'Why I love policing the city where I grew up'
PC Paul Briggs has spent so long policing Sheffield city centre that colleagues joke he gets a nosebleed if he strays beyond the ring road.
It’s an exaggeration, of course – as a member of Sheffield Central & North West Neighbourhood Team, his beat actually stretches all the way to the city limits at Stocksbridge.
But since joining South Yorkshire Police in 2003, he has always worked in the heart of Sheffield, and that experience means he knows the patch and its citizens like the back of his hand.
For him, it is not the number of arrests he measures himself by but the strength of the relationships he is able to build with those living, working and visiting the area – especially the most vulnerable inhabitants who rely on his support.
The 41-year-old’s proudest achievements from his decade and a half on the force are where he has been able to help some of society’s forgotten individuals, including rough sleepers, overcome the often unimaginable adversity they face.
“There’s always a story behind why people are on the street and often suffering from substance misuse and all that comes with that,” he says.
“They may look a mess but they’re humans at the end of the day, no different to you or me, and it could happen to anyone.
“There’s one lad who were waking up in the same place every day for probably about three years.
“We worked tirelessly with our partners to get some accommodation and eventually managed to find him a place.
“This was maybe five or six years ago, but every time he sees me he still always comes up to tell me how he’s getting on. It’s great to know he’s sorted his life out, has a house and is doing training.
“He told me that before we got involved he didn’t think anybody cared, which is so sad.”
The worst case Paul has encountered was that of a man he found living in atrocious conditions in a disused electricity hut in Broomhall many years ago.
“He was an asylum seeker from Africa who was living in what I can only describe as a bunker, with a foot of stagnant water and rats running around, and he was lighting fires to keep himself warm,” says Paul.
“He’d been living like that for four or five years and when we learned his story it was so harrowing. It’s no wonder we found him in the state we did; he was clearly suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Again, Paul worked with his partners – this time including immigration officers – to get the man a place to live and the support he needed, and he remains in touch with the British Red Cross to try to trace the man’s family and let them know he is safe.
He may sound more like a social worker than a police officer, but Paul doesn’t shy away from getting stuck in at the sharp end of the thin blue line.
Indeed, the father-of-one once received a bravery award for saving the life of a man who threatened to set himself alight at a health clinic.
“He’d doused himself in flammable liquid and was holding a lighter in one hand and a razor blade in the other. If he’d set fire to himself everyone else there would probably have gone up in flames because the liquid was all over the floor,” says Paul.
“A colleague and I were talking to him and trying to stay calm while our radios were going crazy with people wanting to know what was happening.
“We were probably only there for 45 minutes but it felt like hours. Eventually I think the liquid was starting to sting his eyes so we took our opportunity to dive on him and seize the lighter.”
Paul wouldn’t swap his job for any other, he says, but his heart wasn’t always set on becoming a police officer.
As a keen football player and coach, the Sheffield United fan, who grew up in Beauchief, was initially determined to pursue a career in sport. He studied international sports politics at what was then Leeds Metropolitan University and at one point coached one of Sheffield Wednesday’s girls teams.
But football’s loss turned out to be policing’s gain, and he hasn’t looked back since joining the force.
The sport, however, is still a big part of his working life. In his role as a police liaison officer, which is one facet of his job, he travels with local fans to away games in an attempt to prevent disorder.
Paul is there not just to identify potential troublemakers but to build a rapport with the law-abiding fans, who make up the vast majority of supporters, and ensure their day goes as smoothly as possible by helping with everything from which pubs they can drink at to where the coaches are parked.
His liaison duties also include working with demonstrators, from those on both sides of the EDL protests in Rotherham to the Extinction Rebellion campaigners taking direct action over climate change, to stop things getting out of hand on the day.
“It’s about no surprise policing, making sure people know what they can and can’t do on the day,” he says.
“It can be difficult when you’re stood in the middle of a lot of people screaming and shouting at each other, and you’re having to say don’t do that or the officers over there will have to come in and take you out of the situation.
“It’s also hard when people ask what you think because you have to say you don’t have an opinion, yet you’re often accused of siding with somebody.”
As a neighbourhood police officer, Paul says he is there to nip problems in the bud before they escalate. That involves listening to the communities he serves about the issues affecting them, ranging from drug-dealing to anti-social bikers and fly-tipping.
To him, prevention is always better than the cure.
“I always say a successful night is one where you’ve not had to have your pen out much taking people’s details,” he explains.
One of the biggest challenges of recent times has been the emergence of spice, a highly addictive synthetic form of cannabis nicknamed the ‘zombie drug’ due to its ability to leave users in a trance-like state.
It is popular with some of society’s most vulnerable people, including rough sleepers, and, although police say the numbers using it are relatively low, its effect on those taking it makes it a highly visible problem, especially in city centres.
“You’re not going to enforce your way out of it, which is why we work with our partners to try to help those people who are affected get the support they need,” says Paul.
Enforcement is seen as a last resort but one police are prepared to take if necessary, especially when it comes to suppliers.
That includes the use of closure orders to shut properties associated with the drug, which police obtained for two addresses around Devonshire Green following complaints about anti-social behaviour.
The joint approach to tackling spice by police and their partners in Sheffield, which is home to the country’s first dedicated spice clinic, has won national recognition but Paul admits there is still work to do.
Paul’s job is rarely easy. He describes hardships like having to break the news on Christmas Day that a loved one has been killed, or being assaulted while on duty, as ‘part and parcel’ of his role – yet he relishes wearing the badge.
“I love coming to work every day. Being a lad from Sheffield, I have an opportunity to make the city in which I grew up and still live better not only for the people of Sheffield and visitors but also for me, my family and friends, and you get to meet some cracking characters as part of the job," he says.