"You know what we're going to have to do, don't you?", Kim said to me, as she shoved her notebook back into her stab-vest. I nodded, curtly. It looked like the rest of the shift was going to be a race against the wits of a 14-year-old.
It was one of those freak, unbearably hot summers you'd desperately long for when the sloppy, rubbish London winter is doing its damnedest to work its way into your boots, but that realistically, you hate just as much as a winter day when it comes. In fact, there aren't many types of weather during which it's nice to be a Metropolitan Police officer - save the odd few days in spring and autumn, perhaps.
Fridays are notorious for all sorts of reasons. Statistically, traffic accidents are more likely to happen on Friday afternoons. Friday evenings following a hot summer day are silly season. People drink way too much, they are dehydrated after a long warm day, and I swear the summer heat brings out the hormones in our 'customers' in full force. In my line of work, there's no such thing as a 'slow' Friday, but tonight, all the planets would be in alignment for a perfect storm.
I mention all of this only because it made me happy I was on the early turn, working from 6am until about 2pm. In other words: even despite the brutal heat, there was a sliver of a silver lining in sweating like a spoiled kid in a toy store: At least we'd be off duty before it all kicks off later in the evening.
This particular Friday, I was posted with Kimberly. She is a truly formidable woman; She's my age, and had a kid when she was very young, and then another one before I even made it out of university. She's also one of the best police officers I know; there's something profoundly disarming about a 30-odd year old, rather attractive woman who has perfected the universal 'mum stare'. I've seen her use it at an armed suspect once; it's rather phenomenal. The young lady in question put her kitchen knife down, hung her head and apologised to Kim, before offering up her arms to be handcuffed - and all of that without saying a single word!
Kim has been married to one of the custody sergeants at our nick for many years. A rocky relationship, I have no doubt, but at the end of the day, there's something deep and genuine between Kim and Jacob; they have a perfect balance of laughing and shouting at each other, which seems to work for them. Jacob, after a shift where they had had a particularly spirited fight, drunkenly confided to me, in the pub. "Kim has this thing she does. She sleeps naked, and when she gets up, she drowsily shakes her hair out of her face, before she grabs her underwear, and a pair of jeans. She then forces that amazing arse of hers into a pair of trousers that only just fits. In the process, she jumps up and down and wiggles back and forth. I have to tell you, Matt, the way her breasts move when she does that... I could never leave her for that sight alone". Jacob's story was never mentioned again, of course, but - curse him - I've never seen Kim quite the same again. If she were single...
Kim an I were doing our usual thing; we were manning the area car, a lovely BMW 5-series that is used for general support and fast response duties. Our end of the borough is a crinkly mess of back roads and one-way systems, so in reality, the Beamer rarely arrives faster than the Astras we use, but the additional comfort and the feel-good factor of being on the area car makes it a good posting. So far today, we had helped out with a resented stop-and-search that ended up with a couple of arrests for assault on a police officer when the situation got out of hand for absolutely no reason. We also attended as a second pair of hands on a domestic dispute where two brothers had decided to settle a disagreement with their fists (another pair of assault arrests...), and eventually stood around, directing traffic at the site of a particularly nasty traffic accident involving a cyclist and a black cab.
"Two-zero receiving Mike Delta", my radio murred.
"Twenty receiving, go ahead", I replied.
"You're showing green, are you tied up at the moment?", the CAD operator enquired, referring to our status as being 'on patrol', which causes our call sign to show up green or 'not deployed' on the CAD software.
"We're just directing traffic around the incident in Chute Street", I said, as a set of flashing blue lights approached. Reinforcements, in the shape of a traffic patrol car, had just rocked up. I pressed my PTT button again to resume my transmission "Looks like traffic just arrived, so I think we can be stood down from this in a couple of minutes. What have you got?"
After we made sure that the traffic guys didn't need us we were ready to head off to the next job.
"I'm not really sure what the deal is here", I said to Kim, as we set off from the scene of the accident. "The operator was saying something about a school, but it's not completely clear what's happening. Can you check the CAD and fill me in?"
Kim looked through the pages that had been sent to our in-car computer, and was reading bits out loud to me.
"I'm not really sure what this is about either, it seems like the 999 operator has been smoking the crack-rock", Kim said. "But I'm pretty sure you were right about the school, although there's three other different addresses on this bloody CAD as well. Let's go take a look at the school first."
