Criminal dereliction of duty
When the seaside town of Cromer was overrun by violent gangs of travellers, the police did NOTHING. Was it fear? Political correctness? ROBERT HARDMAN investigates a...
Carnival week was drawing to a triumphal close and the norfolk seaside town of Cromer was in buoyant mood. This year’s parade had been a great success with more than 60 floats and a crowd of 20,000 — three times the town’s population.
The red arrows had done their stuff and local businesses were now anticipating their busiest weekend of the year. Or so they thought. amid all the excitement, no one paid much attention to the first batch of camper vans that started rolling in to the runton road car park on that sunny afternoon four weeks ago. But by early evening, 22 motorhomes and several caravans belonging to an extended family of around 100 irish travellers, had arrived.
Shortly afterwards, this grand old resort, where Edward vii played golf, was enduring its worst weekend in living memory, with dozens of crimes, including an alleged rape, and thousands of pounds in lost takings. These new arrivals had not come for the carnival or the seafood — Cromer is renowned for its crab — or for the famous end- of-the-pier variety show. They were in search of alcohol and food, preferably without paying for it.
and once it was clear the police were not applying the same rules which routinely apply to the residents, the visitors ran riot.
as reports of threatening behaviour, scuffles and unpaid bills quickly spread, one bar after another reluctantly decided to shut. in one incident, between 30 and 40 men pillaged the drinks cabinet of an indian restaurant, injuring the owner’s wife, as police officers sat in three cars across the road doing nothing.
a petrol station was forced to close after being ransacked in broad daylight for the fourth time in one day — by feral children.
Terrified locals took to social media with reports of Cromer being in ‘lockdown’, a phrase usually associated with terror attacks rather than yobbish behaviour. no one in Cromer could recall anything like it. Yet, by the end of a whole weekend of lawlessness, the number of arrests had reached the grand total of none.
What enraged locals even more than the lack of police activity, however, was the way in which their complaints were dismissed.
With an arrogance bordering on dereliction of duty, norfolk’s Deputy Chief Constable, nick Dean, told residents that this had been nothing more than an ‘isolated incident’.
What’s more, the locals were told they were being ‘totally disproportionate’ in pinning the blame on the travellers. as for the alleged rape, police insisted there was no connection. Despite being forced to witness violent threats, looting and daylight robbery, the people of Cromer were effectively being told: ‘Move along, now. nothing to see here.’
as the local lib Dem MP, norman lamb, who was in Cromer that weekend, puts it: ‘The police messages were not just wrong. They were almost designed to wind people up.’
Yet the police had one huge problem. as they were later forced to admit, nearly all the incidents reported in the course of that miserable weekend — one alleged rape, three public order offences, three common assaults, one damaged vehicle and the theft of numerous items including alcohol, ice creams, phone chargers, hats, sunglasses and even buckets and spades — turned out to be true.
On top of that were all the incidents which had not been formally reported and a small fortune in lost business.
and so it was, a few days ago, that norfolk’s Chief Constable, Simon Bailey, arrived in Cromer on bended knee. He had a confession.
The yobbery and thieving had not been an ‘isolated incident’, after all. it had been a genuine crime wave and the police, as Mr Bailey admitted, had failed. ‘i’m sorry for the way that you rightly feel let down,’ he told a heated public meeting.
‘There’s no doubt, knowing what i know now, that we did not get the policing right that weekend. That was a bloody horrible weekend. i cannot recall a weekend like that in the past decade.’
asked about the damage to local businesses, he even advised traders to pursue a civil claim.
as for the rape, having originally denied any link with the travellers, the police had revised their position.
‘While at the time we didn’t connect [it] to the group, we are now absolutely connecting,’ said Mr Bailey. Three men have now been arrested in connection with the attack.
TWO words, however, were missing from the Chief Constable’s mea culpa: political correctness. Why else were the police so willing to mislead the public about the extent of the trouble and about the identity of those responsible?
Had Cromer been overrun by a gang of football hooligans, would the police have brushed it off as a minor matter unconnected to football?
Cromer knows the answer to that one. While residents have broadly welcomed the police chief’s apology, there remains anger and astonishment that this could have happened in the first place.
Much of north norfolk depends on tourism (worth £490 million a year) and Cromer is the biggest seaside resort in the district. This explains why many traders would prefer to expunge this whole sorry story from the news — and why they won’t talk to me. They don’t want this place portrayed as ‘rough’.
Others, however, are keen to blow Cromer’s trumpet. District councillor Hilary Cox assures me that this was a freak episode. i need no persuading. Having stayed on this stretch of coast earlier in the summer, i can vouch for its stirring clifftop walks, for the quality of its seafood, for its old world charm. rough it is not.
The residents are also angry at media suggestions that Cromer is hostile to travellers. They point to a report in the Guardian newspaper which naively suggested that the travellers were peaceful pilgrims making an annual trip to the nearby Shrine Of Our lady at Walsingham.
‘We have always had travellers here and they are very welcome,’ says the Mayor of Cromer, John Frosdick. ‘But none behaved like this lot.’
WALSINGHAM had been celebrating the Feast Of The assumption on august 15, an event attended by many travellers each year. This summer was no exception. a Walsingham spokesman says that there was no trouble at all.
Those travellers lighting candles and saying prayers at the shrine had nothing to do with the gang terrorising Cromer a few days later. For police intelligence shows that the thugs had not come via Walsingham but from lowestoft in Suffolk.
So any attempt to paint them as devout pilgrims is clearly tripe. indeed, the mainstream travelling community should be as angry as everyone else because their own reputation has been dragged through the mire.
