Tales From the Front Line: The Last Line of Defence

By Matt Delito on at

I was leaned against the wall outside a maternity clothing store, casually minding my own business. I had been there for about an hour and a half, and with my luck, I'd be there at least another hour. Maybe two.

***

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you'll probably have been deceived into thinking it's all 'go, go, go', with plain-clothes operations, riots, spies, and traffic-assisted drama. Some shifts are certainly all of these things, and I've had 12-hour shifts where I've dealt with upwards of a dozen different calls. Those are the shifts that fly by, for sure, but if I am to be painfully honest it can be weeks or sometimes even months between shifts that are worthy of a blog post.

Today's shift was anything but worthy, but a problem shared is a problem halved, apparently, so I figured I'd share it with you guys anyway.

It's a Friday - traditionally one of our busiest nights - and I've had precisely one highlight today. It was distinctly anti-climactic: Two half-drunken thugs had decided to beat each other about a little bit, and a member of the public had called the police. I was nearby, and dropped by to have a look at what was going on, only to find two police-cars already at the scene. The two young men were shouting at each other. One had a graze underneath his eye that was bleeding a little, and the other had a split lip, but according to the 999 call, witnesses hadn't seen any weapons, so it sounded like we had ourselves a good old-fashioned fist fight.

Like myself, both the other police-cars had been single-crewed. There we were; three police cars, three police officers, and two suspects who were going to have to be hauled into custody for an assault investigation. A fourth car arrived; again, single-crewed. Four cars, four officers. I recognised the officer who arrived last; it was Kim, who I've had a crush on for quite a while. I gave her a quick wave when she stepped out of the car. She waved back.

The two men had finished shouting at each other for the time being, and decided to re-focus their shouty contributions to the soundwaves on us instead. Their voices were echoing off the walls from two sides - the fight had taken place between two buildings in the borough's partly derelict, semi-industrial district.

Suddenly, one of the men started running. The guy with the split lip bolted away from me, towards a footpath at the far side between the two buildings. Why he thought he was going to get past Pete, our super-fit 20-something officer who spends all his non-uniform-time in the gym, remains the only mystery in this entire event. Pete leapt after the man as if he were a lion, and brought him crashing to the ground as effectively as if his escapee was a lobotomised lab rat. Before he had been able to waddle more than five or six steps, he was on the ground among the rubble. Bernard - who bizarrely enough is known as "Bernard Bernard" to all his colleagues, for reasons that escape even the sharpest of detectives - helped handcuff Pete handcuff the man.

The other man saw what had happened to the first, and instead of doing the clever thing - giving himself up - he started running towards Kim and myself. As he was closing in, I realised he was a rather big fellow - a little taller and significantly wider than myself, and I realised instinctively that this might turn into a little bit more of a confrontation than I had anticipated. I was closer to him, on the left. As he was gathering speed, he measured us both up, and must have come to the ill-conceived conclusion that Kim was the path of least resistance (clearly, he didn't know Kim).

He veered off to his left, aiming straight for Kim. I changed direction as well, but realised he'd make it to Kim before I'd get anywhere close. I was expecting her to bring him down with some sort of extravagant rugby-tackle. The man aimed for the gap between the end of the wall and Kim, where there is a small outcropping at the end of the wall - it seems as if the rubble-filled gap between the buildings was once a building in its own right, and that part of its outer wall was still standing.

Instead of the expected Rugby tackle, Kim provided me with the only laugh I had that day: She simply took a quick step into his path, which meant that he had to slightly adjust what way he was running. Then, as he came up along side her, she used both hands to give him a sharp push. Kim's not particularly large, and I imagine the hulk of a man who was running at full speed barely even noticed the push. It was enough, however, to move him ever-so-slighty off his previous trajectory. The new direction meant that instead of escaping through the gap between the wall and Kim, our escapee ran straight into the wall itself, catching it full-on with his left shoulder. The impact sent him spinning. He hit a kerb, ended up shimmying in a few high-speed, off-balance steps before losing his balance altogether, and flying head-first into a group of bushes planted on the far side of the road.