I glanced over at Kim and shrugged. We arrived at the school, and were met by one of the teachers, who took us to a nurse's office, where a paramedic was just finishing up with a girl from the school.
"You're going to be all right", the paramedic said to the girl, just as we came in, "But since you've had a knock on the head, we're going to take you to the hospital to make sure. I've got to fill in some paperwork, though, so perhaps you can talk to the boys in blue, here, first." The paramedic looked at me, winked at Kim, and went back to his paperwork.
Kim got her notepad out, and started talking with the student. It turned out she was 14 years old, her name was Sandra ("my friends call me San. Like Sam, but with an N. There's another Sandra, you see, so people call me San."). She had been in a fight.
"So what happened was that, like, Lateesha was calling me names and I said to stop and then Tiff told her to shut up but Lateesha had already texted Winnie and Sam on her Blackberry but then Ms King saw her and stopped them from shouting at me but then they sent me a message on facebook but I didn't get it because I've blocked her and she doesn't know that but I didn't respond and then she just sent a message to Jim instead and Lateesha really likes Jim but nobody is supposed to know about that and then I said that she really liked Jim and she told me to shut up but then Ms King came back and told me to go to the other end of the school yard but she has no right to do that 'cause it's a free country and I refused to go but then Lateesha went to the loos but I didn't know that was where she was so when I went to the loo they jumped me and I ran out of the restrooms where I bumped into Jim and Lateesha followed me but Sandra was talking to Jim so"... San was absolutely unstoppable, speaking a mile a minute, unleashing an uninterrupted stream of consciousness on Kim and myself.
I glanced over at Kim's notebook. She had written "Sandra McOwen - DOB06011996", and nothing else. Kim looked up at me, and tried really hard to suppress a smile. She nearly succeeded.
"Hey San, you're going to have to stop there for a moment", she said. "You've got to remember that I don't know any of these people; let's start at the beginning, what happened?"
We spent a very long time teasing the full story out of San, and ended up taking a "good cop, tangent-referee" approach: Kim was the understanding listener, and I had to step in every twenty-four seconds or so to get San back on topic, where she kept straying off on absolutely irrelevant tangents, including everything from popular music (she doesn't like dubstep), to school politics (she was baffled that wearing her necklace wasn't a human right, how dare they take it away from her) to recent developments in reality TV shows (I would summarise, but I fear I'm showing my age, here; I have absolutely no idea which shows she was referring to).
The facts, it turned out, could be succinctly summarised as follows: Lateesha is the 18-year-old sister of one of San's classmates. San and Lateesha have an ongoing tiff that flares up with irregular intervals. Today's episode started two days ago, when Lateesha said something about San. San retaliated by 'fraping' Lateesha. Lateesha retaliated by gathering her friends in the school yard, and beat up San, using her keys and key-rings as a weapon. In the altercation, San was slashed with the keys across her arm and in the face, and fell to the ground, hitting her head against a bench.
If you'll forgive me the aside, just in case you're not familiar with the term; 'Fraping' is short for for 'facebook raping' - the act of saying something as someone who has forgotten to log out of their Facebook account. Before you ask, 'fraping' has very little to do with actual sexual assault. However, because our police crime systems have filters in place, whenever we write 'facebook rape' in a police report, especially when it refers to victims of crime under the age of 18, it sets off all sorts of extravagant alarm bells over at Scotland Yard. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.
We finished taking our statement and were ready to let the paramedic take San to hospital for a more thorough check-up, when San let another tidbit slip.
"I guess you'll be able to see all about it on YouTube tomorrow anyway."
"Wait a minute - how would this end up on YouTube?", Kim asked. "Has that happened before?"
"Yeah, all the time, but then YouTube takes it down again", San said, her voice showing more than a trace of bitterness. "Not until the whole school has seen it, though".
"So... Someone was filming this?", Kim asked.
San nodded. "Yeah. Sandra. The other Sandra. She's got a Blackberry, and she's always filming shit. She thinks she's Spielberg or summat."
"Do you know what Sandra's last name is?", Kim asked. San told her. "What about her address? Do you know where she lives?" She didn't.
I left the nurse's office and went to find a teacher.
"Hey, we need the address for Sandra", I said. "Can you help?"
She referred me to the school office.
"Hey, I'm Matt Delito", I introduced myself. "I'm investigating an assault on one of your students, and we urgently need to speak to Sandra, could you give me her address?"
