Policing London is no easy task, as Daniel Butler found on a visit to one of the Metropolitan Police's roughest areas.
The first call, driven at break-neck speed, is to the local Safeway supermarket. A group of anarchist Irish squatters have tried to steal a bottle of tequila. Dressed in a tattered black jacket, a long-haired 20 year old protests his innocence and demands that the bottle (which he claims he has paid for) be returned. The officers, frustrated by lack of evidence (the tequila has disappeared), are trying to persuade him to leave without trouble. Supported by his four friends (one, a pink-haired punk, is particularly drunk and aggrieved), the squatter is gaining in confidence and becoming aggressive. The police, angered by his belligerence, toy with the idea of arrest. Perhaps sensing how close he is sailing to the wind, first the squatter's friends and then the suspect leave, followed by the police. "We'll see them again later," mutters a plain-clothes officer, PC Steve Kennedy, in a resigned rather than vindictive tone.
"We get squatters from all over Europe," explains the driver, PC Rod Bateman, as the car hurtles along Stoke Newington High Street. Its lights are flashing but the siren is off - ("We don't want them to know we're coming," says radio operator PC Alisdair Morley). "They read about the area in an underground magazine," he continues. "It takes the council six months to evict, and there are so many dilapidated flats and houses round here it's not difficult to find something."
Stoke Newington is not typical of inner London (every locality has its unique atmosphere), but the police here have more problems than most. According to the Department of the Environment's latest poverty survey, Hackney (the north part of which is covered by the division) is the poorest borough in the country. Situated just to the north of the traditional East End (the Krays' "patch" covered parts of the south of the borough), it has a large immigrant population, but one which is scattered across several main groups. Unlike areas dominated by one race, such as Whitechapel (Bangladeshi), Brixton (West Indian) or Kilburn (Irish), Stoke Newington has a mixture of ethnic groups such as Turks, Hasidic Jews, Asians and West Indians, to say nothing of its indigenous white, and very working class, inhabitants.
From the police's perspective the area is grouped in the same category as Brixton, Tottenham and a handful of other inner London districts. While assistant commissioner Bob Hunt dislikes the words "problem" and "trouble spot", he acknowledges that these divisions fit neatly together.
Relations with the police have probably always been strained, but reached a nadir in 1981 when the borough almost erupted at the same time as Toxteth. It was at this point that the then Commissioner, Sir Kenneth Newman, declared Sandringham Road a "no go" area. Although relations have improved somewhat since then, a series of highly publicised incidents have harmed the local police's image.
The most serious recent controversy occurred in January 1987 when a young man, Trevor Monerville, "disappeared" while in police custody, to reappear three days later in a coma in Brixton Prison on the other side of London. Roy Clarke, the division's chief superintendent (or managing director, to give him the industrial equivalent of his title), believes that the resulting campaign to investigate the incident was largely the result of a "very small group" of hardcore political activists, and says that he is confident that the vast bulk of the population is "generally right behind us".
The division's headquarters in Stoke Newington High Street is a new building, only opened this year, and still so new that most of the walls have yet to have their paintwork scratched. Even the lino has yet to show signs of the slightest wear. The cells are different, however. ("We symbolically prosecuted the first graffiti artist," explains Clarke. "But after him it was impossible to prove who'd written what.")
The past few years have not been easy. When, four years ago, the former Victorian building was demolished, the division was left with no real headquarters and for over three years its structure was split and divided. The bulk of its management went to the equally antiquated Dalston station (which has since been closed), while the Vice Unit remained in Portakabins that can still be seen in the station car park, stacked on top of each other like the building blocks of a monstrous child.
The demolition was not before time - in January 1983 a young man, Colin Roach, had walked into the police lobby carrying a shotgun and, in front of several witnesses, killed himself. It was a mark of the tension in the area at the time that in spite of the presence of independent witnesses, and a coroner's verdict of suicide, many suspect the police of a cover-up.
Although Clarke is quick to claim that any resentment is the product of a tiny but vociferous minority, the Roach incident in particular left its mark on even the architecture of the new station. Designed in two wings of three floors, its centre is a huge glass atrium. The police architect who drew up the plans was determined that the public should feel that the police had nothing to hide, but it has its problems - in this case the hall turns into a solarium in summer and an ice box in winter.