There was glass everywhere. I could feel it sticking into my shoulders where it had gotten caught under my Met-Vest. It was gnawing into my sides. My eye felt... Odd... but there wasn't time to find out whether I'd been hit by a shard of glass there as well.
The briefing for the late shift was nothing out of the ordinary, much in the same way that strolling to work and finding Elvis in a tap-dancing competition with Chairman Mao, accompanied by the cast of Glee playing "Do you really want to hurt me" on assorted items of kitchen equipment while wearing nothing but tu-tus and sunglasses, is nothing out of the ordinary.
Only a few days before, in Tottenham, police officers had shot a suspected gang leader in a minicab, and the afternoon briefing was chocker-block with chatter. The Metropolitan Police intel branch was red-hot with tips received via telephone, found on internet forums and social networking sites, and the vast amount of information received from Members of the Public (MoPs) being filed by Met officers on the streets and in front offices all over London.
The briefing is usually at 2pm, which means that most of my colleagues show up at work around 1pm to shower, change into our uniforms, read the day's briefing and e-mails, and to then stroll over to the briefing room for four rounds of pre-shift banter.
I say usually.
In this case, everybody was in the briefing room more than an hour before the briefing, and the discussion was running wild.
"Damn right he deserved to be shot, he had a fucking gun", said one of my colleagues. "They need to start understanding that if you're carrying a gun around, you're going to get shot, whether it's by another gang, or by us."
"Pipe down, Charlie", said Jay, who had been a firearms officer for many years. "It's never that simple, mate. I heard on the news that they found an unloaded gun in a sock. You can't just go around shooting people if they don't have a gun that's even ready to use. It's insane that we're even talking about this - one of our colleagues were shot. That really sucks, but he's alive and is probably going to stay that way. It's the gung-ho attitude that will get us in trouble, my friend."
"Ah fuck off, you has-been", Charlie joked to the firearms officer.
They are old friends, and they love a spot of banter. Besides, everybody knew that Jay had decided to stand down from being an authorised firearms officer. The thing is, not many people know why, beyond the fact that Jay doesn't like talking about it. Being called a has-been clearly didn't sit well with him.
The silence fell over the room like a pillowcase with lead-shot over a carton of eggs.
Banter is part of the job; you can't deal with the things we see and do day in day out without having an outlet; black humour, practical jokes, making a bit of fun of each other, and occasional bit of rough-housing comes with the job. It's part of the fabric that weaves us into a team: we spend a lot of time wrestling on the floor with smelly criminals, running after scoundrels, and dealing with death - both of the 'clean' and 'messy' kind. A playful punch in the shoulder, a hug, or some gentle ribbing here and there is the lubrication oil that keeps the machine running. (Don't tell the SMT -- Senior Management Team -- though. They'd send us all on sexual harassment and 'how to be nice to each other' courses).
The importance of a strong team spirit is why it was all the more uneasy to be in the briefing room that morning. When the banter grinds to a halt, you know there's a lot of tension in the room. I was glad when the briefing finally started.
"Read the briefing in your own time at your own pace", the skipper barked, "but the summary is this: it's messy out there, and it's going to get rough for a few days. We've got hundreds of pieces of intel pointing to anything from mild protests to people planning all-out riots."
The skipper leaned forward over his little podium, casting a long look across the room.
"Ladies and gents, stay very alert: the gang who lost their boss to a police bullet say they want the lives of several Metropolitan Police officers in retaliation for the shooting." He paused.
"As you know, we're short staffed, and I hate recruitment, so try to stay in one piece, all right?" The skipper has a way with words, and a wave of laughter shattered the tension that was smothering the room.
"No single crewing tonight, folks. Be extra vigilant, and don't hesitate to call in extra help if you aren't sure about something. I'd rather have to send two or three cars to a call and have everyone go home at the end of the shift, than be stuck in A&E with one of you for the rest of the night" he said, scanning the room.
"Right, get out of my face. Happy hunting." he finished.
