I went on a dramatic police chase - and it showed me what it's really like for officers

Left to right: Inspector Sam Girdlestone, PC Jake Williams, Acting Sergeant James Nickless and PC Stacey Mehen of Chelmsford Community Policing Team
Left to right: Inspector Sam Girdlestone, PC Jake Williams, Acting Sergeant James Nickless and PC Stacey Mehen of Chelmsford Community Policing Team -Credit:EssexLive

You will hear a great deal about the actions of Essex Police every day. From attending road traffic collisions, and apprehending serious criminals, right up to keeping watch over your local Sunday market. Every area of the county has its own story and dynamics at play, and it's clear no policing shift is the same, day in, day out.

So what happens within a few hours of one police team's shift in Chelmsford, in the very centre of the county? EssexLive were invited to join the Chelmsford Community Policing Team for a few hours on Friday morning (May 10), to see the work officers are doing. It's during a week of intensive action by the police, named Operation Stronghold, to tackle anti-social behaviour and knife crime.

At the very beginning of the day, we're introduced to one of the team's top officers - Inspector Sam Girdlestone. He has more than 23 years of policing under his belt, beginning as a PC before progressing to becoming a firearms officer, and now an inspector overseeing the city of Chelmsford. Sam introduces us to the workings of the team, before telling us the work we'll be observing.

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The day will mainly be focused on responding to hits from ANPR [Automatic Numberplate Recognition] cameras, and investigating the intelligence on those vehicles. He fills me in on the policing scene in Chelmsford, sharing ongoing work against known Organised Crime Groups (OCGs), who coordinate thefts of vehicles and bicycles, among other criminal activity.

He tells me there are seven known groups operating in the Chelmsford area, and we're about to find out more details on them, as before we head out on patrol, we go into a briefing for the full team on various parties of interest that officers could come across when on the streets of Chelmsford. These include members of the aforementioned gangs and others who have conditions not to enter certain parts of the city.

We hear of a number of suspects who have been linked to a serious knife attack in the Wingstop restaurant in Springfield Road in the city centre several weeks ago. Sam informs us this was an incident where the victim - believed to be a member of one gang - was chased into the kitchen of the restaurant by a rival gang member who tried to seriously injure him with a machete. Thankfully, he was not injured, with a 16-year-old boy now set to stand trial for aggravated burglary on August 6 at Southend Magistrates' Court.

The briefing continues, and one particular suspect, a 19-year-old male, was described by intelligence as the leader of a gang who moved to Essex after being "shot and stabbed" in London. He had been kicked out of his family home, and was described as "particularly nasty", a man who "doesn't think twice about inflicting harm or stabbing people". This took me back, as it highlighted some of the serious dangers officers will face when heading out on patrol.

Spreading around the city centre

The briefing concludes, and all officers head out into the city - including two plain clothes officers. We then head out into the centre of Chelmsford in a patrol car driven by Sam. Almost immediately, there is a hit from an ANPR camera on the edge of the city. As the intelligence on the vehicle is assessed, the team moves to pull it over and question the driver. The vehicle is followed from the Army and Navy roundabout to opposite Chelmsford Market on Victoria Road South.

It's a female driver, who also has a child in the car. Officers discover that the woman in question was arrested several days ago on suspicion of bringing an article into a prison in Northamptonshire, and is likely to face a prosecution. The team have legal grounds to search the vehicle and the woman; however, nothing untoward is uncovered, and she's sent on her way.

Police searching the female driver and vehicle near Parkway, Chelmsford
Police searching the female driver and vehicle near Parkway, Chelmsford -Credit:EssexLive

Sam tells us that in situations like these, around 60 per cent of the time the intel is positive, leading to a discovery upon a search, and 40 per cent of the time it ends up being "nothing", but there will always be a reason why the car has a marker which is picked up by the ANPR cameras. It is a matter for the officers to assess the intel and determine how best to proceed.

As we continue our patrols, Sam fills us in on some of the code words used over the police radio, including "eyeball" which is when an officer has sight of a suspect or vehicle. The team we're with today has one channel focused for them, with another radio for wider police communications in the area - which includes first response teams - also operating in the vehicle.

Seeing how the previous woman will be allowed on her way without further action, I ask the inspector if he has had many adverse reactions by people who are stopped by police. It turns out, he's had many who were deeply unhappy. He said: "[When] you're reacting really badly, you're raising my suspicions more, I want to search you, but I don't have any legal power to do it, so you have to take it on the chin."

