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90 non-stop minutes: We join police as they tackle daytime drinkers and troublemakers in Aberdeen city centre

We witnessed officers deal with "aggressive and abusive" behaviour, several incidents of street drinking and an assault... All on a mid-week afternoon.

PC Christopher Cowley and PC Jordan Rae on patrol at Aberdeen city centre.
In just 90 minutes, police confiscated nearly a dozen of bottles and cans of booze from problem drinkers at Aberdeen city centre. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

“I don’t feel safe in the city centre,” Miriam Gonzales tells me.

Just minutes ago, she witnessed a man being beaten up on Union Street. It’s 3pm.

And standing in the middle of St Nicholas Square, the 21-year-old shares how worried she is about the “intimidating” street drinkers she passes on her way to work every day.

As an employee at Bon Accord Centre, she is no stranger to rowdy groups roaming about with cans of booze.

Listing a series of incidents where she felt “threatened” by someone being “loud or aggressive”, Miriam says she is now scared to walk in this area on her own.

Miriam says she always has her boyfriend or her brother accompany her so she could feel safe when going out and about. Image: Denny Andonova/DC Thomson.

“Just another day in Aberdeen,” Miriam says through an awkward chuckle.

“Every single weekend, every busy night, there is something happening – whether that would be someone walking about drunk or even worse.

“It’s insane, and it happens all the time – again, and again, and again.”

What can happen in just 90 minutes at Aberdeen city centre…

Miriam is far from alone.

There’s been a tsunami of complaints about street drinkers and youths causing havoc in the city centre in recent weeks and months.

It’s thought that problems have become more noticeable since the pandemic, with issues more visible on otherwise deserted streets.

PC Rae and PC Cowley patrol the streets of Aberdeen city centre regularly. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

So we wanted to find out just what it was like for police tasked with keeping the area safe.

I joined Inspector John Lumsden and two of his officers for an eye-opening 90 minutes – that at times felt like being transported into an action film.

Myself and our photographer were there when PC Jordan Rae, 29, and PC Christopher Cowley, 35, dealt with an “aggressive and abusive” man just outside Marks and Spencer.

And we were on the front line as they confiscated drink – just before Insp Lumsden chased a man up Union Street after an assault.

Councillor Jennifer Stewart is requesting colleagues refer to her as Councillor Mrs Stewart - in an effort to "protect her gender". Image: Heather Fowlie/DC Thomson.
Councillor Jennifer Stewart is among the people who have raised concerns about troubled individuals often seen “drinking and shouting” at St Nicholas Square. Image: Heather Fowlie/DC Thomson.

What are the main hotspots for street drinking?

I meet Insp Lumsden at the Aberdeen police station in Marischal College on a sunny, yet breezy mid-week afternoon. It’s 2pm.

He has been in charge of the city centre since January.

As we prepare to hit the streets, he tells me about the main hotspots for antisocial behaviour and street drinking in the city.

Inspector John Lumsden has been leading the teams keeping the city centre and Rosemount since the start of the year. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

These include St Nicholas Square, the rooftop garden of Bon Accord Centre overlooking it, and the Adelphi lane.

How an afternoon of mayhem began

A short brief on health and safety – mainly to reassure me I will be protected no matter what happens – and we are ready to join PC Rae and PC Cowley on their patrol.

Both of them have been working here for about six years, so they know the city centre – and some of their “regulars” – very well.

The plan is to go around St Nicholas Square, the rooftop garden, Union Terrace Gardens and then Castlegate and Adelphi. It’s all expected to take an hour or two.

You’ll see how that worked out.

PC Christopher Cowley and PC Jordan Rae outside M&S at Aberdeen city centre.
The area outside M&S is popular not only for shoppers, but problem drinkers. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

Just as we set foot at St Nicholas Square, an elderly lady stops me and Insp Lumsden at the doors of Marks and Spencer – looking a bit troubled at first.

“Are you the Inspector?” she asks as I brace myself, wondering what’s about to follow…

“These officers of yours are fantastic – can’t find a fault in them. They are fair, non-judgmental, firm but with good sense of humour.”

Relieved, I look across the square to find PC Rae and PC Cowley, who had disappeared for a moment.

Obviously, Insp Lumsden was quite happy to hear praise for the officers. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

“Delighted” to hear such good feedback about his officers, Insp Lumsden promises me “this was not a plug” – although he admits it was very well timed.