In several parts of the borough, there were stirrings of riots: people were seen gathering in alleys, and a lot of the shops on the high streets had boarded up the windows with plywood. We were instructed to stay well clear of any problem spots and to leave that to the riot police. They were operating on separate channels for us, and we were told that we'd face disciplinary action if we listened in. "Any relevant information will be circulated on working channels", a sternly worded email from the top brass reminded us.
Our job tonight would be to look after all the 'normal' police tasks -- if anything could be called normal on a day like this.
I was posted with Jay -- the ex-firearms officer -- as Mike Delta 40. It's an unusual designation; we don't tend to use 40, but as it was an unusual day, and we had a lot of extra resources on duty; a lot of people who tend to wile away their days shuffling bits of paper with (and sometimes -- shock horror -- without) paperclips around had dusted off their uniforms. In some cases, it was hilarious: people who had gained 30 lbs since the last time they had worn their stab-vests were looking anything but regal as they tried to wrestle their way into corset-like Kevlar.
The extra manpower meant that we also used a lot of cars we don't normally use: a fleet of hire-cars were brought in to help ferry us around from place to place without standing out like a sore thumb with blue lights and sirens. Our car was a dreadful-looking burgundy Ford Mondeo Q-car that's usually used by the robbery squad. At least it has lights and sirens, as opposed to most of the hire cars.
"I'll drive," Jay said, when he spotted the car we had been assigned.
I'm fine with that. In theory, we all know how to drive to a high standard, and I'd like to think I'm an above-average wheelman (although, much to my chagrin, I'm probably about average). Jay used to be the driver on firearms serials, and I'd hazard a guess that he has spent a hell of a lot more time on long blue-light runs than me. Besides, there was something about today that was giving me the creeps, and I was more than happy to hand over some responsibility.
We attended to a couple of simple-to-resolve calls, and the feeling of dread was starting to dissipate a little bit. After about five hours worth of relatively easy jobs (including -- I kid you not -- saving a kitten out of a tree), we decided to head back to the police station for a quick coffee. We nearly made it to the gates, when things got a little bit more interesting.
"We've just spotted a group of about twenty youths, some of them carrying backpacks, all with their faces covered and carrying sticks", my radio told me. "We're in an unmarked car, observing from a safe distance", the radio continued.
Instead of pulling into the police station, I parked next to the gates, and we stayed in the car to listen to the radio transmission that was going on, as I was trying to figure out who was radioing in; I didn't recognise the voice, and the person on the radio sounded nervous. He also failed to identify himself before transmitting, which was curious. Radio protocol becomes such second nature to officers that it becomes unthinkable to radio up without first going through the recipe of identifying yourself and asking for permission to use the airwaves.
"Last caller, you are not coming up in my system. Please identify", the CAD operator shot back. I looked over at Jay, and he shrugged.
"Oh, eh, sorry", said the radio, and went quiet again, briefly.
"They're coming our way. We have to get out of here", it continued.
"Last caller, get yourself to safety, then identify immediately. Mike Delta 3 out", a familiar voice cut in. Mike Delta 3 is the chief inspector; one of the people you would never hear on the radio unless something truly grievous is going on. Hell, I didn't even know he was issued with a radio, far less that he still knew how to use one.
"Mike Delta receiv...", the radio croaked, swallowing the rest of the transmission. The caller went again.
"Mike Delta receiving 108".
"108, go" came the short reply from the CAD op.
"Last transmitting was 5223, he's the special I've got with me. It's his first shift." The voice continued.
I raised an eyebrow, and glanced over at Jay again, only to meet an identical, eyebrow-raised-face looking back at mine. We both burst into laughter.
Special constables are volunteer officers with full police powers. They usually do the odd shift here and there, fitting them around their civilian lives. Specials come in all sorts of sizes and shapes. Even experienced specials range from the astonishingly clueless to ones that are well-rounded, supremely useful members of the team. A special constable deciding to take his first shift as a police officer on a night when there are riots going on, however? Talk about baptism of fire. Having said that, 108 is Singh; he's a solid, veteran officer. I couldn't think of a safer pair of hands if I tried.
"We're on Church Street, moving away as quickly as I can, I think the group spotted our radios lighting up when someone transmitted." Singh concluded.
