MILD weather, old-fashioned charm and laid-back drinking laws have awarded the tiny island of Alderney its place as a tourist idyll. But this week, local resentment over police tactics has erupted into a riot that has divided the island’s 2,200-strong population and is threatening to sink its reputation.
Islanders, who have so little crime the once-a-month court sessions are often cancelled due to a lack of arrests, were still reeling from the worst incident of violence in living memory.
In a scene more reminiscent of inner-city London than the quiet Channel Island, an angry mob of 30 residents besieged its three-man police station in the early hours of Saturday, bombarding it with stones and other missiles.
Police were forced to call in the volunteer fire brigade and harbour officers and also used CS spray to control the mob. Six arrests were made and two men have been remanded in custody.
Some residents said relations in the town had become a powderkeg which had been waiting to go off. They say the police are "too aggressive" and that they handled the incident badly. But others, including hoteliers and the island’s independent government, the Alderney States, says that the incident was a one-off, and has called for stiff penalties for those involved.
The incident began in the main town of St Annes after two police officers tried to arrest a man for drink driving. He tried to run away, urged on by his friends, but the officers held him and in the tussle that followed, one allegedly hit him with a baton. They then followed the officers to the nearby police station, 200 yards away.
The same officer then allegedly hit a young woman in the face with his baton, at which point the crowd erupted and began throwing missiles at the police station, with two policemen inside. When a senior officer, Sergeant Rikk Butler, arrived at the scene , the crowd shouted threats involving his wife and young child.
Yesterday, Michael Wyeth, Guernsey’s Chief Officer, was called to a sitting of the Alderney States to report on the incident.
Many believe the problem is due to bad police-community relations, exacerbated by the over-enthusiastic tactics of Mr Butler, who arrived on the island from Dorset Police two years ago.
"We haven’t had a decent local policeman here in the last four or five years," said Jamie Sanderson, manager of the Albert House pub, in St Annes.
Mr Sanderson said that he himself has had a run-in with Mr Butler, who accused him of serving people who were drunk. "I never serve people who are falling over or causing trouble. But if I refused to serve people after they’d had three pints, I’d go out of business."
Inspector Philip Gilbert, the media liaison officer for Guernsey Police, brushed off accusations that the police had been heavy-handed, but he admitted that policing on the island was fraught with difficulties.
"It was 1am, closing time and people had had a lot to drink," he said. "Alderney is very small, like a Scottish village, with no street lights and the incident was very frightening for our officers. We are investigating the incident to identify who is responsible."
He said that the two officers involved in the incident were Guernsey police officers on a two-week stint on the island.
"It is very difficult to live and work in a small society and it can be difficult getting police to live on the island. Having police that are not from the island makes sure we get away from any accusations of bias or favouritism - that the police are looking after their own sort of thing."
A spokesman for the force added: "From our point of view Mr Butler is popular and does the job well."