And then, things took a sudden turn…

15 minutes in: First incident of the day – but not the last

A rabble of raised voices breaks through the murmur of shoppers going about their day.

While Insp Lumsden and I had been chatting, PC Rae and PC Cowley had stopped an “aggressive and verbally abusive” man who was gesticulating angrily at them.

Within a few seconds, the man is raising his voice even further and throwing punches in the air as he hurls abuse at the policemen.

And from my point of view, it doesn’t seem like the bobbies are winning him over.

St Nicholas Square is one of the main hotspots for street drinking and antisocial behaviour in Aberdeen. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson.

After several more minutes, the pair turn to us with smiles on their faces – so I ask about what happened.

“He didn’t seem to happy with us now, did he?” PC Cowley jokes.

“We gave him advice to watch himself in the city centre, especially when there are children around. He said he’ll take that into consideration.

“We deal with this kind of things all the time. It’s not nice to have to do it, but we just keep our cool and do our job.”

‘It’s necessary that we step in’

He’s barely finished the sentence when they need to jump into action again.

Right across from us, a woman is taking a sip of beer at the Clydesdale Bank ATMs, trying to hide the two cans from view.

PC Christopher Cowley and PC Jordan Rae talking to a woman at Aberdeen city centre after confiscating several cans of beers from her.
PC Rae and PC Cowley took the woman’s details and issued her with a fixed penalty notice. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

Since the beginning of September, more than 60 people have been charged in relation to drinking on the city centre streets, which is prohibited under Aberdeen bylaws.

It’s recently been claimed that crowds of people visibly drinking could be holding back the renaissance of the area, even deterring cruise ship visitors.

While PC Rae and PC Cowley deal with the unhappy woman, Insp Lumsden explains to me what happens in these cases.

He stresses that while their behaviour is certainly not justified, neither of the two incidents have posed a direct threat to the public.

PC Jordan Rae disposing of a bottle of wine he has confiscated at Aberdeen city centre.
PC Rae putting a bottle of wine in the bin after stopping someone drinking in the street. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

“It’s still absolutely necessary that we step in,” he says.

“That person is drinking on the street now, but we don’t know what type of behaviour she will display in the city centre after she becomes more intoxicated.

“That’s why early intervention by the officers – removal of the alcohol and dealing with her appropriately – would hopefully prevent that behaviour from escalating.”

CCTV keeps an eye on everyone – even when officers are not around

Insp Lumsden goes on to say it’s hard to predict how often their services will be required – it all depends on weather, time of day and even chance.

The closure of the nearby St Nicholas graveyard has helped reduce the number of street drinkers to an extent, but it has also resulted in some of them just moving elsewhere.

This is where their vast CCTV network comes in, Insp Lumsden says, while pointing at at the camera right next to us.

There are hundreds of CCTV cameras like this one all across the city. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

“We are always watching,” he adds.

“Our CCTV operatives monitor the area all the time.

“And if there is any risk of an incident related to antisocial behaviour – or if they think things might escalate – we’ll direct our resources there to prevent it.

“But just because they can’t see an officer, doesn’t mean we don’t see what’s going on.”

An unexpected turn of events…

By this point, we had been dealing with troublemakers in the city centre for about 30 minutes – tackling one issue straight after the other.

PC Rae and PC Cowley had issued one fixed penalty notice and charged two people with street drinking.

My colleagues had joked earlier in the day that I should have geared up with a bulletproof vest, spelling out the word “PRESS”, for my adventures with police.

The St Nicholas graveyard is now being locked at nights.
The St Nicholas graveyard is now being locked at nights. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson.

Gladly, there are no bullets involved – but still a part of me wishes I do have one given the whirlwind in just half an hour. Just in case.

Surely that would be it for the day, I thought.

Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Just then, a shout echoes through St Nicholas Square: “A boy has just been assaulted!”

It’s Miriam and a friend of hers, who had just seen the drama unfold outside HSBC Bank on Union Street.

One of the reason the rooftop garden of Bon Accord Centre is so popular among street drinkers is because it has seating, as well as shelter if the weather is bad. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

Suddenly, a stern look appears on my uniformed companions’ faces.

While PC Rae and PC Cowley are interviewing the victim and some of the witnesses, Insp Lumsden spots the perpetrator running up the street.

