It's coming up towards the end of a gruelling night shift. So far today, the craziness included helping drag a drunk, near-drowned teenager out of a park lake, which meant I had to head back home to get a dry shift of clothes.
Of course, since this is towards the end of our shift pattern, I didn't actually have any more clean shirts (my break days are usually eaten up by catching up on sleep and doing laundry. It's a pretty rock and roll lifestyle, this being a police officer business), and so I got on the rap-rod to the sergeant.
"Hey skip," I said.
"Delito! How's the kid?"
"I don't know, actually. She was breathing when she came out of the lake, and LAS are taking care of her." I said, referring to the capable hands of London Ambulance Service, who were at the location nearly immediately.
"Did they look you over?"
"No, I'm serious. You know we can't be going into lakes; you don't know how many needles are in there, and what sorts of poisons or bugs. This is London, remember, not Lanza-fucking-rote."
"Okay, I'll have a chat with my GP," I lied. I know the waterways around our borough are hardly virgin spring water, but damn, I've been scuba-diving in all sorts of crap, so I doubt a little pond water is going to be the end of me.
"Anyway, what's up?"
"Well, I went home to grab some clean clothes, but I've just discovered I'm out of shirts and trousers."
"Break out your civvies, then. I know there's only a couple of hours left of the shift, Delito, but we're desperately short staffed, and I'm afraid we'll need all hands on deck."
"I can do that."
"What car are you in?"
"Right. Could you bring it back and swap with one of the Q-cars?"
"Cool, see you in a minute," he said, and rang off without another word.
As I'm standing there in my living room, stark-bollock naked, still holding my mobile phone, I see someone walking past outside. Of course, they glance in through the curtains. I make a little yelp, and dive into the hallway to protect what little modesty I might have left. Great. Now I've accidentally flashed my neighbours too.
I've grabbed a towel and wrapped it around me, as a loud banging sound comes from the door not six feet away from me.
"Police, open up!"
I open the door, and see Pete and Kim standing there. Holy... Did I just flash the both of them?
Pete looks at me, sternly.
"Sir, you are in the Queen's service, and what you do in your spare time is none of my concern, but flashing people..." Finally he cracks up, and hoots with laughter. Kim joins in too.
"Aw..." she says, gasping for breath, as her and Pete are practically leaning on each other to stay upright. "I missed iiiit!" she adds, in a teenage schoolgirl kind of way, before they are both overcome with fits of giggles again.
Yup, definitely the last night shift of a 6-day shift pattern: Everyone gets awfully tired and hopelessly giggly.
"What are you doing out here anyway?" I ask. "Cup of tea?"
They nod in perfect unison, and I flick the kettle on, still dressed only in my towel.
"You know your way around the kitchen, Pete." I say. Which was true -- he had lived with me for a couple of months recently, when his apartment block had a huge fire in it, and was declared unsafe for a while. Then, just as weirdly, the engineers suddenly changed their mind, and declared that there was nothing wrong with it at all. Why that had to take several months I will never understand, but then I am not a structural engineer. Besides, it was great to get to know Pete a little better, outside of work.
I dart up the stairs to my bedroom, pull on some clothes, and make it down before the kettle has even boiled.
"We just popped by to swap cars," Kim said, as I poured milk into her and Pete's tea. "Sarge said you needed the Q-car, and we're still in uniform... Unlike some people," she winked. Now, Pete was standing right next to me; I asked him later. I will swear on a bible that she glanced down at my crotch when she said that, which obviously means that she wants me. Pete says I'm full of shit, that I see what I want to believe, and that I'm playing with fire. Anyway, Pete is not telling this story; I am. And she definitely glanced down at my crotch.
