Matthew Street is littered with broken roof tiles and bits of smashed up chimney. On the roof of a residential property, a 30-something man in his socks and a ripped tracksuit is refusing to climb down until he gets a McDonald's and a cigarette, after spending the afternoon flashing his arse at police officers.
It's 1PM on a miserable Thursday afternoon in November of 2018, and Merseyside Police are locked into the fourth hour of a stand-off with a man who's clambered up onto the roof of a terrace house in Wallasey, Wirral. This is far from the first time officers have been forced to spend hours waiting for a man to get down from a roof: men scaling buildings to evade police capture has become a semi-regular occurrence in Liverpool, leaving the city equally baffled and captivated.
Over the past 18 months, the Liverpool ECHO has reported on ten different scenes involving men on roofs. It's a phenomenon that takes many forms. In January of 2019, a wanted man scaled a rooftop in Kirkby in a five-hour stand-off, during which he sat about in one shoe complaining he'd run out of cigarettes. In an especially inconvenient case, three lads sat on the first floor window ledges of a chicken shop on County Road while onlookers at the bus stop screamed: "You're going to jail anyway, least you can do is come down and let me get my bus."
Demanding a ciggy and a Maccies from the roof of a terrace house is manifestly not the most dignified end to a crime spree; in fact, man rarely looks more fallible than when he's demanding a Quarter Pounder from police negotiators while his neighbours look on and laugh. But time and again, men evading police capture in Merseyside have elected to engage in an extended and public staff-off with police on a roof of their choosing.
Some recent incidents have involved men who aren't evading police, and are in a vulnerable mental state – but the majority of guys at the centre of these stand-offs have come to the end of a police chase, with no other way out than to climb up or through a building and camp out for as long as possible, trying to delay the inevitable. The end result is always the same, and yet they continue to subject themselves to the public theatrics.
I spoke to Luna Centifanti, a senior lecturer in criminal psychology at the University of Liverpool, about why men continue to Let Themselves Down with such staggering commitment. One "man on roof" is often followed by another in quick succession – and Luna pointed to the "contagion effect" observed in other crimes which come in spates, like murder-suicides or hostage situations.
Liverpool is a city where things catch on quickly; you only need to look at the number of guys wearing Nike 110s to see that. But in this instance, "contagion" involves men who are already close to the edge of criminal behaviours coming to view an extended roof stand-off as the solution to their problems. Having seen the "positive consequences" of attention and control that other men have enjoyed in their position, it can feel like there are more rewards than punishments to be found in a stand-off.
Luna explained: "These are people trying to get away or get attention, or whatever they are trying to to do, but they have seen it's a behaviour that has benefited other people by getting on roofs."
Luna compared Liverpool's men on roofs to a similar set of cases in a prison she studied, where inmates kept climbing into a tree from the rooftop and staging solitary sit-ins from the branches. At first, these incidents prompted a "big panic", with staff trying to track down a cherry picker to bring prisoners down. But, Luna explained, "When it comes to negotiation, [the prisoners] don't have [a hostage] with them, they aren't planning to hurt themselves, there's no immediate danger to these people. When it became clear there were benefits to coming down, they came down."
"There didn't need to be a big furore about getting them down or giving them the benefit of attention and showing that you care – which they might want and need," she continued. "Instead of that, they left them up there and they just came down because they got hungry or tired. We talk about ignoring problem behaviours when there's no danger to a child. If you ignore it to a point, they wouldn't get this positive consequence out of it."
Of course, just ignoring one of these men until they realise they're acting like a twat isn't really a plausible approach for Merseyside Police to adopt, and scenes are always met with an extensive cordon to protect onlookers, officers and the press. Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service are always at the scene on standby, along with North West Ambulance Service. They can't just leave these guys to it – but apart from securing the scene, the authorities are largely powerless beyond sending in the negotiators and asking them to use a lifetime of expertise to talk down a lad in a Big Coat.
A spokesman for Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service told me: "In the vast majority of cases, the suspect will invariably eventually come down of their own accord, and we do not generally have much to do other than stand by and act if needed."
I asked Merseyside Police if one of their officers could explain the kind of situations that tend to lead to "man on roof" negotiations, but they declined to put anyone up for interview. However, one of their press officers was very keen to emphasise that, unlike salt and pepper chips, "men on roofs" are not exclusive to Merseyside. And he was right: a quick search generates results in Leicester, Wolverhampton and Greater Manchester.
So while it's not exactly a "Scouse phenomenon", guys getting up onto roofs continue to draw a crowd in Liverpool. Much like public floggings or old Victorian menageries, these scenes captivate, confuse and enthral onlookers, who remain utterly bemused at men making idiots of themselves from above.