The radios; they're a blessing most of the time, the lifeline that keeps you out of a lot of serious trouble. Having said that, they're bulky, and in my experience have a nasty tendency to ruin any plain-clothes work you're trying to do. The displays and the status light might as well be a bright beacon saying "hey! We're cops! If you're up to no good, this is a good time to start running!"
"Okay, is everybody accounted for?" the CAD operator transmitted.
"Yes yes, we're out of harm's way." Singh replied.
"Good. All units, please avoid Church Street for now, we'll send the Borough Support Unit to take a closer look" the CAD operator transmitted.
"Mike Delta receiving serial Bravo Alpha five-five-five", the radio continued.
"Go ahead BA555."
"I know you wanted BSU on this, but we're a Level 1 serial here, and we're just around the corner. Shall we head over as well?", the voice continued.
When it comes to public order training, our training comes in three levels; 3, 2, and 1. Level 3 officers is everybody; it's the basic level of public order skills used for policing large events, such as football games, official state visits, and anywhere where the police have to work as large teams and face large groups of MOPs. Level 2 officers are trained to a much higher level including shield tactics, dealing with extremely violent people, rapid-entry techniques (including stuff like breaking down doors), search tactics, and much, much more. When you think 'riot police', the people that spring to mind are probably the Level 2 guys. Level 1 have roughly the same training curriculum as the Level 2 lot, but they have to repeat their training every six weeks or so, and are generally deployed to a 'support unit' full-time.
"Yes yes, please deploy and keep us posted", the CAD operator said, and continued to liaise with the Borough Support unit to get a couple of more carriers over to the group that seemed as if they were about to start their own little riot.
"It's really going to suck to be them", Jay laughed drily.
"Mike Delta 40 receiving", another CAD operator interrupted the organisation efforts.
"Go ahead", I transmitted.
"Switch to spare please". I reached for my radio and switched to the spare channel, leaving the other CAD operator to deal with the violent disorder incident on the despatch channel.
"Mike Delta receiving 40", I transmitted on the new channel.
"Hi Matt", the operator said, leaving the formal tone of the main channel behind.
"Hey Samantha. Busy?"
"You bet. Are you guys dealing with anything?"
"Nope, just stopped for a cuppa, but we can be free."
"Great. You're double-crewed, right?"
"Yeah, I'm with Jay."
"Remind me of his shoulder number?"
"It's 483. That's four-eight-three"
"Great, noted. We've just had an abandoned call from a phone box, saying that someone heard shouting and what sounded like a man beating up a woman over on the Blankenship estate, near the playground. We couldn't get any more information, and nobody is picking up the phone at the booth. CCTV have no coverage. Can you zip over and have a peek?"
"Yeah, of course. On the hurry-up?"
"Yes, please, on an I-grade. Is your Mobile Data Terminal working?"
"No, sorry, we're in a Q-car. No MDT. I know where it is though. What's the CAD number?"
"CAD 72892 of today."
"Wicked, we'll take a look"
"Thanks sweets, say hi to Jay from me. Out."
I turned to Jay.
"Samantha says hi", I said.
"Yeah, I heard that. How very nice", he said, sardonically. Sam and Jay used to date a few years ago, but that came to a rather acrimonious end that -- much like Jay's exit from the AFOs -- nobody knows a lot about.
He span the wheel and pulled away a little bit more briskly than strictly speaking necessary, tyres squealing, leaving a cloud of diesel fumes and a stench of rubber in the air.
"Next left left" I said, a few minutes later. "Then it should be your third or fourth right right." Jay grunted in reply.
We pulled up outside Blankenship, in a weird little deserted parking lot surrounded on two sides with a wall, with a hedge and the playground on the third side.
The whole area was completely dead. Jay leaned forward over the wheel, peering up into the council blocks. Blankenship is hardly one of the roughest estates we have on the borough, but it's on the edge of an area known for a large amount of gang activity. It has more than its fair share of stabbings, and police aren't exactly welcomed with fanfares, scones and tea.
