MAS training is upon us again. For the uninitiated, this means an early start, into work wearing our finest trackies, and rummaging through a dark, cold and dusty store cupboard for a large unwieldy black holdall full of pieces of kevlar, leather and plastic. After this, the game of 'find the van keys'. This is a search for the keys for the 'carrier' or 'funbus' - or as the public know and fear it - the 'riot van'. The keys could be anywhere from where they should be to hanging off the belt of the last officer who used the van, then hung up his belt, leaving it safely in his/her locker.
The phrase 'riot van' creates all sorts of mental images, but in reality this tends to be a long wheel base Ford Transit, with its magical police enhancements - some brightly coloured stickers, two tone sirens, some extra lights, and possibly a rusted grille, perched above the windscreen. This should, in direst of emergencies should drop down like Batfink's wings and guard the driver and sergeant with a shield of steel. That, or remain stubbornly rusted into position, as it's not the kind of bit of kit that gets regularly used. Not like a pen for instance.
This van will usually be knee deep in sweet, chip and pie wrappers, and with any luck, have a good half dozen empty coke tins and water bottles to roll about the floor as the van goes round corners. (This is the result of something called 'fleet mentality' - or why the fantasy and reality of a ride in a police car tend to be so far removed from each other.) A veteran van should also smell slightly musty - of damp - old farts - takeaways - and that odour of staleness associated with places that go from days of abandonment to short bursts of intense use by a close press of bodies.
Once 'bussed up', it's time to head off to the Public Order Training school - generally - this tends to be a large metal shed on an industrial estate. And so the fun begins. Once upon a time, this kind of treat went with a meal ticket, the incentive for turning up/volunteering to go/going at no notice with minimal grumbling was a packed lunch, or copious amounts of hot stodge served up with the traditional maxpax. Arrival at the school was followed by claiming a set of meal tickets - divided into the appealing choices of 'hot', 'vegetarian' and 'salad'. However, much like in the armed forces, the prospect of free food creates a level of excitement not found anywhere else in life, so this was one of the highlights of such a day.
Now, in these cash strapped times, pre-credit crunch, but certainly about the time that police training managers started talking about business plans - you bring your own food - so that what was once a trip out with a picnic, feels now more like hard work with your own sandwiches.
But I digress... on arrival at the 'school' it's time to meet the trainers. These are all PC's who have achieved that holy grail of police jobs - a Monday-Friday job with reasonable hours, and the opportunity to earn some reasonable overtime at the weekend. On the whole, they are a jolly bunch, always with an encouraging word for the hapless, and endless reserves of patience so that they can explain the same tactic over and over and over to ranks of blue-clad figures.
The training has a 'groundhog day' quality to it - everything is taught from a national manual - the tactics are pretty much the same everywhere - to allow for those occasions when bus fulls of bobbies are requested by another force to assist with trouble - real or anticipated in other bits of the country. The novelty does wear off fairly quickly - so after rehearsal of the same manoeuvres time and time again, the 'exercises', or 'scenarios' take place. Here, disbelief is suspended while we imagine that our riot suited comrades, now wearing coloured bibs, are in fact nasty rioters - and they are to be chased, harassed, and penned in all round the big metal shed, until they 'disperse' - or wander off for a maxpax - or else hide inside a pretend building within the big metal shed, where they have to be winkled out by a different set of tactics.
The kit used is amazingly low tech - shields, helmets and armour - and sometimes a big stick. I imagine the tactics are not so advanced that a Roman legionary would have trouble understanding them - but they are repeated until they become almost second nature.
At some point, there will be an 'angry man' - a trainer playing the part of a large cross man, who has decided to barricade himself into a windowless, furniture less room, armed with a bad attitude and a pick axe handle. Our job is to disarm him with charm, wit, two big bits of perspex and some grunting and heaving. We usually win.
The peak of the day is the petrol reception. Think champagne reception, but using petrol instead of champagne, and milk bottles instead of dinky glasses, and the bottles being thrown at you - on fire - instead of being handed a chilled glass of bubbly and some nibbles. The reason for doing this is to build confidence in the kit - running through fire for real shouldn't be too bad if it' been done in a practice arena. So the thinking goes.
The selfish reason for doing all this is that for most of us is that it is an opportunity to earn some overtime for the big public (dis)order events like football matches and demonstrations and the like - but it is also at the heart of what the police need to be prepared to do. At some point, sometimes, things break down to the point that people have to be moved off the streets - and ask yourself - would you rather the army did it? or the self same police who will have to come back and police the same streets when the fuss has died down, without hundreds of extra helpers, dogs, helicopters, horses and such like - and armed only with a stick, radio, a set of pens and an ability to talk a situation down?
Generally, PSU/MAS/public order training is a break from the routine of pushing a pen and a panda round for eight to ten hours. Certainly not glamorous, certainly not too exciting - and the kind of thing I hope I don't have to use for real, in a real live riot. Riots themselves are odd things - UK law says that 12 people are needed for a riot - using or threatening violence for a 'common purpose'. A large scale pub fight would meet this criterion - certainly if the 'common purpose' was to tear Wayne's head off for sending threatening texts to our Tracy. In reality, the Riot (Damages) Act 1886 means that the local police could be liable for compensating for damage caused due to riot - so strangely enough - despite once backing up to a pub fight which turned out to be two groups of drunken revellers throwing pint pots and bottles and threatening terrible things to each other - this wasn't a riot - which was good as all I had was my stick, radio, and pens. Sadly, talking the situation down wasn't an option - and only the sounds of more sirens coming to assist was able to separate the warring parties and see them melt away - leaving a small number on the ground, nursing their wounds.
Like so many things in the police - it's something we train for - but the reality of having everything in place when it all goes wrong is usually lacking.
Bye for now.