"What's going on? Is it your works' Christmas Dinner?" That was the wry comment from one elderly lady as streams of uniformed cops made their way out of Stockport Plaza and onto the streets of the town centre.
"Has something happened?" another passer-by asks. "That's what we want to get away from," Detective Inspector Michael Jimenez tells me afterwards. "That because we're here there must be a problem, we're here because we want to be out here and visible."
Over 40 officers had just gathered in the town's iconic theatre for a briefing before heading out to locations across the town centre. It is part of a day of action by officers on Operation Rimini, GMP’s dedicated operation to tackle retail crime and anti-social behaviour in Stockport town centre and Edgeley, as well as Operation Acquire, a force wide initiative that targets people suspected of committing offences such as robbery, burglary and vehicle crime.
Two of the officers leading the clampdown say the key to it has been 'getting more boots on the ground.' James Senior, a former Kingsway School pupil from Heald Green, became Beat Sergeant for the Stockport Central Neighbourhood Policing Team in June.
"I am Stockport lad, this is my town. I would come to the town centre on most days. So it means something to me," he told the Manchester Evening News.
It is a town that is undergoing a rapid transformation. A £1bn overhaul of the town centre is underway including a new £135m transport interchange, a new neighbourhood in and around the historic Weir Mill and new offices and business at Stockport Exchange, next to the train station to name but a few. This will see thousands of people moving into and living in the town centre in the coming years.
And the officers say they want to make sure they are 'ahead of the curve' when it comes to crime and ensure it is a welcoming place when scores of new people begin to call it home.
"Over the years I have seen it change" Sgt Senior said. "An area that used to be fields has a business centre on it. So we have new businesses coming in and new infrastructure. Exchange Square near the station, is brilliant now.
"When Coco Savanna's was there the old nightclub and the Grand Central. I was too young really but at the time it wasn't a particularly pleasant place to go, as an 18 or 19-year-old. You thought 'There's a lot thugs there.' But the regeneration of that area alone is a testament is how Stockport is improving.
"And how the bus station and transport hub is going to look. It's going to be more accessible to Manchester city centre. The Metrolink may well come at some point, I imagine. We hope. So it's getting better. Stockport town centre is on the up, it really is. And we will be there to help it."
Asked if that will pose challenges he added: "It will do. Because obviously we're going to have more people living in the town centre and people are going to want to know what their police are doing.
"They'll want it to feel safe. The more people that were coming across. Certainly, when the redevelopment of the bus station is finished, that's going to bring its own challenges. But we're ahead of the game. Honestly, we're ahead of the curve and we're only getting better.'"
DI Jimenez says: "It's setting the tone, I suppose. It's about saying Stockport is a welcoming, fantastic place to live, work, shop, go out and have a nice night.
"It's not welcoming if you're a criminal. If you want to go and cause misery for people that want to come and just live and enjoy themselves here, we have got an issue with you."
When Sgt Senior took up his post in June there were just five dedicated officers on the neighbourhood beat team. He says one of the biggest complaints from those living and working in the town centre was anti-social behaviour. "Aggressive street begging, kids running amok, running up and down the A6 for example. Off-road bikes, doing wheelies up and down the road," he explained.
He now has a team of 14 officers that are left alone to be deployed in the town centre every day and says they have seen a drop in those causing issues as a result.
"It allows us not to be pulled from pillar to post, so to speak," he said. "We're not running around chasing the radio. We're ringfenced to deal with neighbourhood issues.
"It's no more complicated than putting boots on the ground. Being visible to the community, visible to our partners who are saying they want to see us more.
"Making it a toxic environment – and I don't mind us using that word – for those who wish to commit crime, any type of crime. Any type of anti-social behaviour. It's not tolerated anyway but under Operation Rimini we will tackle it, and stop it."
"Although we do have a police car, it's not about that" he continued. "It's about walking about. You can't speak to a member of the public at 30 miles an hour. I'm probably a bit old school in that, I do believe in being out on the beat. When I started, I didn't see a police car for six or seven months. I walked and spoke to people and that's what I'm trying to get back through the younger police officers that are coming through.
"These are the people we should be speaking to, these are our informants, these are our communities, these are the people who are telling us what the problems are, and we can't do that when we're driving past them."
As well as uniformed officers walking the beat, mounted officers also toured the town centre on Wednesday whilst plain clothes officers were also out and about. Sgt Senior says on previous occasions officers have spent time in retail crime hotspots dressed up as staff and customers to help them blend in.
Det Insp Jimenez runs a team dedicated to gathering intelligence regarding and 'going after' those who commit 'high volume' crimes like robbery, burglary and vehicle crime. He tells us that the town centre is one of the places they often see anti-social behaviour morph into more serious offending.
"Offenders who are involved in that sort of crime type will escalate from one thing to the next" he said. "So we come down, get really visible.
"The neighbourhoood cops are out there on the street and we turn that into an actionable product. We take on the information and intelligence and say 'right okay we're going to link to him, and with him.' So it's about building a pictue of who's causing misery in our district and we can go and action that proactively." That includes 'taking out' 'ringleaders' and the 'driving force' for lots of the offending they see.
Stockport Council’s Rough Sleepers Team, Trading Standards, Merseyway Security, Ocean Security and the Wellspring homeless charity are also involved in the operations.
"It works, and is working" Sgt Senior added. "It's noticeable. You can tell by the numbers but also when you're out and about you also get a sense of it."
The force says there was a 50 percent drop IN reported incidents of anti-social behaviour involving youths in the summer holidays compared to last year.
Whilst there have been 1,261 burglaries across the Stockport division in the past 12 months compared to 1,742 the year before - a 28pc reduction, with double the number being solved compared to the previous year. So far this year on the dedicated days of action, the first of which coincided with the opening of the new M+S Food store at the Peel Centre, there have been 36 arrests made and 103 charges.
On Wednesday, five people were arrested on suspicion of several offences including trademark offences after counterfeit goods were offered to plain clothes officers and possession of an offensive weapon after a knuckleduster was discovered.
A person wanted on recall to prison was detained as wasa man wanted over a previous alleged assault on an officer. In addition, a car suspected of being involved in criminal activity was seized and £11,000 of illegal vapes seized in conjunction with Trading Standards, the force said.
Two more days of action are planned next month, which coincide with the peak pre-Christmas shopping period. "This started out with just 15 of us crammed in a tiny office. So it's getting bigger and hopefully it can get even bigger still," Sgt Senior added.
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