It's about half-way through my shift, and it has been completely and utterly dead all morning. Sometimes, dead is good, and I'm sure quite a few of my colleagues would disagree with me when I say this, but I much prefer busy. Officially, the shifts are about 9 hours long, with one hour over-lap. Sometimes, that means you are dismissed earlier, because the next shift has managed to get their act together quickly; other times, you're working for fourteen hours straight because you somehow end up with an arrest minutes before the shift is meant to end.
Don't get me wrong; the overtime is a delicious sprinkling of cold, hard, additional queenheads sitting in my bank account, but, undeniably, it's properly knackering. The reason why I love busy shifts, however, is that you find yourself looking at your watch, and suddenly realise that your shift ends in twenty minutes – and when a whole day flies by as if it is nothing, it's hard not to enjoy work. Naturally, 'tis not always such…
Monday mornings can be pretty bleak during the cold-snaps that happen this time of year; it is typically when the office-bound social services folk realise that the people they are looking after haven't been in touch for a while. Instead of checking up on their wards themselves, they'll call the police, before one of us is despatched to their house. Frequently, there's absolutely nothing wrong beyond someone having forgotten to pay their phone bill, and social services could easily have heaved themselves out of their chairs, wander the 3 blocks from their office to the estate and knocked on their door. Other times, we're the lucky ones who find the elderly, the infirm, and the mentally unstable a bit worse for wear, in the progress of conducting a mutually beneficial business merger (or a fluid-fiber exchange) with their carpets on the living room floor, or the mattresses in their bedrooms.
You'll have to forgive my bleak start; at the moment, I'm a little bit hung over after last night's pub evening turned into a tequila-slamming headache-fest of gorilla-sized proportions. I would apologise if it hadn't been for the insalubrious fact that the Tequilas were completely necessary and strictly medicinal; yesterday's early shift was spent dealing with two particularly grim sudden deaths. As soon as I rolled out of the gate at the police station, I was despatched at great haste to the scene of an expired 17-year-old, found by his now-in-need-of-some-serious-therapy university housemates. Apparently (I'm not a coroner: the 'apparently' means that whilst I can't really say for sure, but my untrained eyes made the following conclusions...) he decided to put a full stop behind his not-even-really-started life in a particularly gruesome way that left his student halls room covered in claret. I shall spare you the details, save for to note that the human body has an absolutely tremendous capacity for distributing a lot of blood over a large surface area. My shift was punctuated (I like to think of my lunch-breaks as a semi-colon; longer than a comma, but with a light dusting of suspense of what might be coming next) with a sizeable kebab that smelled worse than the aforementioned 17-year-old. As disgusting as my mid-shift caloric break was, I was still dismayed that the eating thereof was rudely interrupted by my radio despatching me to yet another sudden death; another absolute tragedy where it appears that a woman around my age died of drowning following a freak falling-over-in-the-bathtub incident, and somehow not being found until ten days later.
Not that the shift the day before was any better.
I spent the morning on a marked motorbike. It's unusual that I'd do response duties on a motorbike – mostly, response duties are done by car, and patrol duties are done on bicycle or by car. The motorbikes tend to be reserved for traffic and robbery duties, mostly, but a load of the response cars were 54'd (so named after the form you have to fill in when a car has to be taken off the road for any reason), and robbery were using their Q-car instead of the bikes, so the shift skipper figured they may as well try to put as many uniforms on the streets as they could, and sent me off with the keys to a shiny new BMW motorbike. I quite like being on a police bike (or a 'Solo' as we call them); if you thought a police car on lights and sirens were a quick way to get around in London, you've never tried riding a 1200cc touring bike with blue-and-yellow markings, a frankly unnecessarily loud siren, and lots of flashing blue lights through rush-hour traffic. I shan't lie: It's good fun.
For today's shift, I was assigned to a part of the borough where there had been a spate of thefts from vehicles; sat-nav units, for the most part. I was casually cruising along the edge of the tasking area, but a light drizzle earlier in the day, along with a distinct nip in the air, meant that nobody in their right mind left their nice cozy houses. I couldn't really blame them, to be honest.