A swift cup of tea and some stale chocolate hob-nobs later, we've done the formal exchange of cars, which is a surprisingly chunky procedure, and includes doing a full inspection of the car, signing several things in a log book, and so on and so forth. When it is finally over and done with, I high-five Pete and give Kim a quick hug, before leaping (well, flopping -- it is 4am, after all) into the dark grey Honda Jazz. Yeah, I know; a bloody Jazz. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice enough motor, and it doesn't half confuse people when they get pulled over by a Jazz, but, well, it ain't great for making haste through town. I'm suspecting it was a car that was used in a crime or something, and then they never found an owner for it. They do that with high-end Audis and BMWs and such; turn them into police cars as a PR stunt. "Car used for crime will now stop crime" kind of thing. And then they get the first maintenance bill from the Audi dealer. Once they recover from the sudden loss of blood to the brain (presumably after a few stiff gin and tonics in the nearby pub), the Powers That Be quickly get rid of the car.
I get on the radio, switching it to the support channel.
"Mike Delta receiving 592?"
"592, go ahead."
"I've swapped cars, and am now in a new motor. Q-car. Could you assign me a callsign please?"
"Sure. You're now Mike Delta 54."
"Is there anyone with you?"
"Nope, just me. I don't have an MDT," I transmit, explaining to the operator that since I don't have a Mobile Data Terminal (that's Metropolitan Police speak for 'computer') in my car, they can't send me jobs directly. It's not a huge problem; the radio works fine. "But if you have something for me to do, have at it."
"It's not too busy... I don't suppose you fancy going to a burglary do you?"
"You suppose correctly. I don't fancy that."
The operator laughed.
"I figured. No bother, the burglary squad will get to it, I'm sure. We've had some reports of people looking into cars up north in the borough. Possible theft from car, although we haven't actually had any reports in. Perhaps you could just have a drive-around and see if you see anything?"
"Yeah, of course. Was he spotted on CCTV?"
"Yes yes. IC3 male, medium height and build. Red baseball cap. Dark hoodie. Last seen with the hood down, but CCTV says he keeps putting it up and down."
"Yeah. Well, he's up by North Street when we lost him, so have a peek-about!"
I switched my radio back to the main despatch channel. Hunting car thieves is quite fun, actually, especially if you're in an unmarked car. Of course, no self-respecting car thief would go out unarmed (even if it's just with some knuckle-dusters or a screwdriver), and there's only one of me, so it remains to be seen whether I can actually arrest him if I find him... But that'll be a challenge for another time -- I've got to find him first.
The good thing about the Q-cars is that, unlike our pandas and other police cars, they have radios in them. Radios, in the traditional sense. BBC and all that. I turn it on, and find that it's tuned to Heart FM. I can't tell whether that's Kim and Pete playing a joke on me, but hey, Heart FM works just fine for some gentle cruising around.
I'm not in any rush, and the light drizzle means that most people -- criminals included -- are staying indoors. It's nearly 5am now, and most of the domestics have fizzled out by now. A blissful silence on my personal radio is filled in nicely by a spot of Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. Lovely.
There's scarcely any cars around at this time of night, so I do a quick check on a few of them. Whether they are stolen, and whether they are insured and taxed; that sort of thing. They all come back as "no, yes, yes" respectively, which makes for a rather welcome change.
As I'm waiting at a red light, I spot a set of blues coming up from behind me. The car moves over to the right lane, and careens through the red light at a lofty pace.
"Bloody hell." I mutter to myself. I know this intersection very well, and I'd never dare go through this particular red light at more than a few miles per hour -- there are always people crossing at high speed, frequently well beyond the speed limit, and no amount of blue disco-strobes is going to make their brakes defy the laws of physics.
I also spot that, much like my car, the car is quite unusual. Mine is unusual for being a shitty small family car with a crappy engine and no handling worth speaking of. His is a Mazda RX-8. I grab my radio.
"VRM check," I call, as I'm hurrying along through the now-green light, following the small red sports car driving with blue lights on.
"Foxtrot Uniform 57" I call out the car's vehicle registration mark (or 'index number', or 'number plate' -- whatever you want to call it. We tend to call them VRMs). "Oscar Golf Mike."
"That should be a red Mazda RX-8. It is driving on blues. Do we know whether it's allowed to do that?"