Watching our semi-inebriated, dimwitted fighter high-speed-stumble face-first into bushes looked absolutely ridiculous, and both Kim and I had trouble breathing with all the laughing. Eventually, he emerged, swearing, out of the bushes, where we were easily able to handcuff him. Kim had to take him to hospital to get treated for the injuries both from the fight and his botched escape attempt. The latter netted him a broken clavicle and a badly sprained ankle, which explains his lack of further attempts attempt to run after he wrestled himself free from the greenery.

The result of Kim, Pete and Bernard vanishing off to the hospital with the two prisoners was that we had three fewer cars on the street. Not the greatest situation to be in on a Friday night, but it had been a slow week, so I didn't mind: I went back on patrol in anticipation of a busy night.

"Mike Delta calling two-four", my in-car radio murred.

"Er... Receiving?", I transmitted, realising that nothing was happening.

I looked down at my radio, and tried again. "Receiving?". Nothing.

I tried the in-car set instead. "Receiving!"

"Is that 529?"

"Yes, yes. What's up?"

"Is your PR not working?"

I looked down at my radio again: The screen was off. I pressed the 'on' button, but nothing was happening.

"Apparently not", I transmitted using the in-car radio. "It won't turn on"

"See if you can fix it", the CAD operator said.

I pulled the car over, and spent the next few minutes trying to coax my radio back into life. I disassembled it, checked the battery was inserted properly, and put it back together again. Our radios are sturdy, waterproof, and generally just work. I tried everything I could think of, which basically just amounted to holding the "on" button down for various durations, without being rewarded by the customary Metropolitan Police logo.

"Mike Delta receiving 529", I transmitted, using the car radio.

"Receiving"

"Yeah, I think we can safely conclude that PR is buggered. I'm going to have to nip back and get a replacement, but I'm on the far side of the borough. I'll be about 20 minutes", I said.

I could have made it in five on blues and twos, but getting myself a radio would hardly warrant a full-speed run though town. Unfortunately.

"Received. Get a move on; we've got several Sierras and an India unassigned.", the CAD operator transmitted.

An S-graded call has to be responded to within an hour, and calls graded India must be responded to within nine minutes at the most.

"I can grab one of them if you like", I transmitted.

The duty inspector butted in before the despatcher could respond "Mike Delta 2 for 592. Negative, Delito. Negative. Come back. Get a radio, then head back out. Mike Delta 2 out."

"Received. Will do", I replied, curtly.

I sighed. The inspector was right, of course: The radios are the most important piece of safety kit we have: without them, we wouldn't be able to communicate, which would be a dreadful risk to take, especially when attending the most volatile situations we run into. I have no doubt that the radios save more lives of officers than any of the other tools we carry with us. If you put up a call for urgent assistance, other officers will rush to your side, usually being there within minutes. And if things get really badly out of hand, the folks with dogs, riot gear, tasers or guns can be summoned in only slightly more time, as if they were cold beers tied to a rope behind a boat on a fine summer's day. Without the radio to haul them in, however, you'd be out of luck.

Over the car radio, I heard out dispatcher call in help from another borough to deal with the bar brawl that had been graded for immediate response. A PCSO was sent to check out one of the Sierra-grades, and a couple of officers from the burglary squad who weren't on response duties piped up and took on a couple of the other calls.

When I finally made it back to the police station half an hour later, it took me another fifteen minutes to find someone who had a key to the store room, where I swapped my non-functioning radio with one that did work. Then, I spent the next ten minutes trying to figure out how to register it on the system, so my name and shoulder number are associated with the radio. For obvious reasons, CAD operators need to know who has each radio; if I call up for urgent assistance, they need to know who I am and what task I am assigned to.

Finally, an hour after I had been told to come in to swap my radio, I was ready to go back out. Safety first, of course, but it felt like such an epic waste of time. I decided to go and grab a cup of coffee before shooting off again.

As soon as I sat down with my coffee, sod's law struck, and an I-grade came in.

"We've had a report of a burglary in progress at the MaterniCare on 53 Lower Street", the call came. "Graded I, Graded India".