"Mike Delta three-seven", my radio intercepted my cruising around. At first, I didn't respond; Three-seven is not an oft-used call-sign, and I don't think I've used that designation ever before – or since.
"Go ahead", I replied, when I finally discovered they were talking to me, pressing the transmit button on the on-bike radio whilst leaning way over as I negotiated a roundabout.
"The next borough over has had a serious incident; an IC3 male, aged around 15 has been stabbed in the chest, apparently. They're stretched for staff, and need someone to help land the HEMS helicopter. Are you free to head over?"
"Sure thing", I replied, flicking the blues on. "Give me five minutes and the exact location, please?"
"I'll send it to your MDT", the operator said, ready to send the details from the neighbouring borough's CAD system directly to my mobile data terminal.
"Er, I haven't got one, I'm on a bike."
"Of course you are. My apologies." the CAD operator transmitted, before instructing me to switch to the spare channel, and filling me in on the incident over the radio instead.
As the operator gave me the details, I realised that, of course, the incident had happened on the opposite end of the borough. In effect, that meant a blue-light run from my location, all the way across town. When I had my marching orders, I switched the bike radio to the despatch channel of the borough I was going to. As soon as I switched, I realised they were dealing with pandemonium – there were dozens of incidents in progress, and the radio channel was absolute chaos.
"Foxtrot Bravo receiving Mike Delta three-seven?", I transmitted as soon as there was a tiny gap in radio traffic
"Just to confirm I'm running from Mike Delta to the location to assist HEMS."
"Received, thanks. Let us know when you get there."
As I was flying along the dual carriageway connecting the two boroughs at high speed on blues and twos at anything between zero and ninety miles per hour - whatever the fastest safe speed was given the circumstances, bearing in mind that the whole stretch of road are 40 or 50 limits - I was wondering whether I'd be able to even beat HEMS to the location. It sounds pretty unlikely. Sure, on a high-powered motorcycle it sort of feels like you're flying through traffic, but HEMS is the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service - more commonly known as London Air Ambulance. They are actually flying, and usually at about 150 mph. I'm pretty sure the BMW K1200 could reach 150 mph, but my route has pesky obstacles like pedestrians, cars, roundabouts, and buildings, whereas the ghetto-bird simply skips over everything. It was going to be an interesting little race, for sure.
"Foxtrot Bravo, Foxtrot Bravo, Helimed 27 Alpha requesting talkthrough with Mike Delta three-seven" my radio squelched with the HEMS co-pilot's hilariously Eton-esque voice.
I make a mental note to pay closer attention to the heli pilots on future shifts. The police helicopter is known as India 99 (If there are more than one helicopter in the air, their call-signs are I-98, I-97, etc), and I've noticed that at least one of their pilots also has an outrageously posh accent. Perhaps it's a precondition for being able to fly rotary-wing aircraft above the fair city of London? The other thing the heli pilots do rather splendidly well is absolutely immaculate radio protocol. I rather quite like it when they butt into our radio channels; in their extreme correctness and clarity, they put the rest of us to the deepest of shames. On the flipside, if any of our police officers followed perfect protocol when you are on response duties, they'd be the butt of every joke. I suppose we do brush off our 'overs' and 'outs' along with the full, appropriate address of each other's callsigns when we're on aid for big events, but in everyday use, the radios on my borough are relatively informal.
Their timing was perfect: I only just pulled the bike onto the centre-stand as I arrived at the location where the helicopter was going to be landing. The whole blue-light run had only taken just over seven minutes - Not bad for having to cover around six and a half miles. If my math skills don't elude me, that means I had an average speed of just over 50 mph - not too shabby at all, I think, as I mentally pat myself on the back. It's hard not to feel a little bit like a super-hero when you manage to beat a helicopter through rush-hour traffic.
Across from the park was a large, low-slung warehouse with a paramedic's car, and two job cars pulled up outside. I could hear sounds coming from the warehouse; that was, presumably, where the victim was.
"Go ahead Helimed 27 Alpha. Talkthrough authorised, the channel is yours", the operator said, giving the helicopter permission to talk to me directly over the Foxtrot Delta despatch channel.
"Thank you, Foxtrot Bravo. Mike Delta three-seven, our ETA is four minutes, we are running from a training mission outside the M25. Is the landing location ready?" the HEMS helicopter transmitted.