And in the spur of the moment, he is off chasing the man – carefully making his way through the scores of oblivious pedestrians.

He returns with good news.

The man had been arrested on Windmill Brae and issued with a recorded police warning for what officers call “a common assault”.

Insp Lumsden had to step in when the man tried to escape among the crowds. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

Or in other words, there was some pre-existing conflict between the pair involved and the victim had suffered no injuries.

It’s time to return to our routine duties – and there is still more to come…

Why St Nicholas Square so popular with street drinkers?

In a brief moment of quiet after an hour of action, I finally get to ask some questions.

The trio had been so preoccupied that I had barely had time to talk to them – and we hadn’t even left St Nicholas Square yet.

I wonder why street drinking and antisocial behaviour is so concentrated here.

Finally getting to catch up with the three of them following a string of incidents. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

“Probably not the answer you would expect, but it comes back to these individuals’ vulnerabilities,” explains Insp Lumsden.

“There are charities that distribute foodbanks at some of these locations and these people might simply be coming to get their daily dose of food or drink.”

He says that while issues with youths hellbent on wreaking havoc may have dropped in the last few months, incidents with problem drinkers appear to persist.

But uprooting the problem as a whole is a lot more complicated.

Street Friends volunteers at Aberdeen city centre.
Volunteers at Street Friends can often be seen outside M&S, offering supplies to vulnerable and homeless people of Aberdeen. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

He adds: “The challenging part is that this is a lifestyle, and this is how they have behaved over a number of years.

“Alcoholism and substance misuse is an addiction and an illness, so it’s really difficult for police to deal with it on their own.

“Enforcement works to a degree but it’s really important that there is intervention work with these people to support them and divert them away from criminality.”

Have you had any issues with problem drinkers in the city centre? Let us know in our comments section below

‘Offering support to street drinkers is key’

He insists their ongoing work with businesses, charities and the council is key to resolving the issue.

And at the heart of the effort is understanding why these particular areas are so favourable, and how they can help problem drinkers turn their lives around.

We later bump into Detective Sergeant Scott McKay, who leads Operation Protector.

The programme was launched in December 2021 to offer advice about alcohol and drug addiction to those affected.

PC Rae and PC Cowley holding a bottle of wine they have confiscated from an Aberdeen city centre street drinker.
In just four weeks this September, 60 people were charged with street drinking. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

Within just two days, the team has helped 184 people solely within the city centre.

“The important thing we need to recognise is that this is a dependency,” Det Sgt McKay says.

“She may have chosen to take her first drop of alcohol, but she never chose to be dependent on it. And this is where we come in to signpost them to the right support.”

We shake hands and head back to work.

Group of ‘disruptive’ youths marks the end of a busy afternoon

Before I know it, we are heading to our final stop, Adelphi.

PC Rae and PC Cowley look cheery as ever – despite all the action during our time together. I, on the other hand, not so much.

Nothing has happened in about 20 minutes – the quiet before the storm, I think to myself.

And just like that a concerned local complains about a group of teenagers causing disruption outside the Union Street exit of Vue Cinema.

Insp Lumsden explains there is more than meets the eye when it comes to problem drinkers in the city centre. Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

The incident is done and dusted quickly though, as the officers go on to speak to them and all 10 of the youths disperse in an instant.

“They were actually quite friendly,” PC Rae tells me after.

“That’s the thing – most of the teenagers that come into the city centre don’t cause trouble. They are just young and tend to be louder than others would like them to be.”

Is the media one to blame?

As our city centre adventure winds down to end, I ask PC Rae and PC Cowley about how they deal with this on a daily basis.

My question is met with a smile and a quiet sigh.

“You just need to keep your cool and not let the occasional abusive comments get to you,” PC Cowley says.

“The most important thing is being personable with people – talking to them about their problems, and trying to understand their vulnerabilities.

Image: Darrell Benns/DC Thomson.

“Everybody has a story. And while a lot of their behaviour can be explained, it’s not necessarily excused. It doesn’t justify the way they act.”

We briefly move on to a more touchy subject right before we say our goodbyes – the media’s role in the portrayal of street drinking and antisocial behaviour in the city.

It’s probably a fitting discussion given recent articles in The Press and Journal and Evening Express – but as I put my point across, they seem to be in agreement.

We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that none of these issues exist.

But what we can do is highlight officers’ efforts and hard work to make Aberdeen a safer place.

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