I concentrate on my driving for a while. The RX-8 isn't going particularly fast -- only about 40mph or so -- but it is a 30 zone. On the other hand, he doesn't drive as if he's had much training in driving on blues and twos -- In the two minutes I've been following him, he's stayed very neatly in his lane, for example. Me; if I'm on a blue-light run, there's no way I'd stay in lane, as close as I can get to the parked cars. It's too easy for someone to pop out of one of the cars, or to step out from between them. No, sirree -- if I'm doing a blue-light run at 4 in the morning, I'll be in exactly the middle of the road (it's not like anybody is going to overtake me) -- as far as I can get from the cars on either side, and in the best possible position to look as far ahead as I can.
At the same time, I don't want to attempt to pull this guy over either; he could, conceivably, have a permit for driving on blues, and I'm not going to pull over someone who might be on their way to save a life. So, until I figure out what's going on, I'm just going to follow him from a safe distance.
"Mike Delta 54?" my radio pops into life.
"Can you repeat the VRM?"
"Sure. Foxtrot Uniform five seven Oscar Golf Mike."
"Yeah, that's what I got the first time. The VRM is unknown."
"As far as we can tell, that VRM has never been issued by the DVLA."
"But he's on blues?"
"Yeah. He has one set hidden in the grille at the front, and another set on what seems to be small television screens or something in the rear window."
"If he has them, he hasn't used them yet."
"Where is he?"
I tell them, and very soon after, I hear a call on the pan-London channel. A couple of nearby traffic officers are pulled in this direction, and India 99 -- the helicops -- are in the area as well. They just finished a job, so they join the hunt.
I give a running commentary of where the red sports car is, as traffic and the helicopter continue on their way.
"We have a red Mazda RX-8", the operator summarises to everyone, "VRM Foxtrot Uniform 54 Oscar Golf Mike. No trace on the VRM. Could be a computer problem, but we haven't had any other problems tonight; as far as we can tell, that's not a valid number plate. He is exceeding the speed limit, running on blues."
How bloody bizarre.
"Okay, I've set up, and if he doesn't turn off, he is coming toward me," one of the traffic cars says. "Up the Gloucester Road. I am stopped in the bus lane."
It's going to be interesting to see what happens when the red Mazda comes across a police car. I am still following him at speed -- the Gloucester road is pretty large; it's a single carriageway, but with four lanes, so plenty of space. The Mazda is currently doing around 80mph in the 40 zone. We have both been caught by a series of speed cameras, but if the Mazda cares at all, he certainly doesn't care enough to slow down.
As we come around a long, lazy left bend, I spot the police car in the bus lane; he is stopped with his red warning flashers on, bright enough to be spotted from the moon. Our friend in the Rex must have seen it too; his blues immediately go off, and he goes on the brakes, slowing down so fast that I have to hit the anchors as well. Of course; the RX-8 has way better brakes than my poor little econo-box, so I change lanes just in case I can't slow down fast enough. I nearly catch up with the Rex, but do manage to slow down in time. I curse at myself; not knowing your car is one of the cardinal sins in advanced driving, but I must have been pretty tired: Of course a flashy, low-slung sports car was always going to have better brakes than a glorified grocery-cart.
"The RX-8 slowed down sharply on spotting the traffic car." I said. "He also turned off his rear blues."
"His front blues went off as well," the traffic cop confirmed.
"That," I observe drily, "Doesn't seem like the behaviour of someone who is a member of the emergency services."
"Shall I yank him?" the traffic cop asks, as his Range Rover effortlessly catches up with us. He perfectly brings his car up next to mine, and sticks his hand up to me as a greeting.
"Yes yes," I say. Before I even get my second 'yes' out, the Range Rover's blues go on. Ever so briefly, the RX-8 accelerates, and my heart does a little jump. Are we going to have a bona-fide car chase?
Luckily, the RX-8 thinks the better of it, and he slows back down after less than half a second. Perhaps he spotted the helicopter, up and ahead of us, or perhaps he realised that even in his 200 horsepower beastie, he wasn't going to get away from us.