"Negative, Helimed two-seven", I transmitted, a little bit disappointed. I thought I had somehow beaten the helicopter flying in from the Royal London. "You are landing in a small park next to the incident, I am at location now, but there are some people on location. I'll clear them and confirm."
"Thank you Mike Delta Three-Seven", the chopper crew said. "Foxtrot Bravo, thanks for the talk-through. Helimed Two-Seven Alpha Out."
I unplugged myself from the bike radio (a habit you develop after nearly ripping your ear off only a few times), left my helmet on the bike's rear-view mirror, and moved my personal radio from my jacket pocket to the clip on the front of my Metvest. I realised that I hadn't yet changed the channel on my personal radio to the FB channel, so I was fiddling through the menu system of the recently-reprogrammed and utterly-confusing radio as I walked up to the two people who were in the park.
"Hi there", I said to the two men who was seated on a bench at the edge of the small park. One of them shuffled away immediately, grunting something as he made to leave the park. He glanced back at me defiantly, as if daring me to challenge him. Normally, that's a good indication that they're carrying something they shouldn't be, but I wasn't on a drugs mission: I was there to clear the park, and he was doing my job for me. Thanks, sir!
"Hello", the other said. He had an opened can by his feet – Cider, I think – trying to hide it with his leg.
"We have had a bit of an incident," I started, realising that I didn't really know exactly what had happened, beyond the fact that someone had been stabbed. If he was in need of the air ambulance, it would have to have been pretty serious.
"So?" the man said.
"We're going to be landing a helicopter in this space, and it'll be too dangerous for you to be here," I said, "I'm going to have to ask you to leave the area."
"Aha?" he said.
"Please move, sir", I said, pointing towards the gate in the low fence surrounding the park.
"No", he said, simply.
"No. I have right to be here. Not moving." He said, and wrapped his threadbare coat closer around him, as if settling in on the bench.
"Uhm. Yes. You're going to have to move." I replied. "I'm going to need this space. A helicopter is going to land here", I repeated, in an exercise of mind-numbing futility.
The man looked back at me, cocking his head slightly. I stole a furtive glance at my watch.
"I'm really sorry, but I don't have time for this - You're really going to have to go now", I said.
"No", he said, glancing over my shoulder. I looked behind me. The man who had left us was standing close to my motorcycle, looking at it closely.
"You have ten seconds to get out of this park", I said. "Someone is seriously hurt, and we are going to need an ambulance helicopter to land here so they can save his life."
"I pay my taxes", the man said. "What right do you have to force me to move?"
"I'm not forcing you," I said, doing my best to avoid a confrontation. "I'm asking you very, very nicely if you could pretty please move somewhere else. I don't even care if you take your drink with you, I won't take it off you. I really need this space, and it's going to be dangerous to be here very soon", I said.
"I'm not moving", the man said. "I fought for my country, you know. You can't tell me to do anything. I know my rights."
Some times, I don't mind launching into discussions about the finer points of the law with people who doubt whether they have to do what I say or not. In this case, not so much. I glanced nervously at my watch for a second time, and realised that if their estimation was any good (it usually is), the helicopter was going to arrive any second.
"If you were hurt, would you want the helicopter to come and rescue you?"
"So what would happen if someone refused to let the helicopter land?"
"I don't know." he said, twitching a little. "I don't care." I was starting to wonder whether the guy might be suffering from psychological issues of some sort.
"Don't you think you are being a little bit unreasonable?"
"No. Fuck off. I like this park", he said, reaching for his cider. The only time our eyes met throughout the whole conversation was as he took a huge swallow of cider. He held the can up, as if to say 'cheers', and drank again. I regretted telling him that I wasn't going to take his can of cider off him, because my usual course of action would be to pour it out and send him on his way.
"Move." I said. "Now. I will explain everything to you afterwards, if you like, but this helicopter is going to arrive any second."
"No." he said, simply, before sucking down the rest of the cider, picking up a new can from the Tesco bag behind the bench, and starting to tap the top of the can with his fingertips. He opened it slowly, with deliberate movements, and took another sip, all without acknowledging me without as much as a glance.
"Please?", I tried.