As we continue, a flurry of calls come in over the radio; in the space of two minutes we have a report of men in balaclavas riding a moped across fields in Melbourne before disappearing into the woods, another report of cannabis being dealt in another park, and a rogue sheep who has been let loose on one road. Even on a Friday morning, which is unquestionably a quiet period compared to a night shift, it's striking the variety of reports police receive.

As Sam continues on his routes around Chelmsford, we receive further intelligence of a known drug dealer smoking cannabis in Central Park, and the team focuses their efforts on his last movements. As we arrive at the last known location, I see another patrol car in the distance, and then as we approach a junction near Virgin Gym, I spot the two plain clothes officers also walking in the same direction.

Inspector Sam Girdlestone receives intel as he drives the patrol vehicle in Chelmsford
Inspector Sam Girdlestone receives intel as he drives the patrol vehicle in Chelmsford -Credit:EssexLive

While the suspect is not located, there were two striking things from this encounter; the coordination of three separate units converging quickly on one location, and just how well these plain clothed officers blend in. I would never have seen them coming, but the knowledge of who they really were gave me that little bit of reassurance that police are out there in our communities, monitoring for criminals.

Sam says that drug dealers are now beginning their shifts earlier and earlier. As we discuss this, it's 10.30am, a time when families will be out and about at the same time as these people. We head up to Melbourne to try and trace the two men on the moped crossing the fields. While there's no sign for us to see, other teams are already tracing them, and by the end of our time with the police, progress is being made.

In regards to Melbourne itself, this is a very busy area for the Chelmsford team. "There's lots of people causing us problems," Sam says. "It's because of a lot of social housing and depravation. It's a location where a lot of people that cause a lot of problems all live together."

We next head to the Clocktower Retail Park, where it's been reported that a homeless man may be in breach of a Criminal Behaviour Order preventing him from carrying out certain actions. There's no sign of him here, and we continue on. Sam says homelessness and begging are a constant problem for the police, claiming that some like the lifestyle and want to remain that way.

He said police assist in getting them a place to stay, but then they're back on the streets. He said: "They end up renting the homes out themselves. Then they get cuckooed and exploited. A handful of prolific homeless people in the county are like that."

A slick operation to bring a dramatic end to the journey

Our ride along with Sam is about to come to an end, when another call comes through on his radio. It's another ANPR camera which has clocked a vehicle of interest by the Metropolitan Police in London. The vehicle is linked to two separate attacks where a corrosive substance was used in Enfield. So, off we go to intercept it.

The car has been picked up on the A414 coming into Chelmsford, and once again as it travels down New London Road. One of Insp Girdlestone's team gives him a description and the number plate, so we head to the scene. As we approach the traffic lights near the Kwik Fit garage, Sam spots the vehicle waiting in the queue. He immediately informs the rest of his team and other patrol cars are mobilised to head to our location.

What follows next is a genuinely impressive, swift and slick operation to pull the vehicle over. As we follow it to the end of New London Road and onto Parkway, Sam is relaying every movement and change to the team on his radio. We follow the car around the roundabout next to the High Chelmer multi-storey, back onto Parkway. At this point I can see another marked patrol car on blue-lights racing to join us.

But then, out of nowhere, the team's unmarked police car appears behind us and stops right in front of the suspect vehicle, with us pulling in behind. Seconds later, the third patrol car arrives and boxes the vehicle in from the right. The two occupants of the car are taken onto the pavement, where they're searched by the team.

The patrol cars having pulled over the vehicle which housed a suspect in two acid attacks
The patrol cars having pulled over the vehicle which housed a suspect in two acid attacks -Credit:EssexLive

While this is primarily a Met Police case, Essex Police are the first line of defence of a potentially dangerous suspect in a serious attack. The officers' professionalism in explaining the situation to the two people, before they're both searched and identified is impressive. A male occupant is searched by a male officer, and a female is searched by a female officer, who also puts on latex gloves. I'm told this is not a necessity for police conducting stop and searches, but it added a layer of professionalism.

After further checks at the scene through some nifty-sounding technology where officers can check the case details without needing to make a single call, the male occupant of the vehicle is arrested on suspicion of both incidents. He was taken away to custody, where he will then face questions from Met Police officers.

I came away from the few hours I spent with the Chelmsford team with a new appreciation for just how much they will tackle within the space of one shift. All sorts of things are at play for these officers, with the briefing at the beginning starkly highlighting just how many dangerous people are out there that they will have to face.

There is also a sense of comradery among the team, who all seem very happy in each other's company, men and women alike. But coming away from meeting Inspector Sam, it is clear he is incredibly passionate about his job, and enjoys the feeling of keeping people safe.