Notes From the Frontline: Fear & Loathing

By Matt Delito on at

Despite everything you hear about he job as a police officer, I've got to say, I don't do 'scared' very often. Overall, on my day-to-day shifts as a response officer, my shifts tend to be extremely varied, and even occasionally dangerous. I get the odd adrenaline dump here and there, but scared? Not really.

In many ways, my job is just like any other job; there are calculated risks. If you're an IT manager like Ethan Net, you may wake up to a switch that has popped its clogs, leaving your entire network on its arse the day before an important something-or-other. If you're a chef in a fancy restaurant, your fish might have gone off, or British Gas may have decided to do some gas mains work, preventing your Aga from sparking into life. Or, if you're in any other form of gainful employment, I could probably insult your job in this article also, with an over-simplified explanation of a minor disaster at your workplace, that leads you to gnashing your teeth over the woeful inadequacy of my understanding of your job and what it entails. Don't worry -- people do that to police officers all the time.

Being on response duties, I rarely get to see a case through. If there's a big investigation going on, I'm usually only peripherally involved; you'll frequently find me standing on a cordon telling people that no, they cannot go down this road, no I can't tell them what has happened, and yes, I'm frightfully sorry that you have to walk three extra blocks to get to your corner store, but no, I can't make an exception for you. Or I might be called upon to go to a courthouse if we have a particularly hairy case going down and there is a risk of trouble.

Or, when there is a protest march of some sort, I'll be one of the hundreds of officers who has to strike a balance between letting people speak their opinions, and letting people burn half the city down to get their opinions heard. So, I'm sometimes part of big cases, big events, and big... things... But I'm never the detective solving a murder; the burglary squad who tirelessly try to tie together all the burglaries that happen in a particular part of town, or even the traffic cop trying to figure out why a collision happened. Some times, that makes me a little sad; it would be great to see something through to completion after an extended amount of investigation. At the same time, I don't think I have the patience for that: my slightly ADD mind quite likes being able to rush from job to job, and hand it over to another unit as soon as it turns out to be serious enough to warrant anything long-term. A perfect allegory, then, for my private life and the relationships I seem to be having.

Back on track... Protest marches in particular make me uneasy. I don't tell many people this, but I was one of those merry lefties that would participate in said marches. I've been in the middle of a few marches that went horribly awry, and I'll be the first to tell you that crowd mentality is a bloody weird thing -- when you are surrounded by people, even if it's only the dozen or so protestors in your immediate surroundings, it's very easy to adopt their attitudes and points of views. If the suggestion comes up of climbing over a wall, suddenly it sounds like a phenomenally good idea. And if the police are there to stop you, because the wall in question happens to be a hospital wall, and they really don't want a load of troublemakers underfoot in a busy A&E department, then those very same police officers are a big agglomeration of bunched-up c... Actually, Kat, the editor of Giz UK, has already caught me out trying to use the C-word on my blog once before, so I shall attempt to abstain. Suffice to say that I am not a complete stranger to the idea of the police being the bad guys. However, whenever I stop to think, it seems that there is more logic to it than not.

I was trying to write about fear, however, and my still slightly fever-addled mind from the flu that has left me in bed for a few weeks is obviously causing me to digress even more rampantly than usual.

Pray forgive.

In my day-to-day job, I've faced some pretty crazy situations. People with mental problems who think that every other human being is out to kill them have a somewhat skewed view of the world, augmented on occasion by the proliferation of plenty of weapons in easily-available locations. In one particularly memorable case, a tenant of a council flat had removed the door to his apartment. Not just the door handle or the lock -- no -- the whole door. He reported it stolen. Nothing else in his flat had been stolen, of course, including the relatively expensive stereo he kept in his house. Just the front door. When we called the council to find out what to do about this, they informed me that this was the third time his front door had been 'stolen'. As soon as we suggested to the man that perhaps it was him who had been 'stealing' his front doors, he became incredibly agitated, claimed that we were there to imprison him in his own house by insisting he have a front door, and attacked one of my colleagues with an 8-inch kitchen knife that wouldn't have looked out of place in a slasher B-movie that was lacking any sort of creativity on the weapons front. We managed to disarm the man, and sectioned him...and I ended up having to answer for his missing knives that I had removed from his flat, that were promptly destroyed at the police station as dangerous weapons. It's a completely screwed-up situation that most people working in offices don't have to deal with (luckily), but the clincher here is that throughout the whole episode, I wasn't particularly afraid.