"Why don't you piss off?", he said.
"Seriously, if you don't fuck off out of this park right now, I'm going to have to remove you by force", I exploded, in a spectacular display of lack of professionalism and a pinch of stress.
I could hear the helicopter in the distance, and as I glanced behind me, I saw that another police-car pulled up next to the two cars that were already outside the warehouse.
"I'll have you for assault", he said by way of reply, with a small shrug.
Two officers stepped out of the police car. One of them waved at me, whilst the other - a sergeant - slipped off into the warehouse. I waved back to the constable, and indicated for him to come to me. He jogged over.
"Helicopter is nearly here", I shouted to the officer as he got closer. "This guy is refusing to move. Give me a hand."
The constable - a slender-looking chap in an immaculately ironed uniform – came over to us, and spotted the man I was talking to.
I turned back to the man in the park.
"Okay, I've warned you several times. You can hear the helicopter. I don't really care if it lands on top of you, but it delays the helicopter, so you're now going to leave the park"
"Fuck off", he said, simply.
"You heard my colleague, William, we need to land this helicopter now, or our injured friend could die", the officer said. 'Police Constable Frost', I read on his name tag.
"You heard me", the man said, slowly and deliberately. He turned first to PC Frost. "Fuck.", he said, before turning his whole upper body to me to finish his brief, somewhat obscene, but grammatically correct sentence: "Off."
I heard the unmistakeable clicking sound of a baton being racked next to me, as Frost drew and opened his baton.
"Gis a hand", he said, and grabbed the man by one arm. I leapt into action, and tried to secure his other arm.
The man tried to hang on to the bench with his free hand. Frost slammed his baton into the metal right next to his fingers, with a loud metallic crash that sent vibrations all the way through the bench. He hissed: "The next one goes on your fingers - come on, stop fucking about".
Wisely, the man decided to let go of the bench, and the two of us dragged him along the grass towards the gate. All the while, he was shouting 'police brutality', 'murder' and 'someone take a picture! See what they are doing to me!'. A few people stopped along the edges of the park to look on, attracted as much by the helicopter that was lowering out of the sky as the man who was shouting bloody murder whilst trying to wrench himself free from our grip.
I looked over to my bike, but the man's friend had left, and I saw that my motorcycle helmet had left with him. Great.
As we made it outside the park, we let the man go.
"If you try to enter the park again, I'm handcuffing you to this railing", Frost said, pointing at the metal fence next to the gate.
"I want to complain! Police brutality!", the man shouted, out of himself with anger and frustration. "You owe me a cider, you bastards!"
"You want to complain? No problem," Frost said. "Here, use my phone", he said, handing over a waterproof-looking orange-and-blue mobile phone that was so desperately, painfully unfashionable that it had to be issued by the Met. "The number you want is 101", he said.
I left Frost with the man, and took a few steps into the small park just as the helicopter landed in the seemingly impossibly small space. Before it came to rest on the ground, a paramedic and a doctor hopped out of the helicopter. I pointed to the warehouse, and they both ran in a helicopter-blade-avoiding half-crouch towards the warehouse, small suitcases of medical equipment in hand.
The co-pilot gave me a quick thumbs-up as the chopper touched down.
I looked over at Frost. He stood with the man he had called William, who was speaking into the phone, lamenting his violent eviction from the park for a while. When he finally rang off and gave the phone back to Frost, the officer walked towards me, whilst the other was stumbling away.
"Old William's normally harmless," he said, "but he is rather paranoid."
"Did he file a complaint?" I asked.
"Yeah, I think they directed him to the police station to file a formal complaint and to do the paperwork. That's where he's headed now, I think," Frost said, and shrugged. He stuck a hand out. "I'm Jeremy", he said.
"Matt", I replied. "Nice to meet you; Thanks for your help."
"No worries. We have to deal with William on a regular basis. He's a regular on the borough. Keeps saying he knows his rights, but then doesn't act as if he knows any of his responsibilities," he shrugged. "He's good as gold most of the time, but he does a bit of shoplifting, and can't get through his head that we can search him. He even accused one of the WPC's, Sandra, of rape the last time he was arrested, which caused a bit of palaver."