"Sorry, we can't give out information about our students", the lady behind the counter informed me, and nodded firmly. "Data protection and all that."
"But...", I protested, and saw the lady lean forward, as if anticipating my protest.
"We. Can't. Give. Out. Information. About. Our. Students.", she said, emphasising every single word, with the deliberate tone usually reserved for only the slowest of children.
I went back to the Nurse's office, where Kim was showing San something on her mobile phone.
"I think we have her address", Kim said, and muttered something about Sandra being a friend of Jim's neighbour's uncle's catsitter's ex-partner-in-law's car mechanic's niece's babysitter. Six degrees of separation, indeed, but as long as we had the address, that's all we needed.
We left San in the care of the paramedic.
"You know what we're going to have to do, don't you?", Kim said to me, as she shoved her notebook back into her stab-vest. I nodded, curtly. The rest of the shift was going to be a race against the wits of a 14-year-old. We were going to have to find Sandra, and confiscate her mobile telephone as evidence; assault is serious business, and the video would be crucial in securing a charge against Lateesha. However, if Sandra somehow realised the importance or severity of the video she had on her phone, she might delete it, which would leave us with nothing.
"Right, you've got the address?", I asked. Kim nodded.
"Right-oh. Let's go deal with this bully, then", I said. As we were leaving the room, I suddenly remembered something. "San", I said, turning to the girl, who was about to be taken away in an ambulance. "Please, don't tell any of your class mates that you've spoken to the police yet. We need to find Sandra, and it's best if she doesn't know she's about to get a visit from us..."
San was bouncing up and down in excitement. "It's just like CSI!", she said, with a huge smile on her face.
"Er", Kim said, looking over at me briefly. "Yes. Exactly like that."
We climbed back into the BMW, and Kim started typing the address into the car's Mobile Data Terminal, as I released the hand-brake and pulled away from the School.
When we got to the estate, we saw a girl who fit our description outside.
"Hi there", Kim said to the girl, who was typing away on a late-model Blackberry.
"Hey", she said, without even looking up.
Kim stopped right in front of her, and she finally looked up. When she did, and spotted Kim in her police uniform, she nearly dropped her phone.
"Uh, is anything wrong?", she asked.
"Nothing to worry about", said Kim, "I just want to ask you a few questions, is all. Are you Sandra?", she asked. As soon as the name was mentioned, the girl's eyes darted back and forth between me and Kim. She remained silent.
"Are you Sandra?" Kim asked again, positioning herself off to one side. I stood on the other side, just in case she decided to make a run for it.
"Maybe", she said smartly. In the process, she made my job a lot harder - given that she hadn't committed a crime or done anything wrong per sé, there wasn't much we could do to convince her to talk to us. We wouldn't be able to arrest her, given that we didn't have any grounds or reason for arrest.
"Am I under arrest", the girl asked.
"No! Not at all!", Kim smiled. "You have nothing to worry about, but something happened at Sandra's school today, so we need to talk to her".
"I don't know anything", the girl said, and started walking towards the gate leaving the estate. I looked over at Kim, and she looked back, shrugging.
Another girl came out of a building, and she shouted out to the girl who was about to leave. "Hey! Where are you going?"
"These cops are here for you", she shouted back, and kept walking.
Ah, so we did have the wrong girl - but at least we now knew who the right one was. Kim walked over to her. I called a quick "Thank you" after the other girl, and joined Kim.
"Hey," Kim said.
"Hi", Sandra replied. "Is anything wrong?"
"Not at all", Kim said, and glanced down at the mobile in Sandra's hands. She was in the process of writing a message to somebody. The mobile was a Blackberry.
"Can I borrow your phone for a moment?", Kim said.
"What? No you can't - you've got your own!" Sandra said, and pointed towards the personal radio clipped onto Kim's stab-vest.
"Right, well can you put it away in your pocket for a moment, then? There's something I need to talk to you about."
I took a couple of steps away, and sat down on the steps. Kim was wearing her girl-talk voice, and there wasn't much good I could do by risking intimidating Sandra by hovering over her. I pretended to be incredibly bored and typing away on my iPhone, whilst keeping a close eye on both of them.
To my surprise, Sandra took Kim's suggestion, and put the phone in her trouser pocket, before leaning against the brick wall surrounding the courtyard of the estate. She folded her arms across her chest, and glowered at my colleague.
"What?", she said.
"I hear there was a fight at school today", Kim started.