‘i have absolutely no problem with people who choose to lead a different way of life and live peacefully in a caravan,’ says lawrie Scott of Breakers Cafe. ‘But we all have a problem with a gang of hooligans who come to rob our town.’
What irks everyone here is the clear application of double standards.
Mayor Frosdick speaks for most when he says: ‘if you or i behaved the way these people did, the police would be down on us right away. But that didn’t happen and we want to know why.’
For an answer, they need only look at the catalogue of failings which have occurred when public bodies allow fear and political correctness to trump common sense.
Shocking cases of sexual abuse by asian ‘ grooming’ gangs in rotherham, rochdale, Oxford and newcastle are all examples of the way in which authority can be more fearful of a charge of racism than a charge of incompetence. We see the same mindset prevailing week after week.
Hence, Manchester royal infirmary’s decision to set aside a free parking area for travellers while everyone else visiting family members in the hospital must pay £15 a day, on pain of a fine or being towed away.
Or there was Canterbury City Council’s decision to allow travellers to park illegally for free for four days at a car park in Herne Bay while 24 non-travellers were fined in the same place over the same period.
a spokesman said the council gave the travellers an exemption to avoid ‘inflaming the situation’.
Does officialdom begin to understand how corrosive these small decisions can be for social cohesion? it’s hardly justice ‘ without fear or favour’. The people of Cromer feel much the same.
My journey begins at the runton road car park, a popular clifftop spot on the edge of town with dramatic sea views.
a large council sign makes it clear that camping is forbidden and that the daily parking charge is £7.
it was here that the irish travellers parked their motorhomes — without paying. around town, traffic wardens were slapping tickets on other cars over that weekend. But not here.
alongside this car park stood the marquee for the big party to mark the end of Cromer’s carnival week.
As early reports of trouble around town filtered through, they were soon calling in security reinforcements. Carnival chairman Tim Shipp says some travellers were caught trying to climb over the security fence without paying.
By now, dozens of travellers had left the Albion pub without settling a bill of more than £100.
At around the same time, Danny Hickling was closing up his Little Gems jewellery shop when he realised that £1,000 of gems had gone. More items had been stolen in one afternoon than in 18 years. He has given his CCTV film to the police.
At Cromer Social Club, a large group of travellers demanded drinks as last orders were called and were asked to leave. When they refused the steward, Jeremy Garner, called the police.
Shortly before midnight, half a dozen officers arrived and asked them to leave, a request that was ignored. The police then left.
‘The travellers had turned up with this pushchair which turned out not to have a baby in it but it was carrying a lot of drink, so they just carried on,’ explains Mr Garner.
It was at around this time that the alleged rape took place at the local bus station.
Finally, at 2am, the police returned with reinforcements. The travellers then left — again with a three-figure drinks bill unpaid. The following day there were further reports of pilfering and abusive behaviour all over town.
By Saturday teatime, Morrisons petrol station had shut following reports of repeated shoplifting by gangs of children. Staff say they are forbidden to talk about it. Back at the Cromer Social Club, staff had reopened at lunchtime but, as further reports of unrest began to circulate, the management decided to close for the rest of the day.
Not only would it mean forfeiting thousands of pounds in takings but the club would still have to pay £300 for the band. In the Wellington pub the atmosphere grew increasingly tense as 30 travellers became ‘rowdy’ with staff.
Here, the manager, too, decided to close — whereupon the group moved on to lay siege to Mary Jane’s Fish and Chip Shop. ‘They just barged to the front and started shouting abuse when we asked them to join the queue,’ says duty manager Ian Cooper, 41.
Unsurprisingly, staff here decided to close — at which point, one traveller tried to kick in the door and threatened to smash the window.
At the nearby Masala Twist Indian restaurant, another large group of travellers were starting to disturb other customers. When owner Nashim Uddin asked them
to leave, the travellers started grabbing bottles of alcohol.
As Mr Uddin’s wife, Ayrun, and nephew, Jamil, vainly tried to retrieve the stolen booze, she had her arm slammed in a door.
Three police vehicles and a dog handler were across the road and Jamil says he ran over for help.
He later told the Eastern Daily Press that he asked an officer to use the dog but was told the officers felt ‘ outnumbered’. Jamil explained: ‘The officers said: ‘‘If it kicks off, the dog will get injured.’’ I was really angry at this point.’
The police say this incident is one of many now under review. Eventually, the travellers moved on. With nowhere to drink in Cromer, several car-loads set off towards neighbouring East and West Runton.
Understandably, locals want to know whether any of them was stopped and breathalysed. Norfolk Police is not saying, but insist this point will be addressed in their review.
Come Sunday morning, there were yet more reports of trouble, including a scuffle at a caravan park, before the gang finally moved on. Today, weeks later, a court order is pinned up in the car park, listing the travellers’ number plates and warning them not to return.
For their part, the police have sent me a long statement explaining that they have commissioned a wide-ranging report and will give their recommendations shortly.
Local MP Norman Lamb says he’ll ensure there is no cover-up: ‘The police feel bruised by this, but it is in their interests to be as transparent as possible.’
Cromer has not forgotten the — belated — words of Chief Constable Simon Bailey: ‘ you’ve got to give me a chance to rebuild your trust. What happened that weekend cannot happen again.’
As they endeavour to restore their town’s reputation for crab, not crime, residents will certainly be holding him to his pledge.
yet, does anyone seriously imagine that this is the last time that authority permits fear and political correctness to trump the safety of a local community?
Genteel: But Cromer was rocked by a weekend of unchecked traveller crime