Thursday, 16 August 2018

Police keep the peace

POLICING the Henley Royal Regatta is never an easy job. As more than 60,000 people descend

POLICING the Henley Royal Regatta is never an easy job. As more than 60,000 people descend on the town for the five-day event, there are bound to be a few who stray on to the wrong side of the law.

I’m with Inspectors Mick Greenwood and John Donachy, of Wokingham police, on Saturday night, traditionally the busiest day of the regatta.

We are spending the evening on the towpath, where there are dozens of pop-up bars for revellers to spend their money after a day of racing.

Insp Donachy seems relaxed but even for a veteran the regatta can throw up surprises.

He says: “You can never tell what’s going to happen. I’ve worked at the regatta for the last 22 years and each time it’s different. I’m hoping everyone will have a good time and not overstep the mark.”

We have barely reached the regatta enclosure when Insp Donachy has to make his first intervention of the night, telling two men to stop messing around after one of them is pushed into a hedge. It’s all light-hearted and the perpetrator bemoans his rebuke â?? he’s a teacher and normally dishes them out himself.

Part of the police’s job is dealing with requests from the public and Insp Greenwood happily tells visitors where they can find the nearest toilets or when the fireworks will start. They also check in with bouncers at the assortment of bars along the towpath.

Everything appears to be calm as we reach 8pm.

The head of security at Mahiki, the most popular nightspot, says the venue has almost reached its capacity of 2,100 people. He is planning to up the entry fee to £50 to discourage people who have had too much to drink from coming in but the size of the line at the entrance suggests people are willing to pay.

The police are told that earlier a group of disgruntled girls threw a coconut at a doorman after being asked to move from their position sitting in front of the exit.

Further along the towpath, two men have decided to take a dip in the river after jumping off a boat.

Insp Greenwood tells me that while this isn’t against the law, the police discourage people from swimming.

“It encourages everyone else to go in too and that’s when it becomes dangerous,” he says. “It’s the Environment Agency that will have to enforce it and in some situations they can issue fines.”

Sure enough, two Environment Agency boats are soon circling the men but the officials are unable to drag them from the water so they allow the pair to swim off and climb out downstream.

Insp Greenwood is on duty at the regatta for the first time in 12 years but he lives in the town, so he knows something might happen, especially on a Saturday night when, he says, the atmosphere is “completely different” to the rest of the week.

He says: “There are a lot more groups and lots more people in general. It’s much better than it used to be and we have a presence all week with officers from all over the Thames Valley force.

“I haven’t done it for a long time because I’ve been in a different capacity. We are usually here until 2am making sure there are no stragglers left behind.”

Insp Greenwood says the police’s best weapon at big events like the regatta is a section 35 order, which allows them to ban people from an area for up to 48 hours.

It’s not long before he has his book out as he receives reports of a fight at the Chase Distillery bar. Two men have been involved in a scuffle after an argument over a girl.

One man is ejected by door staff as police deal with his hysterical girlfriend, who says he was only trying to protect her.

The second man soon follows his rival out of the door and both are issued with section 35 orders. Insp Greenwood says: “We have a map of the area they cannot come back into, which is the regatta site and Henley. If they do that then they’re committing a crime and can be arrested.

“These orders can be hard to enforce because we will remember their faces but other officers won’t and similarly we won’t know who the other officers have given orders to.”

Right on cue, another drunk partygoer is being spoken to by police as Insp Greenwood takes part in a regular debrief with other commanders around the town.

He gives an estimate of the number of people at the bars on the towpath and hears from Insp Mark Harling, head of Henley police, from the town centre.

Insp Harling says hundreds of people are already queuing outside the town’s pubs but everything is peaceful.

Insp Greenwood said: “We like to have a catch-up throughout the night to see what’s going on and where all our resources are.”

As we move further down the towpath, the number of people thins out and the atmosphere seems jovial.

Insp Donachy says he spoke to a local couple struggling to walk their dogs among the throngs of people earlier in the evening and they told him they didn’t realise it would be so busy.

Insp Greenwood tells me about a “tombstoning” incident during the previous night when a man inside a portable toilet was covered in blue dye after his friends pushed it over.

“That was the least of his worries,” he laughs.

As we reach the end of the towpath, my night is done. The police will be out for another few hours, making sure the thousands of people enjoying themselves at the bars make their way home without any trouble.

Regatta Saturday is their biggest night of the year but the police make sure it goes off without a hitch and for that everyone is grateful.

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