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A blueprint for maritime policing

From eco-protestors and people smuggling to OCGs and CT operations, no two days are the same for Hampshire’s maritime unit. Three award-winning members of the team tell Police Oracle about the realities of working at sea.

Maritime policing is in the news right now due to people smuggling gangs and migrants attempting to cross the Channel in small boats. 

For one of the forces involved it’s also a world away from the super yachts and regattas that drop anchor for Cowes week - another task in their schedule.

The team running Hampshire’s Maritime Support Unit have an added complexity: they must deliver supporting roles in other areas while policing the 260 miles of coast that includes the Isle of Wight and a strategically vital naval base.

But the six-strong team – supported by six others including Specials - have achieved some significant wins, and shown other government enforcement organisations they have serious capability.

Three officers from the unit, which is shared with Thames Valley Police as part of the Joint Operations Unit, have now won awards from the National Police Chiefs’ Council for their work in transforming maritime policing on a national level.

Sgt Matt Gransden wrote the 2017 NPCC Maritime Manual and developed the concept of Swift Water Rescue Technicians.

PC Ben Popham was instrumental in developing the M-Tac (Marine Tactical Adviser) role nationally.

And as Inspector for the Joint Operations unit, Guy Summers received his award for his tactical leadership as well as his role in the delivery of the G7 as one of the Bronze commanders afloat with the Royal Navy.

Their expertise has been developed policing a stretch of water that is ranked in the top-20 of the world’s busiest shipping lanes (the English Channel is number one). There are two cities – Southampton and Portsmouth – plus a commercial port and a huge naval port.

Plus there’s the tourist hub of the Isle of Wight which doubles in population between June and September. The team provide back up for response teams on the island - the contingency arrives by water.

PC Popham says: “The demand for emergency services is huge.”

How do they do it?

Sgt Gransden says: “There’s quite a lot of personal sacrifice; we’re one of the smallest teams in the country. Everyone takes pride in what they do.”

Everything can suddenly change. On the previous day to their interview, the team had been sat in on a call about national frameworks when, he reveals: “In the middle of that we got a call that someone was about to jump off a bridge. And we were stood down half way to the boat.”

The team’s log for just one week in October shows the range of work they undertake: joint swift water training with Hampshire Fire and Rescue, a sub-surface sonar search, public order training in the marine environment, marine training new reservists, joint investigations with Harbour Masters and assistance with a fire on board a ferry. Other deployments included dealing with stolen vehicles, violence and public order, and proactive drugs stops. The team also located and recovered a stolen boat and returned it to its rightful owner. 

Operations this year have included supporting Thames Valley colleagues at the annual Henley regatta on the Thames and providing part of the marine response at the G7 summit in Cornwall.

They’re also on the Brexit frontline checking licences during searches on fishing vessels. PC Popham was called in to advise on the policing of the French fishing protest in Jersey.

There’s a critical issue that the media and some politicians have failed to understand.

Insp Summers says: “The legislation of maritime is not the same as it is on land. If you board the wrong boat in the wrong part of the Channel, you’ll create an international diplomatic incident. People’s assessments are that you can put land-used legislation on the water. It’s not that simple.”

To illustrate the legal differences, he uses an example of a situation during G7 when barriers were being planned for a private beach.

“Because it’s not an area policing usually sits in, we were able to advise,” he says. “We were able to tell a planning team ‘you don’t realise people can walk up to the barrier. It’s only private on the dry side of the beach.”

Sgt Grandsen wrote the NPCC Maritime policing manual 

The approach has to be right too when boarding a vessel as the owners are often executives or senior legal experts.

Sgt Gransden reveals: “There are judges, barristers and people who sit at company board level who own vessels. They are not used to being told what to do and they don’t suffer fools.”

Despite the high-profile jobs, the team refuse to see themselves as being different because of the realities of life at sea.

Sgt Gransden tells Police Oracle: “Our mantra we work to is ‘we’re not special, we just arrive in a boat’. It’s very, very important for us to do our job properly and stay grounded. It’s even more important to be that way because there’s no support. Things go very, very wrong very, very quickly at sea. And we’re the only officers on the force that can do it.”