I leapt up, and when I snatched up my coffee, I must have squeezed a little bit too enthusiastically on the styrofoam cup. The lid popped off. The cup buckled. It slid from between my fingers. It hit the table, sending a fountain of steaming hot coffee straight up and towards me. I saw it coming towards my face in slow-mo, but it failed to hit me in the face. Despite the coffee's valiant efforts, most of it was overcome by gravity, and cascaded down the front of my Metvest and into my lap instead.

I swore, left the enormous puddle of coffee where it was, grabbed some napkins, and was furiously rubbing my crotch with a wad of napkins held in my left hand, as I sped out of the cafetaria, transmitting at the same time.

"Show two-four", I said.

"Last transmitting, what's your shoulder number please?"

"Sorry, I guess the registration didn't take. It's PC529 Mike Delta, Matt Delito."

"Received. We'll send the CAD to your MDT", they concluded, and proceeded to send the notes for the current call to the mobile data terminal built into the police car.

"Received, thanks", I said, and got in the car.

As I sped out of the gate at the police station, the blue strobes reflecting on the walls around me, and the siren piercing the early evening darkness, the previously scalding hot coffee was cooling down quickly, sending a chill up my spine. I glanced down; there was a huge wet patch on the front of my trousers. The fabric our uniform trousers is made of is truly, profoundly horrible; scratchy and static and not particularly comfortable, but it does have two advantages; They dry quickly, and they're dark blue, so stains don't show up that easily.

I turned the car down the road, and arrived at the MaternaCare shop front.

"Show two-four on location", I transmitted, as I brought the car to a very rapid halt. I got out, grabbed my torch, and peered into the shop for a closer look.

The scene was dead.

"I can't see any sign of the burglars, but the glass in the entry door has been smashed in", I transmitted.

There was only one thing for it; I couldn't do a drive-around looking for the suspects: Nobody was in the shop to look after it, and with the front door basically being completely smashed in, I couldn't leave it behind. As soon as we arrive on scene, it's our responsibility that nothing further is stolen, so I wouldn't be able to leave until the door had been boarded up, or the owners of the store had showed up to look after their wares.

I got back on the radio, on the spare channel.

"I'm going to need someone who can board up a shop door", I transmitted.

"Ah, I may have some bad news for you", came the response.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, there was some unrest in one of the neighbouring boroughs earlier today, and there seems to be quite a long wait before anybody will be able to come out and board the door up"

"Er. Could you give me an estimate?"

"I could, but you're not going to like it"

"Go on...?"

"8am."

"What?", I said, looking at my watch. It had only just turned ten pm.

"Sorry, buddy. We'll try to send someone to relieve you as soon as we can, but for now, hang tight!"

I looked up and down the street. The whole stretch of road, as far as I could see, was completely deserted. Not a single open shop, no pedestrians... Even the cars were few and far between, and the light from the lamp posts seemed to spill their light on the road only with great reluctance. Great. I'd be spending the next while guarding a ghost town.

From the back of the panda, I grabbed some cordon tape reading POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS, and I cordoned off the area in front of the shop from the corner of the shutters, via a lamp post, to the next set of shutters along. Then, I settled in, standing leaned against the wall. Waiting.

The first twenty minutes were a bit slow.

The next twenty minutes were dreadfully boring.

The next twenty minutes were deathly boring.

In the next twenty minutes after that, I started to lose my will to live. To make matters worse, I felt that I really, really had to go to the bathroom.

My watch beeped. It was 11pm, and my radio was coming to its slow-building crescendo in its Friday-night symphony of destruction. It was going absolutely crazy with traffic: There had been a relatively serious accident where a bus driver had run down a pedestrian. There had been three separate armed robberies that appeared to be linked, and the robbery squad, on motorbikes, had support from four additional motorbikes from Traffic, trying to chase down the moped-riding robbers. There was a huge fight among several groups of travelers, that seemed to spread slowly from pub to pub somewhere in the south of the borough. There was a sudden death of a woman in her mid-30s that was considered suspicious. Another traffic collision was added to the mix, this time between a car and a two bicyclists, one of whom had died on the scene already.