A couple of months ago, on a beautiful early-spring day, I was asked in the most polite way possible to join the C-team (so named not for the unmentionably uncouth synonym for female genitalia, but because they are the third team -- the first two being team A and team B, oddly enough. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to discover what teams 4 and 5 are called) on their early turn on a Saturday morning. They were desperately short-staffed, and the weekly market that goes on in our borough has a notorious problem with the sale of stolen bikes, pickpocketing, shoplifting and other miscellaneous general thieving. Every market day, we get overwhelmed with all sorts of nasty petty crimes that still need to be investigated (because, well, they are crimes, and crimes need to be investigated), which further stretches our manpower. Sometimes, that means that the odd shoplifter goes free because we don't have the capacity to deal with them in a timely fashion.

On this particular Saturday, I was on foot patrol in the market.

"Mike Delta receiving 223", my radio murred, as I was having a lovely chat to a rather stunning brunette who was selling t-shirts she had designed.

"Go ahead," the CAD operator replied.

I was just about to compliment the girl on her shirts, when my spidey-sense heard what was coming over the radio.

"We have a developing situation in the market, could do with some help here, to keep things calm."

I excused myself, and started wandering towards the part of the market the call had come in from. Usually, a 'developing situation' is nothing; they just want a couple of extra coppers in the area, just in case anything goes a little awry.

As I was making my way over, another call came up, this time without any of the usually polite radio protocol.

"Urgent assistance required," my radio announced, after the heart-stopping beep sequence that is played whenever someone presses their emergency button. "A large group of youths is gathering and are threatening to attack us over an arrest we made."

Given that I was on foot, there wasn't much I could contribute to the situation, but at the same time, if there was a potentially volatile situation developing, I didn't want to take the chance of staying out of the way either: If the group of youths moved and found me on my own, that would be a rather unpleasantly tense experience, I figured. With that in mind, I half-ran half-jogged to the location, only a couple of blocks away.

When I turned the corner, I could see a group of six officers, one person in handcuffs, and about twenty people standing around them.

I jogged up to the officers.

"Hey, Luke... What the hell's going on here?" I said to the officer who had put in the urgent assistance call.

"Hey Matt. We nabbed this one for doing some criminal damage to a building around the corner. Graffiti. One of his mates sent a text to all their friends, and here we are."

"Ah. Any way that you arrested the wrong guy?" I asked, nervously nodding to the crowd that was menacing only a few metres away.

"No way, we caught him red-handed. Literally. He was using red spray-paint, and he's got loads of it all over his hands."

"Ha", I said, amused at the red-handedness of this particular arrest. "Have you ID'd him?"

"Yeah, I've got his deets."

"It's not worth it, then; let him go now, we can always pick him up again for the crim/dam later. For now, let's try and keep the peace, I reckon", I said.

As the most recent arrival, I decided to take charge of the situation; the group in front of us would have seen me arrive, and, as an outsider, I figured I could do some good in calming some of the tensions.

"Excuse me!" I shouted, in my manliest, police-coppiest voice.

"Your friend here was caught spraying on a building," I called out. "He's been a very naughty boy" I continued, hoping that the Life of Brian reference would cause enough of a comedic interlude to break the ice. I was met with a silent, but threatening crowd. I realised that most of them were way too young to have any sort of affinity with Monty Python, and those who did, were good enough at pretending to be cool to not recognise my joke.

"Jeeze", I said, half to myself. "Tough crowd."

"Let him go, bacon," one of the lads said. Clever -- moving on from 'pigs' to 'bacon' had a certain ring to it, I thought. I rewarded his intellectually lopsided verbal creativity with what some people might consider to be a smile, which seemed to egg him on to continue. "He ain't done nothing wrong! You're always picking on us."

I let my eyes wander back and forth across the group of people in front of me. Given the rag-tag bunch of emos, hipsters, geeks, and the odd hip-hop-styled misfit, I wasn't entirely sure who he was referring to as 'we'. It struck me as not the best-unified group of people. Unless, of course, he meant 'we', as in 'us and them', as in 'those who wear a uniform, and those who do not'.

"Well, technically..." I started my riposte, itching to point out that the ginger lad wearing our shiny, stainless-steel bracelets had indeed, done something wrong. I changed my mind. "Well, actually, when you put it that way... We're going to let him go now. PC Smith," I said, turning to Luke. "Do you reckon we could let these fine upstanding citizens have their friend back?"

Luke smartly produced a set of keys, released the young graffiti-artist, and gave him a slightly harder shove than strictly necessary, indicating that he was free to go.

"Fuck off, man," the artist ungratefully replied, before demanding mustering up the gall to demand his spray-can back as well.

"You're nothing better than a thief," he shouted, when Luke politely declined to return the evidence of his graffiti exploits.

The group behind Luke liked the sound of that, and joined in. It started quietly as a joke at first, but it soon grew in volume and number of voices: a chant of "Thieves! Thieves! Thieves! Thieves!"

