MoD Police, keeping the waterways safe and the Naval Base secure
UNLIKE many towns and cities, Plymouth has two police forces. Alongside the usual boys and girls in blue, the city is also home to the Ministry of Defence police.
It's a very different beat which the MoD police walk. For a start, they don't just walk it, some sail it.
From his office windows on the lip of Devonport naval base Insp Gordon Peters can gaze up and down the Hamoaze. The historic two-and-a-half mile long waterfront, said to be one of the biggest naval base's in Western Europe, is just a small part of his officer's patch.
The MoD police Marine Unit cover from Rame Head, out and across to the Shagstone as well as the perimeter of the Devonport, up to the Gunnislake weir, along the Lynher, the Tavy and the Tamar.
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Friday, May 31 2013
The unit is replete with a team of workhorse vessels – 14m launches with names like Excalibur, Pegasus, Watchful and Integrity, along with smaller, more nimble Rigid Inflatable craft.
Insp Peters said: "Our customer is the Royal Navy. Our primary function is to provide waterside security of the naval base because while on the landside we have a wall around the base, on the waterfront you can't put a fence up.
"As such, our officers are on the water, patrolling along the waterfront 24/7."
It may seem odd, that the military itself needs policing and protecting, but in simple terms it's what the MoD Police do. As such, Insp Peters' officers need more than just pepper spray and strong words of advice, so they are authorised firearms officers, "with access to firearms".
The Unit's other role is escorting MoD ships and submarines along the river, because you cannot afford to have it clogged up with boats when a sizeable naval ship needs to get into port.
"It's a busy waterway," says Insp Peters, gazing out the window towards the Torpoint ferry. "I'm from Dorset, but I love this bit of water. There's always something moving.
"There can be up to three knots of tide in some places. It's narrow around Devil's Point and Drake's Island but you have to pass through it to get to and from the base. If something like a canoe gets in the way of a naval vessel – well, they don't stop or move quickly and if they take avoiding action they could run aground.
"What our officers do is go ahead, act like sheep dogs and move people out of the way. Around 99.9 percent of the time we ask politely and people move. Occasionally, they don't, for whatever reason, like if they've had a drink or two. We once had a small yacht get in front of a submarine. His yacht was swept down the side of the sub. He was prosecuted under the Dockyard port of Plymouth Order for impeding the passage of a warship. A military vessel can come through at a maximum of 10 knots, but it can take a while to come to a full stop."
Sailors pottering or racing in the area are made aware of the rules of the water. If they're seen by the bridge crew, they get warning blasts on the horn – those who ignore the blasts get a more up-close visit.
To spread the word officers regularly speak to members of the boating community, giving them sound advice about what to do if you're on the receiving end of the horn blasts.
Insp Peters said the MoD Police had very good relationship with other agencies in the city, such as the Queen's Harbour Master, the RNLI, the Coastguard, Devon and Cornwall Police.
Their joint-working was highlighted recently after teen Jordan Cobb lost his life in the Tamar after jumping from the Torpoint ferry.
Insp Peters said: "An unpleasant part of our job is recovering bodies. There's a concentration of rivers which feed into the Sound. We've gone as far up as Cotehele to recover a body. If someone is about to jump off the Tamar Bridge we will wait underneath it while local police do their work.
"Our overriding priority is the same as any other police officer – the preservation of life."
From his office Insp Peters can scan up and down the river, but while he notes its beauty, he recognises its danger, noting: "It can look beautiful, but it has the potential to be fatal if people lose their respect for it."
He recounts numerous incidents where those taking risks have fallen foul of the fast, deep and cold waters.
His officers assisted in searching for Jordan both day and night, alongside their usual duties.
He said: "We were able to so it as part of our normal job. We've had other people go into the water – some we've been able to help in time, others we're just recovering the remains. Most of us are parents ourselves, but we have to bring them aboard, preserve the body and treat it as evidence, but also with respect."
As a result of their often grim work, Insp Peters said MoD Police recognise they need to monitor officers to ensure they don't suffer any after effects.
He said: "Evidence is you can go to lots of incidents and have no repercussions, but you go to one more and it hits you. So, we monitor, keep an eye out, be aware."
As part of their daily safeguarding work, The MDP encourage boat owners to register their vessels, in case any go adrift and become a navigational hazard.
Insp Peters wryly notes how some older, value-less boats sometimes drift away, as if the owner would rather see that than face the cost of removing them, while owners of well-maintained boats swiftly respond to calls from officers about their own drifting vessels.
The MoD officers also have other 'litter picking duties' retrieving objects which could drift dangerously into the path of military vessels – "logs, gas cannisters... cows."
The officers also encourage Boatwatch schemes, similar to Neighbourhood Watch, with boat owners taking shifts, packing radio, mobile phones and flasks, keeping a lookout for the waterborne thieves targeting outboard engines, fishing nets and satnavs.
Insp Peters said: "It costs nothing to run, but they can be the eyes and ears on the water. If they see someone or something suspicious they can call us up. I'm sure it has deterred a few criminals in its time."
As a result of their work on the water, the MoD Police officers also assist Environment Agency (EA) staff who target poachers.
The MoD launches have encountered nets strung across the entire Cattewater, catching thousands of pounds worth of fish. The poachers, said Insp Peters, often show "a complete lack of concern for the safety of other boat users" and many illegal nets and lobster pots have been seized and destroyed by both the EA and the MoD Police in recent years.
For his own part Insp Peters said the skill and training of officers in the MoD Police is used further afield than Plymouth. Like many of his Devonport colleagues, in his time as an MoD officer he's worked in Kosovo as a street policeman for the United Nations; in Baghdad, under the Coalition Provisional Authority assisting the Chief of Baghdad Police, and six months in Afghanistan.
He said: "I've worked very closely with the armed services, It's a special relationship as we're in the same family. We have shared experiences working overseas. As an MOD Police officer I understand the language. I've seen the armed services doing a very professional job overseas".
During the Olympics, MoD Marine Unit officers worked at Weymouth, safeguarding the races and ,in London, provided ship security for HMS Ocean.