Police took two hours to respond to a rapidly escalating emergency at Wigan’s main shopping centre in which youths ran amok and some tried smashing their way into a security office to free a pal held by guards.
Despite receiving six 999 calls for increasingly urgent assistance, the first help overstretched force chiefs were able to send was a tactical aid unit all the way from Stockport.
By then one security guard had been assaulted, property smashed, traps laid to damage cars, elderly shoppers intimidated and store staff frightened to leave the Grand Arcade at closing time during the ordeal.
Two staff and a teenager had also been besieged in a secure room for more than 90 minutes as yobs tried to kick in the door to get the youngster out.
One of the security guards involved in the disturbance, former Wigan bobby George Walls, has written a letter of complaint to the police saying that had they responded to the initial call for help, the incident could have been nipped in the bud.
The force said today that there were several other incidents that local officers were dealing with at the time of the mall disturbance, including a serious assault, so they were unable to staff it immediately. But it added that investigations are ongoing.
Trouble flared on the afternoon of Tuesday April 3 when security at the Grand Arcade were notified that youths had been involved in anti-social behaviour at several other town centre premises.
Several of them tried getting into the centre despite being refused entry and so Mr Walls ejected two of them. But they simply rejoined their friends outside where the guards had no jurisdiction and were making it difficult to the public to get in and out.
PCSOs were requested to move them on but none was available and then the youths tried to storm back into the arcade, threatening the guards and hurling abuse at them.
With the situation deteriorating and elderly customers unwilling to leave the arcade for fear of getting caught up in the violence. The guard in the control room rang 999.
One of the youths was then detained by Mr Walls and colleague Jeff Atherton on suspicion of affray and they took him to a secure room in part of the arcade away from the public area, but several of his friends followed.
These youngsters were initially frightened off as the staff secured themselves inside the unit. But more returned and started trying to smash down the door.
Security recruitments were called for leaving just one member of staff to try to prevent more youths - now thought to number between 20 and 30 - from flooding in. It is suspected that the teens themselves had rounded up more friends through phone messages.
All the while further 999 calls were made to no avail. During this time an elderly man was kicked on the leg several times and ther yobs started putting cones out on the Grand Arcade’s spiral ramp which could have damaged cars departing.
Eventually Mr Walls was forced to open a security door and drag a second suspect inside.
This happened just as the tactical aid unit arrived at which point most of the youngsters fled and the two teenagers were handed over to them to be dealt with.
Mr Walls said: “So much of what happened could have been avoided with early intervention.
“As it was we had two hours of escalating trouble in which property was damaged, a man was assaulted, customers and staff intimdated and a colleague and I were besieged in a secure room.
“This despite six 999 calls’ being made.
“It is still not clear whether action was taken so slowly because of supervisional incompetence or because of sheer lack of police numbers. I was told there was a stabbing elsewhere in Wigan at that time which would have taken up resources but was there really no other officer available between Wigan and Stockport.
“Perhaps if just one officer had been dispatched at the outset, the whole thing would have de-escalated very quickly.
“As as an ex-police officer I am very concerned about staff numbers and fully realise how many posts have been cut, but remaining resources do have to be implemented as well as possible.
“Those youths were exhibiting a ‘pack mentality’ as the incident worsened and we have seen in the past with the murder of that Scholes Chinese restaurant worker several years ago where that sort of thing can lead.
“Someone could have got seriously hurt.”
A Wigan Police neighbourhood officer said: “On 3 April, police received a report of a disturbance at the Grand Arcade shopping centre in Wigan and assessed it based on the threat, harm and risk it posed at the time.
“With a number of incidents, including a serious assault, happening in the area that afternoon, it meant that we were unable to send officers to the scene immediately.
“However, officers went to the Grand Arcade that day and spoke with staff to establish what had happened and make sure they had all the detail necessary for the investigation.
“We are pursuing these lines of enquiry and will continue to work with colleagues at the arcade and in partner agencies, keeping everyone involved with how the case is progressing.”
It was confirmed that no arrests had so far been made in connection with the incident.