Police repair relations with the village people: Manchester's gay community has had its faith in the force restored, writes Jonathan Foster

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The Independent Online
CONSTABLE Peter Butterworth hangs about in gay bars. Punters call him Betty, but the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester calls it proper policing.

The Butterworth beat includes a few city centre acres that have become a gay and lesbian quarter, the self-designated 'village' formerly policed on the assumption that Sodom had been relocated.

Village people say they have increasing confidence in the police now that they have a village constable. Harassment, assaults and robberies in the area have decreased, at least in the belief of those who work there.

'Peter Butterworth has been a great asset,' Graham Scott, owner of the Village Cars taxi firm, said. 'The gay community couldn't talk to the police until his appointment.'

Many gay men prefer anonymity, but regular training of recruits and experienced officers may enable more victims to report crimes; 20 cases of male rape were reported last year, about a sixfold increase.

Policing changed a year ago, a liberalisation ordered by David Wilmot who, in 1991, replaced 'God's Copper', Sir James Anderton, as chief constable.

After complaints of indifferent and homophobic policing, Inspector Tom Cross was appointed to repair relations. He meets gay and lesbian representatives regularly, but decided the policy change had to be visible on the beat. The village needed neighbourhood policing, and PC Butterworth, 18 years on the force, went in.

Ideally, the police would like a gay officer on the beat. 'None has come out, and it'll be a hell of a brave man who does,' PC Butterworth said. 'I thought I had persuaded two people in the area to become special constables, but they withdrew at the last minute.'

Results have been difficult to measure. The gay community complained that rent boys were robbing clients on the banks of the Bridgewater canal, that gay- bashing was endemic, and police so unsympathetic that reporting a crime was futile.

'I didn't think these people would tell blatant lies,' Insp Cross said. But the area, used on Friday and Saturday nights by up to 5,000 people, is now the most peaceful of Manchester night life. Three gay men on Bloom Street confirmed that many tales of violence were apocryphal, and PC Butterworth believes part of the community's sense of identity came from imagined threats.

'But there was definite hassle,' one of the gay men said. 'You'd get it from straight men on the piss, morons in football shirts who used to come through the area. You'd get abuse shouted from police vans, but it has improved a lot.'

The most tangible improvements have stemmed from public endorsement by the police of gay issues. Insp Cross and PC Butterworth lent their support to the campaign to reduce the age of consent to 16. And when PC Butterworth pulls on his uniform, the tie is fastened by a red-ribbon Aids awareness pin. Such gestures would have been impossible during the Anderton regime, when the only police to descend the stairs to the Clone Zone gay shop would have been on a raid.

'The area's gone up and up since Peter came,' Ian Campbell- Welsh, a shop assistant, said. 'The shop was regularly robbed. I've had my face slashed and been kicked down the stairs. They thought it was a soft target for gay bashing. Now there is visible and friendly policing.'

In return, the police no longer regard the village as beyond the pale. PC Butterworth needed just three phone calls to the community to get full co-operation for murder squad detectives to work under cover in gay-owned premises. They got their man.

(Photograph omitted)