"I don't like this", Jay says, and reaches for his radio, which he leaves clipped to the sun visor of the robbery car. "Show Mike Delta 40 on location of our last assigned", he says, adhering to a spot of routine that may well prove to save our lives that day.
"I don't like this at all", he repeats, peering up along the edges of the estate's buildings.
"Here's the phone booth", he says, pointing to the booth. All the windows of the phone box are smashed, and the rest of it is graffitied so thoroughly that I found myself surprised that the box actually still worked well enough to place a 999 call. There's something to say for the engineering BT puts into its iconic red boxes, I'm thinking.
"I can't hear anything. Can you?" Jay says.
I roll my window down ever so slightly to have a listen.
"Nope, I can't hear anything", I start saying, but I'm interrupted as the window next to my head explodes. Pain shoots through my neck, and I can feel someone grab for the door next to me. They pull the door handle hard; the whole car rocks. It's locked. It always is. I lock my door out of habit, whether I'm on duty or not.
I turn towards my window, and I can see four people out there. One of the dark shadows has his hand inside the window he just smashed with a brick, in an attempt to reach for the door lock. He is so close that I can smell his arm; a musky smell of earth, cigarettes, and laundry detergent. For a second, I'm confused that I'm sitting here, smelling the arm of someone who's just broken the window shielding me from the elements. I snap out of my shock, and feel something in my hand. I am holding a spare battery for my radio. I don't waste any more time, and I'm bringing it down on his hand. Hard. The young man yelps in pain and pulls away from the door, then runs towards the back of the car; his friends do the same. I turn further, sticking my head out of my smashed window, and the men disappear behind the car, as they're turning to make their way to the other side of the car.
I sense something is happening behind me, and I turn to Jay. Allow me a correction: I'm turning to the space where Jay should have been: The men -- boys, really -- have opened the door on his side, and they are in the middle of dragging Jay out of the driver-side door. He's still wearing his seat-belt, and the nylon straps digging into his lap, neck and shoulder are the only thing currently keeping him in the car.
Our in-car MDTs have a huge 'emergency' button on them in case we need help, and I reach for the space in the centre console where the button is. Where it would have been, if this car had an MDT installed. I'm losing precious seconds as I'm realising there's no help to be had from the dashboard, other than the blues. I press the 'lights' button, activating the blue lights built into the grille at the front of the car, and hidden as blue LEDs in the reversing lights at the back of the vehicle. Jay, in his struggles, is pressing on the steering wheel, and in the process turns on the car's the sirens as well. Every time he bumps into the horn buttons built into the wheel -- frequently, in the course of his violent struggle with his assailants -- the tone of the sirens is changing from one melody to another.
The small, darkened area is lit with stroboscopic blues, and our high beams see-sawing as the left and right headlamp alternately light up the brick wall in front of us. The deafening cacophony of the sirens echoing off the walls.
Somewhere in all of this, I find my senses. I press the red button on my radio.
"Urgent assistance required", I shout. Because I've pressed the emergency assistance button, I don't have to keep holding it pressed.
Finally, I'm escaping the slow-mo hell I've been in since the brick came flying through the window and into my throat. I'm grabbing the door release handle, and I bound out of the car, reaching for my baton with one hand.
As I'm getting out of the car, a lap-full of glass is raining down off me. The glass, it is everywhere. I can feel it sticking into my shoulders where it has dug its way under my Met-Vest. It's gnawing into my sides. My eye feels... odd... but I've got only one thing on my mind: find out what's happening with Jay, and get the hell out of there. Preferably alive.
I start moving to the back of the car, continuing my frenetic, shouted monologue to my radio. "Still at our last assigned", I scream, referring to the CAD call Jay had checked us into not more than a minute before. "We're under attack." I shout "Six males, maybe more."
A few of the men who attacked us were scared off by the sirens and were running. By the time I make it around to the other side of the car, there are three left.
I see Jay.
He's half-hanging out of the car, and one of the men is making to kick him. I'm back in the world of excruciating slow-mo, as I can see the attacker bring his leg forward at high speed.