"Well, the thing is, one of the girls who was in the fight got injured"
"She's a bitch"
"I can't really judge that; I don't know either of the girls. However, when there's a fight and somebody gets injured, it's my job to find out what happened."
"Did she call the cops? Fuck, that's so like her", Sandra said, before realising she had sworn. "Er, I mean... I didn't mean... I'm... Eh...", Sandra was looking so forlorn that Kim couldn't help but laugh
"Don't worry", she smiled, "I won't arrest you for swearing, how's that."
"You can do that?" Sandra said, wide-eyed. "Arrest someone for swearing?"
"It depends. Are you going to swear some more?", Kim said, and winked. Sandra shook her head vigorously. "I think we'll be fine then", Kim concluded. "Hey, Sandra", she continued. "Someone told us that you may have recorded the fight. On your mobile phone, maybe?"
From where I was sitting, I could see a change in Sandra. She tensed up, and one of her hands dropped down by her side, faux-casually. She had her hand resting over the pocket where her phone was.
"Is that bad?" she said. "Is that illegal?"
"No, you can film whatever you want, whenever you want", Kim said kindly, with a smile on her face. "Forget about that for now, can I just talk to you about what happened?", Kim said, and dug her pocketbook out of the pocket of her Metvest.
Sandra nodded, and the two of them spent the next few minutes walking through what had happened; who said what to whom, in what order, and why. Thankfully, it turned out that Sandra was a lot better at telling a coherent story than San had been.
When she had outlined the whole story, and re-confirmed that Sandra had definitely filmed the incident, the time came to break some bad news to her
"Well, I think that just about wraps it up, but now we have a bit of a problem - we're going to have to borrow your phone for a while."
"Well, because you were witness to an assault, we needed to take a statement from you, but what you have on your phone is evidence. I'm going to have to take your phone away to our lab, so our guys can take the video off your phone".
"You can't do that!", Sandra said, loudly.
"Well, actually, I can. So, please, could I have your phone?"
"No. I use it all the time", Sandra said. Kim glanced over at me, and I shrugged. We had to take the phone.
"DAD!" Sandra shouted up to one of the landings on the first floor, where a man was sitting on a chair. He leaned forward and peeked down.
"Uh. Hello, officers", he stuttered, confused to see two constables next to his daughter. "What have you done now, Sandra", he said, in the typical dad-joke fashion, delivered in the same tone as the hundreds of "he did it!" and "oh no! They're coming to take me away" or "See, they're here because you didn't finish your sprouts last night" lines that dads seem to love to do whenever we get anywhere near them and their kids.
"They want to take my phone" she shouted up.
"I'll be right down", he called, and vanished towards the lifts, re-appearing a fistful of seconds later as the lift doors slid open, revealing a tall man wearing a pair of glasses and a cigarette along with well-worn flip-flops and a grim expression on his face.
"You can't take my daughter's phone", he started immediately. "She hasn't done anything wrong, has she?"
"Oh no, I didn't mean to give you that impression", I hastily said. "Your daughter is not under arrest, and she's not suspected of anything. The only thing is, she recorded an altercation on her mobile phone, and we need to seize it as evidence".
"That's bullshit", he said.
"Dad! Language!", Sandra said hurriedly.
"Er, Yes. Sorry. But that's not right. It's her phone, and you can't take it away from her.", he said. "If you want the pictures, I'm sure Sandra would be happy to e-mail them, or put them on one of those USB-things for you. Wouldn't you, hon?"
Sandra nodded, her face brightening immediately; it looked as if she could keep her phone after all.
"Unfortunately, that's not going to be possible", Kim said. "In order for something to be useable as evidence, we need to take it off the device ourselves. In fact, it'll be our lab guys doing it. They'll do a statement as to how they got the data off the phone, and whether they believe it was tampered with or not. I'm not saying your daughter would do anything to the files, like accidentally erase them, edit them, or anything like that, but it's simply the way we have to do things for something to stand up in court".
My radio blipped into life. "Two-zero receiving Mike Delta".
I took a couple of steps away, keeping my eyes on the trio, and responded. "Go ahead".
"Are you guys nearly done over there? The late turn is coming on, and they were just wondering when the car would be back"
"Give us twenty minutes to wrap up. We'll be with you in half an hour", I replied.
When I re-joined the conversation, there was a heated discussion going on.