I've got to admit, I thought it was a little bit rich to be accused of a thief, when I recognised at least one of the people in front of us from our Gang Members wall back at the station, and one of the others I swear I've arrested for shoplifting before, but I decided not to dwell.

The chant quieted down a little bit, and Luke was just about to reach for his radio -- presumably to cancel the backup -- when the Borough Support Unit rocked up in their van, fully dressed in their rapid-entry riot gear. Turns out they had been executing an arrest warrant not two streets away, and diverted to our support when the urgent assistance call came out.

The BSU are our slightly-less-equine-version of the cavalry, and they usually show up on time, but this time, they couldn't have rocked up at a worse time.

The group in front of us -- now grown to about 40 people -- was instantly stirred into trouble by the arrival of a van-load of our riot-clad comrades. One of them thought it would be a brilliant idea to push over a wheelie-bin, whilst another took a wooden chair that had been standing next to the bin, and started kicking it. Breaking the chair into baseball-bat-sized sticks, he started distributing its pieces to his friends, and suddenly we were facing a group of people who were slightly angrier, and a little bit better armed than just a few minutes before.

Great.

I made one last-ditch attempt at rescuing the situation, and walked up to the group, addressing who I thought would pass as their leader, purely basing that ascertation on the fact that he stood a gnat's whisker's width closer to me than any of the other.

"Hey, can I talk to you for a second," I said.

"What?" he replied.

"There are a lot of families here. Children and all that. They just want to eat their waffles, drink their fresh coconuts, and perhaps buy a broken Walkman or two."

"What's your point?"

"Well, could we just decide to let them get on with that, so you guys go your way, we can get on with eating our donuts, and we pretend none of this never happened? You have your friend back, and I've got a bitch of a hangover, and I'm really not in the mood for all of this."

He took a step forward, and I finally recognised him.

Shit.

This was the guy I had arrested for an attempted murder not six months ago -- and I have no idea a.) how he wasn't in prison, and b.) how I hadn't recognised him up until then.

"Delito," he said, reading the name-tag on my stabvest. "I remember you" he said, with eyes that underlined his statement. He wasn't particularly threatening, but there was something in the way he said it that made me take on a slight defensive stance. I can't help it -- after this many years of Jiu Jitsu, whenever I sense there's a confrontation coming, I want my feet in my power triangle, and my hands free. Harold -- his name, I suddenly remembered -- noticed my change in posture. He kissed his teeth in derision.

I took a half-step back, not wanting to start anything.

"Please?" I tried.

Harold stared me straight in the eyes, then looked me up and down, and nodded briefly. I hoped that meant it was all over, but the next thing I know, he leaned back, and spat at me.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've been slapped, stabbed once, hit with bats a few times, and subjected to all sorts of other violence in my relatively short policing career, but spitting is the one thing I can never get over. It's a simple, playground-style insult that surely nobody feels threatened -- far less injured -- by, right? Except it's the one thing people can do to me that shows a complete and utter lack of respect. It's disgusting, unnecessary, and cowardly: If you're going to assault me (spitting is, technically, an assault), at least have the decency to take a swing at me so I can defend myself. Besides, you never know whether the person spitting at you has some sort of nasty communicable disease. Spitting? No way.

And so, in a moment of rage, tension, and weakness, I decided to arrest Harold, after we had already decided to let his buddy go so we could arrest him later.

It was completely the wrong call.

I knew Harold. I had arrested him before, and could easily have arrested him again later; I knew he was in the system, and I had half a dozen police officers that witnessed the white, gooey assault. Or I could have washed his spit off my face, and chalked it up to another rotten day. But for some reason, today, that wasn't on my mind.

"I am arresting you for assault" I announced, loudly, and clearly, as I produced my handcuffs from their holder. It must have been the element of surprise, because I managed to get one cuff on Harold before he reacted -- but then, so did the rest of the crowd.

The first plank of wood that came flying at me I managed to duck. The second and third -- not so lucky. I took about three solid hits -- two of which caught me in the stabvest, luckily. One of them to the side of the face -- before the BSU and the rest of my colleagues sprung into action. Within seconds, the whole situation had deteriorated into an all-out street brawl (or, as it is more eloquently defined under section 1 of the Public Order Act 1986, "a riot"), with 40-odd teenagers and 25 or so police officers clashed in front of fifty or so stunned onlookers.

As much as I would have loved to tell you the details of the riot that was basically started by me trying to avoid a riot, I have to admit that I was carted off to hospital with a concussion and some bleeding from my head, from a chair leg had been unceremoniously planted against my face, whilst the rest of my colleagues spent the rest of the afternoon wrestling with prisoners, writing up the farce, and swearing at me under their breaths for ruining their otherwise peaceful Saturday morning.

But scared? No -- not on this occasion.

Maybe next week.

***

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!

If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.

Image Credit: Police image from Shutterstock.