I say 'luckily' because car chases are inherently unpredictable and quite dangerous. If we need to stop somebody, it's always better if we don't have to chase them down, and risk the life and limb of our officers, our runaway, and the general public.
Okay, now that I've written the above, I'm sure the Metropolitan Police PR team is happy. Now; I can tell you my real reaction: I was a little bit gutted, actually. Of course, it is better if we don't have to do car chases in inner-city London. It's far safer for everybody concerned. And given that I was in a 1.4L Honda Jazz with the grand total of six and a half horsepowers and brakes that are so under-rated it's a bloody miracle (and, I hasten to add, some rather quick thinking on my behalf) that I didn't slam into the back of the car I was following, so I couldn't realistically have been involved in the chase anyway. But dammit, I'm an advanced driver, I'm trained for stuff like this, and my bloody god is it exciting.
Not today, however.
The driver of the Rex steps out of the car, and the traffic officer takes care of him right away.
"Hi there, sir. We need to talk to you, but I appreciate it is raining, would you mind coming to sit in our car instead?" Smooth move -- yes, it is raining, and that's an excellent reason to invite them, but the police Range Rovers are also fitted with microphones and video covering the rear seats of the car; it's basically a mobile interview room.
The driver walked up, hopped into the car, and closed the door. I made to take a seat next to the RX-8 driver, but the traffic copper shook his head and pointed to his passenger seat instead. Only later did I realise why; the rear doors on the Range Rovers have the child locks turned on, and the windows are disabled: If the driver kicks off, we can just get out of the car and leave him inside whilst we figure out how to deal with him. So this particular car is both a mobile interview suite AND a portable jail. How bloody clever.
"I need to advise you that this car has audio and video recording. You are under caution, and anything you say may be held in evidence. That includes the video and audio recordings. Is that OK?"
The expression on the man's face said it all; no, that wasn't OK in the slightest.
We ended up arresting the RX-8 driver; he had a suspended a driving licence. That in itself would be bad enough, but it just kept piling on. The car's VRM was a fake -- or, more precisely, he was driving around with two of the digits on the VRM swapped -- it should be Oscar Mike Golf. So, his real number plate spelled 'OMG'. You just can't make this shit up. He claimed to be dyslexic, and to never have noticed that the plate was wrong, but the way he was racing through speed cameras made me think the re-arrangement was anything but an accident. Either way; that would be up to a prosecutor and defence team to decide; for us, it's pretty simple: You either have a correct number plate, or, as far as we are concerned, you don't have one at all. The traffic cop checked the car's VIM number, and realised that it had been tampered with in one way or another. The VIM number on the car didn't come back as suspect, but since it's an offence to do anything to a VIM number, that was another reason to arrest him; we now suspected him of driving a car that had been stolen at some point (it turned out that the VIM number swap was incredibly well done, but that the original engine number was still on the car, which meant we were eventually able to trace the car back to one that was stolen more than a year ago). Finally, we just had to ask him...
"Sir, are you a member of the emergency services?"
"Er... What do you mean?"
"What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a plumber."
"Don't be a fucki... I beg your pardon. Don't be stupid. You know what a plumber is."
"Okay; so were you on your way to a plumbing emergency?"
"I was, yes."
"And does this emergency warrant the use of blue lights on your car?"
"I don't know, does it?"
"The answer, as you well know, is 'no'."
And that was the end of it. The Traffic unit did spend a few weeks on the case, trying to find out where and how he ended up with blue lights professionally installed in a stolen sports car. The fraud division briefly checked him over to find out where he would have gotten the money for the posh car (turns out that that wasn't actually a problem; this particular plumber may have been paid a lot of money, but it all seemed to be clean). And finally, he was locked up for an impressive mélange of traffic and handling stolen goods offences.
The only thing I'm genuinely gutted about, is that the Met didn't decide to use the car as a Q-car. I mean... C'mon! Not only was it a bright red, 200-horsepower sports car, but it had the lights already fitted!
Sadly, no luck; such is life at the Met
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.