An RGP officer has just passed one of the UK College of Policing’s “hardest courses” to become a Police Search Advisor (PolSA). Now back in Gibraltar after the gruelling month-long course, Sgt Mary De Santos talks about why search teams are important for public safety on the Rock.
Have you ever wondered why police officers lift and peer under heavy drain covers ahead of major public events in Gibraltar?
These are specially-trained Licensed Search Officers and they are looking for explosives and terrorism-related materials.
At the helm of this team is the Police Search Advisor (PolSA), who decides where and what should be searched ahead of an major event.
And as of this week, Sgt Mary De Santos has become the RGP’s latest PolSA — after completing a College of Policing course in Ryton-on-Dunsmore in the UK.
Not only that, but she also became the first local officer to receive the Matlock Award for “Outstanding Achievement” on the course.
Explaining why the course is important, Mary, who joined the RGP ten years ago, said: “The PolSA course was developed after the 1989 Brighton hotel bomb went off. It was designed by the Royal Engineers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who wanted to make sure that something like that never happened again.”
The course is described as one of the hardest courses you will ever do as a police officer.
Of the 28 officers from police forces around the UK who started the course last month — four didn’t complete it.
Mary, who is originally from Portadown in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, said: “It was really hard work. There were days that we were operating on maybe one or two hours of sleep because of the amount of assessments we had — each exam had an 80 per cent pass mark and it was either pass or fail.
“We were in class from eight in the morning until six in the evening and after that we had to study and prepare for the next day.
“Being away from home for so long, was really hard work. Especially when you watch other officers going home to their families at the weekend. I had to stay in the UK by myself on campus.”
Asked why search teams are important, Mary explained: “Search teams play a crucial role in keeping the public safe. People might see us out when we have visits or special events going on. But they may not understand what we're doing and the importance of making sure that no one has the opportunity to hide anything that could harm anyone in Gibraltar. We've had an incident in the past where the IRA tried to place a bomb in Gibraltar, so we are not immune to the risks.”
Mary explained that the training involves studying the components of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), their chemical make-up and triggers, whilst also looking at the places terrorists are likely to hide devices at.
She added: “As a PolSA, you also advise senior officers what the best course of action is, what level of search should be implemented, what resources you need, the make-up of a building and the possible effects that an IED would have on it.”
It’s important to note that the Royal Gibraltar Police and the Gibraltar Defence Police team up for their PolSA-led searches, with the GDP also boasting its own fully-qualified PolSA and a team of Licensed Search Officers.
But it’s not all about terrorism.
The PolSA and Search Team also look for high-risk missing persons and help in high-profile crime cases, where their search expertise can be utilised to find both people and crucial evidence.
Some of the more recent searches that the RGP and GDP have been involved in have been the Iranian Tanker Grace 1, the Island Games and the Royal visit last month.
Mary, who originally qualified as a Licensed Search Officer in 2019 and takes over from the previous RGP PolSA Sgt Stone who retired from his position last year, added: “During the Island Games we were responsible for searching every building, every venue and every route. We also do National Day, because of the political rallies and we have a lot of military events and military vessels here. So we are deployed a lot more than people realise.”
She continued: “I’m over the moon to get the PolSA qualification, it’s been the most challenging course I’ve ever done and I’m honoured to lead the RGP Search Team going forward.”