Capturing Cardiff: Welcome to the Dark Side

Blood pooling into a gutter, mingling with the contents of a smashed pint glass. An unconscious man and a stark message: Night out, lights out. This is the face of a campaign called One Punch launched by Cardiff police this Christmas and New Year party season.

Its aim is to hammer home to Cardiff’s 30,000 weekend party-goers the reality that drinking too much can lead to manslaughter and a prison sentence.
South Wales Police run an operation every Friday and Saturday night called Cardiff After Dark. On Saturday, December 11 I joined officers on patrol in the city centre from 8pm until 2am to investigate whether Cardiff’s growing reputation for a binge-drinking culture poses a threat to public safety.

At 7.30pm I attended the briefing for the night’s operation along with eight police constables – all but two of whom were drafted in from neighbouring towns – and one inspector. 

Cardiff has a student population of approximately 25,000 – around 8% of the city’s total population of 324,800.  They provide the city’s pubs and clubs with week-long business, and this is reflective in the police’s response to manning the city centre at night:

At the moment Cardiff After Dark involves extra officers drafted in from neighbouring suburbs, as well as support from territotial officers. It runs on Friday and Saturday nights throughout the year, but we are considering extending it to Sunday as well.

– Inspector Lyndon Jones, head of Saturday’s Cardiff After Dark Operation

The officers were briefed on the areas they would be covering – which concentrated on St Mary’s street upper and lower, Greyfriars Road and Queen Street.
Then we patrolled. I stuck with my two officers from 7.30pm until 2am, during which time I saw four fights, one cracked skull, one false fire alarm, and one man so drunk he had vomited and soiled himself. More drunk people approached the police outraged because they had been evicted or refused entry from nightclubs than I could count. Here is a map of my experiences:

The police don’t work alone when tackling violent crime on nights out. They rely heavily on partner agencies such as the Cardiff Street Pastors, volunteers who take care of people who have had too much to drink. They give water, clean them up and make sure they have a safe way of getting home.

On Saturday I met with the pastors at their base in Tabernacl Baptist Church and spoke with Martin, who told me about the work of the pastors and the people they help:

Street Pastors Interview by jmbriscoe

Shortly afterwards, we ran into trouble on Church Street.  A man had taken issue with the doorman of The Old Arcade and a fight had broken out.  While PCs Neil and Evans stepped in to subdue the men, I caught up with the doorman:

Tex interview by jmbriscoe

So what is it about Cardiff which elicits such a stern line taken by the police? I stopped people on the streets and asked them whether they thought Cardiff had a binge drinking culture.  Unanimously the response I got was yes, although of the 10 people asked, five said they thought the city’s binge-drinking culture was no worse than in most other major UK cities.

According to a report published earlier this year by Alcohol Concern, 88% of people in Wales drink alcohol. 52% of men and 38% of women admit to drinking more than the recommended amount.

Cardiff PCs Neil and Evans patrol Queen Street ahead of a busy night.

A YouGov survey, meanwhile, found that 64% of the Welsh population thought that the minimum age for buying alcohol should be raised from 18 to 21.

According to a Welsh Health Survey conducted in 2009, 45% of all adults, including those who said they did not drink, said they drink MORE than the recommended guidelines at least one day a week. 28% of those admitted to binge drinking.

But what constitutes a binge? According to Alcohol Concern, the official definition is more than 8 units in a single session for a man and more than 6 in a single session for a woman. A pint of lager is 2 units, so a binge for a man would be roughly 4 or more pints, and for a woman just over three. The NHS recommends a maximum daily amount of units for a woman as 2-3 and for a man 3-4.

Here is a table I made showing the amount of units in some of the most popular ‘night-out’ drinks (information sourced from Drink Aware). 25ml is the standard shot size in most pubs and clubs in the UK.

Another important factor to consider is Cardiff’s huge student population. Students, undergraduates in particular, provide pubs and clubs with a unique demographic for weeknight trade. As a result, the option is open to go out any night of the week and drink into the small hours.

A group of girls on a night out in Cardiff get excited when they spot some firemen

PC Tim Davies is the student liaison officer for South Wales Police and spoke to me about some of the resultant issues of students mixed with too much alcohol:

PC Tim Davies by jmbriscoe

Alcohol abuse is not just found on the streets of Cardiff.  According to a census conducted by Alcohol Concern of 1000 drinkers in Wales, 500 admitted to drinking only at home.  21% of drinkers questioned said they drank equally at home and in the pub.

Detective Superintendent David Bishop, the Head of South Wales Police’s public protection department, said alcohol featured in more than 80% of domestic incident arrests last year.

However, Rebekah Burns, the Cardiff manager of domestic abuse support charity Women’s Aid, tells a different story:

Rebekah Burns 1 by jmbriscoe

She explained that there is a link between domestic violence and binge-drinking in her experience, but it it not the one most commonly portrayed by media and police campaigns:

Rebekah Burns 2 by jmbriscoe

Taking the statistics into account, as well as recent reports that hospital admissions in relation to alcohol have reached a ten year high, it would seem that the police are somewhat justified in taking such a strong view with the One Punch campaign.

One of the most remarkable things about my experiences on Saturday was the fact that throughout the whole night not a single thing we saw seemed to remotely surprise the officers. Perhaps this is a naive observation and perhaps it is no coincidence that within the first two hours I had already seen a man lying in a chilling mirror stance to the One Punch poster-corpse.

In any case, seeing Cardiff’s night life through sober eyes is not one that does much to dispel the widespread press coverage of its binge-drinking culture.

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