotland in miniature”, 167 square miles of ravishing mountains and glens, marooned an hour from the Ayrshire coast, a place where, says Sgt Mackay “sheep-worrying is a particular concern.” The sergeant’s attitude to his baton speaks volumes for the distinctiveness of island policing: “It’s useful if an old lady’s fallen down in her house, and you’ve got to break a window to get in.”

So why doesn’t he just dismiss the allegations of aggression, or say something rude about the people who accuse him? “It’s not in me,” said Sgt Mackay, whose police station is a converted cottage, next to his own little house in Lamlash. “I’ve been here ten years and that’s not how it works. Confidentiality is the key on the island. Confidentiality looks after everyone. You’ve got to build trust.”

It is, however, this same issue of trust that fires up his most strident critic. Mr Laing is a former detective, who gave up his uniform and retired to the island 17 years ago. These days he wears a kilt in the Graham tartan, and works as a tour guide in the Arran Distillery.

This argument is not about hats at all, he protests. It is about “the demeanour and attitude” of the police, about people being stopped for speeding, when travelling at 32mph (albeit through one of the island’s tiny villages) on the way to a funeral, or finding themselves being questioned in the back of a police van for their failure to wear a safety belt. “It’s something foreign in a small community. It’s a question of demeanour – I see a change, an attitude change in how the police deal with the public,” he says.

And, according to at least one of Mr Laing’s supporters, Ian Small, the argument turns on Arran “getting like a police state”. “I’ve lived her all my life and I’ve never known it so bad. It’s like they have quotas to fill,” says Mr Small, 54, an electrician. The worst incident he says occurred earlier this summer, when the police set out to breathalyse every driver coming off the ferry from Ardrossan.

“Why did the police target everyone getting off the boat,” wonders Mr Small. “They said they had received a tip-off that there had been drinking in the bar. What was the result? Queues forever, and bad feeling. Welcome to Arran.”

The truth is, counters Sgt Mackay, nothing has changed. There are no quotas. The policy on drink driving is designed both to up hold the law and to stem a shocking wave of road accidents – seven deaths in 8 years. – and is supported by the Arran Alcohol Forum, a impressive local alliance of health and education services.

If Sgt MacKay is too canny to attack his critics in the press, there is little doubt that he went along to last month’s community council determined to lance this boil of criticism. Irked by a minutes of July’s meeting in which “Campbell Laing expressed concern that over-aggressive policing was resulting in a loss of public confidence”, Sgt Mackay’s opening gambit was to pull out a picture of the Jack Warner, the actor who played Dixon of Dock Green, the friendliest of TV bobbies and suggest: “This is what you think we’re like.”

One observer - who asked not be named - wondered whether this bold move “could have gone horribly wrong for Bob”, Instead, Mr Laing’s explosion of anger “turned things into a farce”, made the headlines, and set tongues wagging in every bar from Lamlash to Lochranza.

The letters page in this weekend’s Arran Banner is bulging with indignant responses to Mr Laing’s remarks. “I could not care less how they were their hats as long as they carry out their duties properly," wrote Lady Jean Fforde, [the Arran police] are a great advertisement for the youth of today.” Mr Laing’s comments were “Fatuous nonsense” wrote Tom Sheldon of Lamlash. “We are fortunate to have Bob MacKay” wrote Brenda Stewart, who is, like Mr Laing, a community councillor.

This very public demonstration of support for the police, may not be the end of the matter. Mr Small is an inveterate agitator, something of a local legend for his campaigning. Mr Laing is no less of a fighter. Out numbered on the community council, and derided by the letter writers, he intends to take his case to a higher power, and write to a chief inspector of Strathclyde Police to air his grievance.

Sgt MacKay is too polite to comment. He shakes his head, and from beneath the chequered band of his hat he says: “Everyone is entitled to an opinion. If he represent a section of the community, I’ll take what he says on board. If not...” And with a shrug, it’s back to the sheep worriers.

Picture by James Glossop, who is really very good. You want proof? James Glossop.

This article is published by the Times, here: Times article.

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