The core team consists of six people but they are also currently training two special constables to crew the boat and there’s a volunteer boatswain, a retired officer aged 68, who checks over the boat.

So what does a typical day look like?

It’s a form of neighbourhood policing with harbour masters and marinas staff as points of contact to do traditional policing.

“Where we slot into the bigger picture is on a day to basis, we are the community presence. We’re their local link,” says Sgt Gransden.

“They have the snippets, they see what’s slightly wrong. That approach has led to NCA operations just in the last two weeks. We’ve had a lot of jobs that come out of the ground-level engagement. And we have the capacity to do those interceptions. That’s starting to be recognised by other partners.”

Intelligence is crucial as fishing boats have long been a cover for OGCs.

He explains: “The environment lends itself to serious criminality, inevitably because of the low level of detection.”

It’s not just OGC activity; there are regular MAPPA visits to an offender who is living on a yacht, something which is quite common in maritime policing.

The geographical base isn’t just Hampshire; the South West Regional Crime Unit was given support recently for the arrest of a major suspect who was living on a houseboat on the Thames.

The team also support different government agencies plus the governments of the Channel Islands and Jersey.

They are getting busier due to the development of the Marine Security Centre in Southampton which is working as a hub for the NCA, Border Agency, counter terrorism police, regional crime units, MoD staff and partners with specialist international knowledge.

PC Popham says: “You have to do it in partnership. Information sharing is beginning to pay dividends but there’s still work to do. Some agencies are still very protective of their information but some people are becoming more open and they can see we can add support to an operation.”

That partnership work also saw the team have a significant role in G7. It began with community meetings in Cornwall and engagement with protest groups.

Insp Summers says the disruption was a huge jolt for the local maritime community: “For hundreds of years, people have been using that stretch of water – and then you put in a temporary harbour which would limit people’s right to fish and more.”

He adds: “The maritime protests that we’re now starting to see are quite a new concept. Years ago, a Greenpeace protest would involve a big ship like Rainbow Warrior. Now it’s lots of little boats, kayaks and paddleboards; they’re cheaper and more accessible. They are more difficult to control and the risks to them are much higher.”

Insp Summers reveals a novel solution was created: “We took protest groups out on the water, led by a habour master who is an expert, to show them how dangerous it could be because of tides and so on. That was a really bit of management on our part. We weren’t saying no, just making clear it would be really dangerous for them.”

An issue for the G7 was the environment and being in direct contact with the marine environment has also focused the team’s thoughts.

The operation in Cornwall brought it home, according to Insp Summers: “They live in an area of outstanding natural beauty. When we went down to do an assessment, there was a whale in the bay. It was a very meaningful piece of work.”

There’s also some early working going on to horizon scan how forces will need to meet the zero carbon targets. Boats made from recycled material are already being ordered.

Sgt Gransden says: “The boating industry has quite a challenge on achieving a new sustainability approach in the future. The two issues are build and propulsion. Hydrogen propulsion is at an advanced stage. There’s a volatility risk but that’s the way forward. Yes, there are electric motors but the technology for that isn’t where it should be to support a policing model.”

He adds: “Most boats are made of GRP [glass reinforced plastic] so the designs do lend themselves to a recycled material and aluminium hulls are rapidly becoming a thing.”

The future also includes developing a single rule book for all forces to follow, something Sgt Gransden has been heavily involved in.

A national framework to standardise training and standards for public order work are being developed. By the end of next year there will be standard national qualifications for everything from jet ski use to protest tactics.

Could this be the best job in policing?

Insp Summers says: “In January in a Force 5 with everything freezing is a challenge. But that’s about it. I think we’re in a very privileged position.”

The trio are pragmatic, awards and high profile incidents are rewarding but their survival depends on being a good team.

And that’s what matters, according to Sgt Gransden: “Some more people haven’t been recognised and they keep other things ticking along. They do the things that don’t have their name on. We’re a real family.”

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