Following the announcement of new funding to help crackdown on anti-social behaviour in ‘hotspot’ areas throughout Darlington, the Local Democracy Reporting Service received first-hand experience of what it’s like patrolling the town’s streets and responding to crime. 

From shoplifting and bin fires to off-road bikes and criminal damage, Police and Community Support Officers (PCSOs) are tasked with responding to all manner of incidents on Darlington’s streets every day and night. 

Through partnership work with local authorities, a strong geographical knowledge of the area, and even a bit of banter with youths hanging around parks and street corners, these officers are helping to tackle crime in the several ‘hotspot’ areas identified as the worst for offending in Darlington. 

The initial list of crime-ridden areas included several wards in Darlington - from Red Hall and Lingfield to Northgate and Cockerton - but that has since been reduced. “We’ve been able to narrow it down to specific streets, which makes it more effective for us to tackle instead of just driving around the streets and looking for problems,” said PCSO Dean Flinn.

The Northern Echo: The PCSOs are based out of the town centre office, one of the three police bases in DarlingtonThe PCSOs are based out of the town centre office, one of the three police bases in Darlington (Image: Google)

I joined PCSO Flinn and Lucy Brown at the start of their night shift on Thursday. So, I ask, what’s the most popular issue reported to the police? “Off-road bikes and electric scooters are a nuisance across the whole town," Flinn says instantly. "Criminal damage is recurrent as well, whether that’s in parks or shops.”

Not every offender can be caught, however, as I pull up to the police office in Gladstone Street, Northgate, I pass two children sharing an electric scooter and two teenagers on an off-road bike doing wheelies. 

McDonalds, B&M and Morrisons on North Road are among some of the worst areas for anti-social behaviour in Darlington. The fast food restaurant has enforced a two children at a time rule following incidents of disorder. Staff even recognise notable shoplifters at both stores due to their penchant for stealing. 

On arrival at B&M, we are told we have just missed a shoplifter by a matter of seconds. However, he was caught by shop staff and ejected from the store. 

It’s then that there’s a call on the radio about an off-road bike spotted in the Yarm Road area. “This one bike could annihilate our jobs list for the whole night,” PCSO Flinn says. Drones are now used by the force and act as their “eyes in the sky”, providing new vantage points and methods of catching criminals. 

They aren’t needed tonight, though, as within minutes we encounter the teenage biker near the Cummins factory, accompanied by a man in a fluorescent orange jacket who transported the vehicle via his truck. After two minutes of riding around Tommy Crooks Park, it’s now an active anti-social behaviour incident due to the noise nuisance caused by the loud exhaust and revving next to residential homes. Extra police officers are called to seize the bike but he’s nowhere to be seen. The man in the orange Hi-Vis jacket is found hiding in the bushes up a tree - he’s not even committed an offence - but has clearly been spooked by the police presence.

The Northern Echo: Extra officers arrive near the Cummins factory, off Yarm Road, to respond to the off-road bike incident Extra officers arrive near the Cummins factory, off Yarm Road, to respond to the off-road bike incident (Image: The Northern Echo)

At the KFC drive-through over the road, a group of boys on mountain bikes and BMXs are keen to antagonise us in the car, but the PCSOs aren’t taking the bait. Instead, our attention is mainly drawn to one boy, familiar to both, who is sitting outside Home Bargains in awe at being able to buy a fried chicken box meal for £5. 

PCSOs Brown and Flinn say they are repeatedly told by disobedient youths “you’ll never find out who I am” but their cooperation with local schools and access to dozens of CCTV cameras means identities are often found within days. It is this work which helps educate and encourage children not to find themselves on the wrong side of the law, they say. 

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Both Flinn and Brown have become familiar faces around the town centre with shoppers, locals and traders alike, and see themselves as the eyes and ears on the ground. PCSO Brown explains: “We always engage with people and try to have a bit of banter. We know how to communicate with them and build that rapport so they are happy to approach us.” 

How is the programme working in Darlington? “It has been really effective and worked really well for Darlington,” said Brown. Punishing offenders isn’t always appropriate and sometimes an empathetic approach is needed. “We can tackle it in different ways through education and community resolution. We’re not going to yell at kids but we can approach it in a positive way. A lot of kids get involved with disorder without knowing the repercussions.”

What inspired them to become community support officers? “I just want to have a positive impact on anti-social behaviour in Darlington,” Brown explained. “The police are there to be approached, we’re not scary, and we all want the same goal. We want to crackdown on anti-social behaviour.”