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The Wire... Irish style

SITTING white-knuckled in the back of a police car as we flew through Dublin streets at speeds of over 90 mph, it was clear I was getting a view of the city afforded few members outside of the Garda.

The police radio squawked with reports of burglaries in progress, robberies and car chases.

With two plainclothes gardai, we criss-crossed the city at speed to respond and investigate.

In Baltimore, where I report on crime for the Baltimore Sun -- and where the TV show The Wire is set -- I've regularly seen the US police operate at the coalface. But the public in Dublin doesn't get to see such work.

In Baltimore, any citizen can request such a 'ridealong' by simply visiting the local station, filling out a few forms and strapping on a bulletproof vest

As violent as the city can be, the police believe allowing residents to experience police work is a crucial part of its community policing, allowing residents to see the challenges faced by officers each day.

And, compared to Dublin, Baltimore is a violent city. There's an average of almost two shootings per night across the city of 640,000 -- far more gun incidents than recorded in the Irish capital, which has a large urban population.

Right out of the gate, the first two officers I was paired up with pulled over a teen on an unlicensed motorbike on a street in the north inner city. It took nearly an hour to get a tow truck to pick up the bike, time the officers spent humouring a group of inquisitive young children. Eventually the bike got towed, and we moved on, patrolling the O'Devaney Gardens area.

Before long, we were in the Drumalee housing project on the North Circular Road, where one of the officers spotted three young boys throwing pebbles at an old man as we drove by.

The officer thrust the vehicle into reverse and got out to give the boys a lecture.

But as he spoke with them, something more sinister was developing down the street. Two men in the distance appeared to be play-boxing, one chasing the other.

It quickly became apparent that they were not play-acting, however, when the blood started gushing from one man's head as the other repeatedly swung a thick metal pipe at him.

The garda giving the lecture and his partner sprinted over to the pair and grappled with them, separating the two. The bloodied man trembled with anger as he taunted his attacker.

As he did so, their families streamed out of their homes to see what the commotion was.

"I'll put a bullet in your head!" the attacker shouted back. The two men were restrained long enough to get the wounded man into an ambulance, but he refused to make a complaint.

Though the officers witnessed the attack, the victim claimed his injuries came from "a fall". With no complaint, the officers declined to make an arrest. "It won't hold up in court," an officer explains.

"An arrest will only aggravate an already aggravated situation."

The officers say they reserve the right to come back and make an arrest later if the situation escalates, and two other officers stayed behind to write up a report.

As we leave, a woman pulled up next to our car and assured us this is not the last we'll hear of this situation.

"He's dead tonight," she promised. "He's going out in a black bag. I'm sick of it! Animals!"

Later, on patrol with another crew of officers, we pulled through O'Connell Street, near the Spire when we came upon a large crowd. "This can't be good," a female officer in the car drolly remarked. Dozens of people were standing around the intersection, snapping cell phone pictures of a man standing completely naked in the middle of the street, ranting and raving.

This was rush hour on a Friday, with hundreds more people passing, on foot and by public transport.

As a male officer grabs the man and cuffs him, he's placed in the back seat of the vehicle, where I was sitting. His bare rear end plops down on the female officer's fleece jacket as I grab my hat just in the nick of time. Luckily, I get to sit in front while we transport him to the station.

En route he's yelling about extra terrestrials and repeatedly saying "curriculum vitae". He demands to see Mick Jagger and wants a cigarette.

Later, at the city garda station, where he's been placed in a cell, his friends arrive and inform the officers that he's a PhD student at a local college who has been under great stress and suddenly snapped while they were watching a movie. Because the officers who made the arrest will be taken off the streets for hours as they await a doctor who can make a medical determination about the man's mental state, and I'm handed over to two other officers who can continue my tour of duty.

While I'm waiting, officers are milling about the station. One, a young patrol officer, is following up on a rape investigation. I'm told that this station is one, if not the only one, in the country with a computer that processes fingerprints.

There are few specialised officers to conduct follow-up investigations for any crime not deemed 'major'.

Many of the major crimes are carried out by known criminals, affiliated to gangs, often armed.

The officers say much of their training comes through experience, and painstaking gathering of information.

In a closed office, posters of well known gangs hang on the walls, I'm told, charting their connections and associates.

But for all the talk about gun crime in Dublin, most of the officers I talked to had never encountered a gun on the streets in their career.

It caused me to question why the citizens of Dublin are not permitted to ride out with gardai, like they can in Baltimore?

Under the current regime, Baltimore police have also had two 'open house' events where every patrol officer was paired up with a member of the community for two hours as they responded to emergency calls, followed by a tour of headquarters. This could be applied here.

After all, if we trust officers to maintain our safety and uphold the law, can't we trust them to spend some time with the people they're sworn to protect? Such events are unheard of in Ireland, so much so that one sceptical officer even asked me if I had been sent by higher-ups to spy on them. But the Garda Siochana should reconsider its stance, as my hours on the streets clearly revealed professional officers, working hard to maintain order.



INVESTIGATION

For the rest of the night I was paired up with two plainclothes officers who respond to high-priority calls. A few weeks earlier, they came upon a drug operation that was packaging heroin inside cigarettes. One of the officers is continuing an investigation into the drugs, meeting a confidential source, while the second, who is not technically on the clock, and I walk around the city.

He occasionally stops men wearing hoodies, asking them questions and writing down the answers on a small notebook, which he will later enter into the agency's intelligence system that tracks all encounters with police. As crime task force officers, they deal with higher-level crimes. But despite the high media profile afforded gangland crime in the newspapers daily, he insists that the average citizen need not worry.

"We're a happy-go-lucky nation," the officer said as we wound down the night.

"There is an element of crime creeping in, but it's not so much that it's out of hand. That's why we're here."


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