"Shit, how did that end?", I asked, as we were walking towards the warehouse together.
"It was all on CCTV in custody, so it won't go anywhere. Sandra helped when he refused to let himself be fingerprinted. It got quite messy, but he just seems to like complaining about us whenever he can."
"Bloody hell", I said.
"Yeah, it's a pain in the arse. Of course, they have to investigate any allegations, but it's such a waste of time. Better make sure you write this up carefully, Matt", he said, before he excused himself and said he had to deal with something for a moment.
Whenever we use force – whether actual or just threats – we have to write and justify it carefully. As with everything we do; if the case ends up in front of a review board or in court, the mantra is that if it isn't written down, it didn't happen. I always keep careful notes anyway, but Jeremy's warning was welcome nonetheless; it often feels as if nothing we write down gets scrutinised quite as carefully as incidents where someone complains about uses of force. Rightly so, I suppose.
"Thanks buddy", I called after him, and I walked into the warehouse, where I was met by quite the theatre.
The HEMS doctor had just finished opening the chest of the kid on the warehouse floor with a rib spreader - a device that wouldn't be out of place in a medieval torture museum. I stood watching in the background as the paramedic was shoving both his hand into the gaping, bloody hole in the boy's chest.
The paramedics who had arrived in their car were standing next to me, ready to jump in in case they were needed.
"What the hell happened here?" I asked. "How old is he?"
"He looks about fifteen, but we haven't been able to ID him yet", the paramedic said, "He was stabbed in the chest, and it looks like they nicked his heart. The trauma guys are trying to stop the bleed before whisking him off to the Royal."
"Did they catch the suspect?" I asked the paramedic. The sergeant who arrived with Jeremy was standing on the other side of me, and jumped in with a reply.
"Not yet. But we know who he is; one of our guys recognised him on the CCTV footage." the skipper said. "The sus is only about sixteen, but he's a known gang member. Nothing but trouble, he is. The Borough Support Unit are going around to find him." the skipper said, hard-faced, never taking his eyes off the victim. "This poor bastard had better pull through, I'm really not in the mood for murder today."
He turned to me, finally tearing his eyes away from the live-action medical drama unfolding in front of us. "We were a bit thin on the ground today; your help is most appreciated", he said. "I think I'll be dealing with William's complaint later, so make sure you've got your altercation written up carefully."
"Yeah", I replied. "Jeremy said as much. Complains a lot, does he?"
The skipper only laughed by way of a reply.
"Hey Delito", a voice sounded behind me. I turned around. It was Jeremy. "Think quick! Present for you." he said, and tossed something over to me. I reacted, catching the item before realising it was my motorcycle helmet.
"Where'd you find it?" I asked him; I had already been entertaining several outlandish scenarios I'd have to go through to get a helmet brought to me from the police station so I could ride my Solo back to base.
"The guy who took it. He nicks stuff all the time, and always sells it at the Wetherspoon's down the road."
"How did you know who took it? He left before you arrived?"
"William told me," he said. "I made him a deal. I told him the payment for borrowing my phone was telling me who his friend was."
"And that worked?"
"You've got your helmet, don't you?" Jeremy said.
"Ha. Thanks", I said, shaking his hand.
"We had one of the probationers nick him for theft, by the way. They're going to need a statement from you about the helmet when you have a chance."
"No problems; looks like I'll be doing a lot of writing today anyway, what's an extra couple of MG-11's." I commented drily, jotting a quick note on my hand to write a witness statement about the theft and recovery of my motorcycle helmet.
On the floor, the paramedics and helicopter crew were a flurry of activity as they were preparing the victim for a helicopter ride. I left them to it and walked over to my motorbike, helmet in hand. The fresh memory of the paramedic, elbow-deep in the youngster's blood as they were performing heart surgery on the poor lad right there on the warehouse floor sent a chill down my spine that didn't abate until it reached my pinkie-toes.
I started the heavy BMW motorbike, changed the channel back to Mike Delta, and let them know I was back on the radio channel, and on my way back to the police station to spend some quality time with a cup of coffee, a black ball-point pen, and a ream of paper.
As I was waiting at a stoplight, I found myself crossing for my fingers, hoping that the kid would survive the next few hours.
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.