As if all of that wasn't enough, it all went haywire, and everything started getting really busy. A man shouting threats to kill at a group of teenagers had been spotted with what appeared to be a shotgun, and the helicopter and several Trojan units were called in. The main dispatch channel was taken over by the shooting incident, and the working channel was changed to another channel. The mass brawl slowly got further out of hand, and there was now fighting at four different pubs. CS gas was deployed in two of the locations, and the Territorial Support Group was called in to try and deal with the fighting, which were now technically three riots and an affray.

And all the while, I was standing outside the MaterniCare, listening to all my team mates being stressed to hell and back, with a wet and cold crotch, a desperate need to go for a wee, and a rapidly diminishing will to live.

Then, finally, my radio said something actually aimed at me.

"529 receiving Mike Delta?", the radio said.

"Yes! Receiving!", I said, elated that I would finally be relieved.

"You still on your last?"

"Yes yes"

"How long do you think you're going to be?"

"Er... You tell me? I'm waiting for someone to come board up this MaterniCare"

"Oh. Right." the CAD operator said. "The next shift are going to need your car. We'll send someone to come pick it up, and see about getting you relieved"

"Received", I said drily.

A few minutes later, a police car showed up with two officers. One of them left with the car they had come in right away, heading off to go help out with the mass brawl, but I managed to convince the other to stand watch for a few minutes, whilst I walked to the McDonalds around the corner to use the bathroom and buy some water.

"You didn't make it, then", he said when I came back.

"Huh?"

"Looks like you've pissed yourself, mate", he laughed.

I looked down. Yes. That coffee stain was significantly less invisible than I had hoped it would be.

"It's coffee", I said, but there was nobody there to listen; he had already vanished down the road, leaving a smell of burning rubber, and the echos of his sirens to leave me company.

The echoes died out first.

Then his lights turned a corner, and the blue strobes disappeared.

Finally, the wind took the last waft of burning rubber, leaving me feeling rather lonely, standing outside the MaterniCare, listening to my radio spewing out tales of the world war that seemed to be raging in the borough that evening.

"Thanks a lot guys", I said, to nobody in particular.

I was outside the shop for another hour and a half before an officer arrived on foot.

"Hey!" he said brightly.

"Hi", I replied.

"What are you doing here then?", he asked

"Er... Waiting for you, I think?"

"I dunno, are you? I'm just wandering around on foot patrol at the moment", he said.

Angry, I grabbed my radio.

"Mike Delta receiving 529?"

"Go ahead?"

"I was just wondering if you guys would be able to arrange for me to be relieved?"

"Er... I don't have you as active on my system", the CAD op said.

"I assure you, I'm most certainly active. And I've been on this crime scene for nearly four hours", I snapped.

"Stand by", the operator replied to me, and continued; "Mike Delta receiving 281"

The officer standing next to me looked down at his radio, and reached for his transmit button.

"Receiving", he said.

"Are you free to deal?"

"Yes yes"

"You are on foot, correct? In the Lower Street area?"

"Yes yes"

"Could you make your way to the MaterniCare on Lower Street?"

"Yes yes"

"There's an officer there who need to be relieved"

"Yes yes"

"Mike Delta 529 receiving?" the operator continued, addressing me this time.

"Yes yes", I replied, mirroring my colleague, wearily.

"Your relief is on its way"

"Yes yes"

"Two-eight is on their way back to the station with a prisoner,"they said, referring to the call-sign of the caged van. "I'll get them to pick you up on the way"

"Yes yes"

I stood around, chatting with 281 for a few minutes.

"Need a drink?", I asked the officer.

"Yeah, if you wouldn't mind?"

It had been an absolute killer of a shift, and I had missed out on all of it, protecting a broken window pane from curious cats and an inquisitive fox for more than half of my shift. Frankly, all I wanted to do was to go home, bury my face in a pillow, and sleep for twelve hours.

I walked to the McD to get my relief a cup of coke and a large water. When I returned, the van was there, waiting for me.

As I got in, he called after me. "Hey Delito", he shouted.

I turned around.

"It looks like you pissed yourself", he said, and waved a good-bye

"Thanks, I know", I called back, and slumped back into the van, on my way back to the police station

***

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.

Image credit: Police image from Shutterstock.

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