Insight: Policing in Scotland’s most ethnically diverse community

PCs Ferguson and ODonnell play with with a couple of Romanian children at the Community Canteen at Trinity Church, Daisy Street. Picture: John Devlin
PCs Ferguson and ODonnell play with with a couple of Romanian children at the Community Canteen at Trinity Church, Daisy Street. Picture: John Devlin
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It’s a little after 11am on another gunmetal grey Glasgow morning when PCs Laura Ferguson and Harry O’Donnell meet Calum.

A Nepali whose adopted Scottish name signifies a love of the country that is now his home, he wants to tell the officers about his flat on the 20th floor of a city high-rise and how it reminds him of the mountainous kingdom of his birth. It’s a comparison even the staunchest of Glaswegians would balk at, but indicative of the way he feels about where he lives and the police officers he has stopped for a casual chat about nothing in particular.

This is how community policing looks in Govanhill, a deprived area a short drive from Glasgow city centre and perhaps Scotland’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhood.

This is also part of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Glasgow Southside constituency. On Allison Street, Govanhill’s main thoroughfare, you’ll see Muslim women with faces partially hidden by the niqab and yellow road signs written in Romanian warning pedestrians of men working overhead.

There are currently more than 50 languages spoken by pupils at the local secondary school. When senior police officers spoke of “community cohesion” in the days after last month’s terror attack at Westminster, they were talking about areas like Govanhill.

In the fight against terrorism, the frontline is not heavily armed snipers or sophisticated technology – it is intelligence-led community policing; what the nostalgics call “bobbies on the beat”.

But that is not to say counter-terrorism plays much part in the day-to-day work of officers Ferguson and O’Donnell. Their time is spent patrolling on foot or bike, visiting local businesses and chatting with children who act as unofficial interpreters for parents recently arrived from countries such as Romania and Slovakia.

“It’s often been difficult to bridge the gap,” says PC Ferguson. “We don’t speak any of the languages, but we still want to provide people with that old-fashioned community policing model so that they feel comfortable coming to speak to us.

“There’s also a lack of education about how the police work, based on the experience people have had in their home countries – if someone has their bike stolen, for example, they’re not always aware that’s something we would deal with.”

The local policing division, of which Govanhill is part, has seen the arrival of around 4,000 people from the Roma community in Romania and Slovakia over the past decade, many of whom speak little or no English.

The area was already diverse and is home to eight mosques and countless churches of every conceivable denomination.

Like many of the Govanhill’s other immigrant communities, the Roma are used to sorting out problems and disagreements themselves without necessarily involving the police.

But it is the small stuff – missing bikes, complaints about noisy neighbours – which allows officers to build trust for when more serious incidents occur. In the week after the London terror attack, senior figures in Police Scotland came under increasing pressure from their own officers over how they would protect themselves should a similar incident happen north of the Border.

Among Khalid Masood’s victims on 22 March was PC Keith Palmer, 48, an unarmed officer who gave his life protecting the Houses of Parliament.

In the days following the attack, the Scottish Police Federation tabled an emergency debate at its conference on the issue of armed policing.

The Police Scotland response was a hastily convened photocall, with media invited at short notice to a firing range near East Kilbride.

As balaclava-clad specialist firearms officers posed for pictures, their colleagues in the Federation – their debate now largely ignored by the media – complained of having to deal with armed assailants using nothing more than their batons and incapacitant spray.

Away from the choreographed show of strength, however, there was a more sophisticated message from Police Scotland on how to defeat terror.

It’s a plan deployed every day on the streets of Govanhill and areas like it across the country, one that involves police officers visiting the mosque for Friday prayers or the local community centre to have lunch with those taking lessons to improve their English.

“Our approach to [community relations] isn’t just at times of extreme need,” says Superintendent Davie Duncan, of the police’s Safer Communities team.

“This is all built in times of peace. We have really good community cohesion in Scotland – something to be proud of. When events like the London attack happen, we see the real benefit. Communities absolutely do defeat terrorism. That’s where the stability comes from.”

It’s approaching lunchtime as Sergeant Cennydd Smith proudly shows off Govanhill Park. Once a fertile patch for criminality and antisocial behaviour, it is now a safe space enjoyed by all sections of the community.

Smith, who is based in the nearby Gorbals police station, hopes to set up a football tournament to keep teenagers occupied in those long summer weeks when the schools are out.

In a moment so perfectly Glasgow, he attracts wolf whistles from men working on a nearby scaffold as he poses for pictures.

“Govanhill is no worse than any other area,” he says. “But it’s deprived, and the poverty drives the criminality. Things are improving, though. The park used to be a bit of a no-go zone, but it’s teeming now on nice sunny evenings.”