"Get away from him", I shout, and raise my baton to strike. There's one man between me and Jay. He sees my baton and makes to move out of the way, but I'm not in the mood to find out whether he's planning to run off; anything or anybody between me and Jay is going to get a whack with the length of freshly racked extendible steel I have clutched between my fingers. I'm bringing my baton down onto him. I don't hear it, but I can feel a crunching sound as the brushed steel impacts with the lower arm he throws up to defend himself from the baton strike. As my strike finds its target, I can see Jay's head bouncing up, and helplessly fall back down again, as yet another kick finds its way to him. One of the men is holding him by his arm, still trying to drag him out of the car, as the other is kicking him.
"Get back" I shout, completely automatically; it's the universal fighting call that gets drilled into you in officer safety training. I bring the baton down on the man one more time. This time, he lifts his other arm. My baton hits something metal. It's a pole. He's holding a short length of scaffolding or piping. I can't tell whether he has used it on Jay, or whether he has plans to introduce it to any part of my anatomy. I'm not about to let him, and I bring my baton up again for another strike, but he cowers away, and half runs, half leaps into a small set of bushes near the edge of the playground. I don't stop to see how far he goes.
In the middle of all of this, I notice another set of blue lights is joining ours. I realise I can't hear anything. I can't hear the sirens on our car, and I didn't hear the other police car arrive. I glance back. It's a carrier. The BSU serial from the radio earlier came to our assistance. I look forward again. The man who was kicking Jay has turned and is starting to run, with two of the fully riot-clad BSU officers in hot pursuit.
The guy who was holding Jay is letting go of his grip, and moves as if he, too, is planning to run away. I don't want to let him get away. I take a leap forward, and crash into him. The top of my head smashes into his face, as I engage in the least delicate rugby tackle that was ever attempted. My force is toppling the man over, but he hits the open car door with his back. For a brief moment it seems as if the door is going to give, but then it changes its mind, and catapults us the other way. I'm moving backwards at great speed, and I end up on my back, with the man I dove into covering me like a duvet.
On the ground, covered by twelve stone of athletic IC3 male, I'm still clinging on to my baton, and I'm trying to think of a way to use it, but before I get that far, two men pick the assailant straight off of me. I'm on my back, as the man is deposited with great force, face first, onto the asphalt above me. I tilt my head backwards, and from my laying-on-my-back, upside-down perspective, I see they are using zip-tie handcuffs to cuff him.
Looking back 'down', I see Jay wrestle himself in an upright position, undo his seat belt, and climb out of the car. He must have been kicked in the head at least three times, and a trickle of blood is coming from his hair. He clutches his arm to his chest as he comes over to me and says something. I can't hear him.
He reaches over to my radio, presses the transmit button and says something into my radio, before cancelling the emergency mode on my radio. He picks me up from the ground with his working arm, opens the back door of the Mondeo, and drops me in the back seat, my legs still pointing out of the car. I sit up, feeling slightly dizzy.
Gradually, my adrenaline is reabsorbed into my body, and my hearing comes back. Only when it's returning, I realise that my colour vision has also been absent: I had been seeing the whole episode in a weird, super-slow-motion, silent film mode with reduced colour vision.
"You all right?" I can finally hear Jay.
"Yeah, I think so." I say, leaning forward, placing my face in my hands. I find a piece of glass in my cheek, flick it aside, and put my face back in my hands. I've got a dreadful headache.
"You're covered in blood. Ambulance on its way", Jay summarises the situation for both of us.
I lean back, and sit, leaning sideways into the back rest of rear seats in the police car. I'm looking through the back window of the car. The whole area is swarming with police cars; at least half a dozen marked cars, a few rent-a-wrecks, and two carriers responded to my call for urgent assistance.
I couldn't hazard a guess at how long I had been sitting there like that, but after a while, I realise someone is talking to me. I had been zoning out, looking at the sea of blinking blue lights at the end of the short road.
"Say again?" I enquire. Jay laughs.
He looks into my eyes, and I see a flicker of... something I can't put my finger on.
"Thanks, Matt." he says, before stepping aside, revealing a set of paramedics, eager to take care of us
Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well.
Matt has a book based on his Notes from the Front Line column out now - you can get it from Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.
If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.