"Give me the phone, Sandra", the father said. Sandra produced the phone, and handed it over to her dad, who shoved it in the pocket of his cut-off jeans. "You're not getting this phone. We bought it only a few months ago. Do you have any idea how expensive these damn things are?", he said.
"Sir, I'm frightfully sorry, but don't worry", Kim said. "Your daughter will get her phone back, but we do need to seize it as evidence for now."
"You can't just go around and take people's phones", he said, and shot angry stares at Kim.
"I totally understand that you are upset", I interjected. "But the truth is, we can most certainly take somebody's phone if we suspect it to contain evidence. Sandra said herself that the phone contains a video of a girl beating up another girl, and we will probably want to prosecute. To do that, we'll need the video evidence."
I decided to try another angle. "How would you feel if Sandra had been assaulted, you knew there was a video of the assault, but the person who filmed it didn't want to hand over their phone?"
"Yeah, well, you don't have the right", the father said, feebly.
I could tell from the way he was looking at us that he did understand why we needed the video, he just didn't want to hand over the phone.
"I'm afraid I do. Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, section 19", I said. "There's another thing you have to keep in mind as well", I added. "If Sandra were to try and copy over the video files, but it turned out that they were corrupted for some reason, or they got deleted by accident, she would be under suspicion of tampering with evidence. That would be rather serious, wouldn't you think? Now, if our guys do something to delete the footage by accident, they'll have to write a statement about that, and Sandra wouldn't be liable for it"
"I understand all of that", he said. "So when can she get the phone back"
"It shouldn't take too long", I said, realising that I didn't actually know how long it was going to take. "I don't know exactly how long, but I shouldn't think it would be more than a couple of weeks or so, at the most. After all, the phone itself wouldn't be evidence, just the video stored on there"
"Can I call someone who knows the law, and find out?", he said.
"You can, but we're in a bit of a rush; we've been here for nearly an hour now, and the shift after us needs our car, so I'd like to be back in my car within five minutes", I said.
Kim took a step forward. "Sir, I really don't want to mention this, but everything Matt here told you is true. Moreover, if you don't hand the phone over voluntarily, we have the right to take it by force. I can see you're a reasonable guy, but I've explained everything to you, and we really need to get going now. Please", she said, and used the mom-stare that few people can resist. "The phone."
Never in a million year did I think that little speech would be going to work. Effectively threatening someone with violence never really works, in my experience, but there's something very disarming about Kim. She was right, of course, we do have the legal right to take the phone by force, but actually telling that to someone you are trying to convince was a bit of a gamble.
"Er," the dad said. "Okay". He stuck his hand in his pocket, and handed the phone over to Kim, who immediately turned to Sandra.
"Do you have a password on your phone, in case the battery runs out?", she asked. Sandra shook her head. "Right", she said and scribbled something in her pocketbook. "Now if you just sign here, it confirms that we've taken your phone, and that you understand why". Sandra scribbled her signature at the bottom of the short entry in Sandra's pocketbook.
"Thank you Sandra", she said. "It's really important that people don't get to bully others like this, and your video is going to help make sure we can stop that from happening in the future. You've done a really good thing here today".
We finished up with Sandra and her dad, and left them on good terms; neither of them were happy that we'd taken the phone away, but both of them seemed to understand that we had to do it, and that we had the right to do so.
As we climbed back into the car to go check the phone into evidence, I suddenly remembered an embarrassing episode from a few months ago, when I had seized a phone belonging to a drug dealer.
"Kim, did you remember to take the battery out of the phone?". She shook her head, and immediately opened it, taking the battery out. Blackberries are clever little devices, that can be wiped remotely - even if they are turned 'off' by turning the power off. There was probably little risk of Sandra doing that, to be fair, but you never know.
When the time comes to copy the evidence off the phone, the forensic guys will hook it to a fresh battery, in a room that's completely shielded from radio signals, so that if anybody does try to wipe its memory, the kill signal doesn't make it to the phone.
"Ha!", Kim said. "Can you imagine if the phone got wiped after all that? We'd never hear the end of it..."
"Yeah, you ain't wrong", I said. "I'm just glad we didn't have to tussle with the dad, that could have gotten messy".
She shot me a look. "You need to get better at reading people", she concluded. "He was perfectly ready to hand over the phone, he just needed and excuse to do so, and I gave him one."
I shrugged, and turned the BMW into the police station car park, steeling myself for the hours of paperwork I still had to do after today's shift
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.