Despite Smith’s optimism, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find Govanhill’s problems. Alerted by a propped-open security door, the officer enters a tenement stair. There is a faint whiff of urine and someone has angrily and inexplicably scrawled “I know it was you” on the wall.

One of the residents tells Smith he has been broken into, his door kicked in and several of his possessions stolen.

Smith tells the man some of his officers will visit later in the day.

Across the street, Sorama Goga sits behind the counter of the community shop, a drop-in facility run by the local housing association. She has been in Glasgow since arriving from Romania to study at Strathclyde University, but her faultless English is spoken in an accent which owes more to the United States than her adoptive hometown.

She says the shop is popular with the Roma, who come for advice on employment or claiming benefits. Those in work are typically employed as cleaners, kitchen porters or car washers, low-skilled areas where a lack of English is not a major impediment.

There is nevertheless a desire to integrate, aided for the most part by their children who are in local schools and already speaking the language.

Goga says problems are often caused by cultural differences, such as young Romanian and Slovakian men hanging around on street corners, something Scots tend to associate with antisocial behaviour.

“That’s a cultural thing,” she says. “People get worried about it because it’s unknown but I walk on the street every day and I have never felt threatened. If you are living in an overcrowded flat, then you’re going to want to go out on the street.”

She says her compatriots have suffered a bad press, which has fostered suspicion.

“There’s a lot of bad news stories about the Romanian community. People tend to fixate on that and they become a common enemy. Often it’s based on small differences which are not understood.”

A recent study of integration commissioned by the UK government as part of effort to understand and tackle extremism found “worrying levels” of segregation in some British cities.

Dame Louise Casey’s review said integration had failed to keep up with the “unprecedented pace and scale of immigration” and had allowed some communities to become increasingly divided.

The year-long study, which was published in December, said government attempts to boost the integration of ethnic minorities into British society amounted to little more than “saris, samosas and steel drums for the already well-intentioned”.

It would be wrong to think Scotland is immune from these problems – there are clearly those living in areas such as Govanhill who have limited connections to the wider city outside of their own native community.

But Police Scotland has not experienced the difficulties of forces in cities such as Birmingham and Bradford where isolated minority communities have proved a fertile breeding ground for hate-speak and radicalisation.

“Without overdoing it, I think we have one of the best community policing operations in world,” says Smith.

“The key thing for me is trust; if people don’t speak to us, we’re going to get nowhere. Our day-to-day business is not about Prevent [the UK’s anti-radicalisation strategy] but it’s built into everything we do. What are the factors that cause somebody to be radicalised etc?”

Smith has one officer who speaks five languages, but for the most part he and his team rely on interpreters.

Another important tool is the local community hub meeting where representatives of the council and local housing association are joined by the police to discuss ongoing issues.

A short drive from the police station lies Samaritan House, the offices of Govanhill Housing Association. From the car park, the city college building can be seen looming over the skyline with its huge “People Make Glasgow” sign. Inside, over tea and biscuits, the hub meeting discusses troublesome tenants, overflowing recycling bins and a two-bed flat being shared by eight people, a situation not uncommon in these parts.

“Govanhill has always been a gateway for migrant communities coming into Glasgow,” says Gordon Smith, Social and Environmental Manager with City Property, which manages council properties.

“If you go back 30 or 40 years it was people coming from Pakistan. At that point in time there would have been a degree of disconnect and there’s exactly the same situation now with the eastern Europeans coming in.

“Thirty or 40 years on, the Pakistani community is now totally integrated, but it takes time and there will be a generational gap. At the moment, we have 683 eastern European children in education in Govanhill, primarily Roma. In other parts of Europe, the Roma are heavily discriminated against, but we don’t. My belief is that community cohesion will move on considerably, but it will take a generation or two.”

It’s lunchtime and Loraine McHendry has just finished taking an English class at the local community centre. Among her students today were those from Romania, Slovakia, Poland, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ghana and Nepal.

Food is being served in the hall next door and as those from across Europe, Asia and Africa take their seats and begin tentative conversations in their newly acquired tongue, they are joined by PCs Ferguson and O’Donnell.

“There are all sorts of motivations for these people to learn English,” McHendry says. “But the main ones are employability and integration. They come because they want to be able to shop independently or to communicate with neighbours and to make a life here.”

Make a life in Scotland is what thousands have chosen to do over the past decade and will likely continue to do, even with the uncertainty of Brexit.

The work of the police is not about to get any easier and the terror threat is here to stay. But in one community at least, the efforts of officers in building relationships appears to be working.