Notes from the Frontline: A Sense of Perspective

By Matt Delito on at

"Okay, slow down -- Is anybody hurt?" I ask the man who is standing in the kitchen, holding an enormous meat cleaver.

"No! Nobody!" he replies, wild-eyed.

"Right, well, can you put the knife down please?"

He looks at me, eyeing me up from top to toe. I'm worried I may have to react quickly, but I can tell he is more afraid than angry. I put both my hands up in front of me, showing him my empty palms. Pete mirrors my movement next to me, but he also takes a small step back, just to ensure he stays outside the man's reach.

"Seriously, sir, I just need to talk to you." I'm deliberately talking in a low voice, spacing my words carefully. "You'll be safe in here, nobody can hurt you. Please put down the knife, let's just have a chat."

"I..." he starts, but changes his mind, turns around, and drops the heavy meat cleaver onto the kitchen counter. When he turns back, he has tears in his eyes. Regret? Frustration? I can't tell.

Pete takes him by the arm really gently, and leads him towards the living room - away from all the stabby, slicey implements in the kitchen, towards the living room.

We've been called to a house after an anonymous tip said that a man was beating a woman at the address. So far, we haven't seen anybody other than the scared-shitless guy with the meat cleaver, who eventually opened the door for us.

"We have some... Problems." he said.

"Problems?" Pete enquires.

"My uncle lives a few streets away. He is violent. He has guns. He wants the house back."

"Is this not your house?"

"It is."

"Do you own it?"

"No."

"Whose house is it?"

"Council."

"So this is a council house?"

"Yes." he says, but I can tell he's leaving something out. I decide to spend a little bit of time talking to him about the furniture ("Lovely sofa, where did you get it?") and the various pieces of art around the living room - the man was so ridiculously on edge that it didn't seem prudent to continue the conversation until he had calmed down a little.

"So why would your uncle mind?"

"He says that the house was meant for him, but then we got it. I don't really know what the issue is."

Pete pops his head around the corner of the living room; he went exploring around the house as soon as it was clear that I was doing my 'oh wow, I have always wanted one of those beautiful vases' spiel.

"Matt?" he said.

"Yeah?"

"We may have to 24."

"Oh?"

"Yes. I'll explain later."

"Okay."

24 isn't usual police code for anything, but I've been working with Pete long enough that I realise what he means - 24 is a reference to Section 24 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984. Specifically, it is the section that describes the powers of arrest for a police officer. Pete has just told me that he thinks he has grounds and reason to arrest the man I am trying to calm down. And the fact that he hasn't just jumped in and made the arrest already, makes me think that he expects things to kick off.

There's only one of Haidar, and two of us. Pete may not actually be using steroids (I asked him once), but by jove does it looks like he does. He spends every waking hour either in his beloved police uniform or in his gym clothes, and he's built like a Russian battletank of a prize fighter from one of the Rocky movies. I'm not nearly as big, but what I lack in strength and bulk, I make up in technique. Many a year of Jiu Jitsu means that I have a fair bit of experience with throwing people around - and obviously, my years in this job don't harm either.

I see Pete move into position. He is being very cautious indeed. I wouldn't characterise Pete as a natural risk-taker as such, but seeing him actually go out of his way to minimise risk in what looks like it ought to have been an easy arrest made me nervous. I've worked with Pete a lot over the years, and, well, I don't think I've ever seen him quite this twitchy about making an arrest.

Pete has moved closer, whilst I kept the small-talk going with our mark. ("Really? Only 30 quid? That's amazing!"). I look up at Pete for a fraction of a second. He nods.

I take a fast shuffle forward and grab Haidar's right arm. On the other side of him, Pete has done the same. Before he even realises what has happened, I hear the familiar racheting sound of a pair of cuffs attaching themselves to the man's arm.

Pete gives the man a sharp shove towards the sofa, and Haidar lands face-first into the big, soft sofa cushions. In one smooth movement, Pete has moved his cuffed hand onto the back of the man's body. I respond by forcing his right arm towards his left, but he finally cottons on to what's about to happen, and he spasms violently, and nearly manages to pull his arm back.

"Stop resisting", Pete shouts.

The man is uncharacteristically strong. He arches his back and roars in anger, and as he projects a guttural, almost animalistic growl of anger, he yanks his arm toward him, trying to get free.

Pete has a solid grip of the cuffed hand, and I can see the metal digging into Haidar's hand. It's down to me now, it seems. I sharply breathe in, before screaming a 'kiai', and landing a sharp rap with my knuckles against his upper arm muscles. I don't particularly envy him: Given how hard he was struggling and how tense his muscles were when I landed the punch, it must have been absolute agony. I can feel the pressure from his arm slackening: Perfect. My weakener worked. With a grunt, a push, and a little bit of technique, I'm able to manipulate his right arm onto his back, where it is met by a metal manacle. It clicks into place, and within seconds, we have the man under control.

"I am arresting you for assault intending to cause grievous bodily harm", Pete says. "The arrest is necessary to ensure a quick and effective investigation", he concludes, and then reads Haidar the police caution. All the way through the caution, Pete is met with a loudly uttered tirade in Urdu. I don't understand a word of what he is saying, but applying a keen sense of tone and a fine set of deductive skills, I conclude that Haidar is not wishing Pete a rosy future full of healthy children, ample-bosomed lovers and fine cognac.

"What have you got" I ask Pete, curious why we just arrested this man.

"Upstairs", he says. "Second door on the left. I'll babysit; get an ambulance, will you?"

I blink twice. I don't like leaving an officer with an prisoner on their own - especially after a violent arrest. Pete reads my mind, however;

"I'll call you if I need help," he says, and taps his radio with his index finger.

I nod in return and check my radio - there's plenty of signal. A rarity in this particular part of town.

After assuring myself that Pete indeed has the situation with our prisoner under control, I sprint up the stairs. The first door on the left is wide open - it's a bathroom. The first on the right is as well; it is a home office of some sort. The first on the left...

I only have to take one step into the room to realise why Pete found reason for arrest. On what looks like a sofa-bed in the corner, there are two women. One looks like she's a bit older than our prisoner in the living room. Quite a lot older, perhaps, even. The other is roughly the same age as our prisoner. Both of them are frightened, and in a state of serious need of medical attention. The younger women has an extensive collection of cuts and bruises, ranging from still-bleeding fresh ones, to partially healed and nearly faded ones. The older woman is in a similar state, but also has her arm in a cast.

"Are you guys OK?" I say.

No response.

"Can I help you?"

No response.

"Do you speak English?" I ask, at last.

The younger woman looks at me, and shakes her head slowly.

"No Englisss" she says. "No speak."

"Do you understand?" I ask.

"A Little".

"Who did this to you?"

"What?"

I point at myself, mirroring some of the injuries she has.

"Au! Ouch!" I say. "Who?"

"Fall down stair" the younger woman says so softly that her words flutter across the room like a fragile whisper, with no real conviction behind her obvious lie.

I take a step closer, and the two women shy away from me a little.

"What is your name?" I say, to confused silence.

I decide to try a different tack.

"Matt", I say, pointing at myself. "You?"

"Rehma", the younger woman says, and then points at the older woman. "She is Tahira."

"The man downstairs. You his wife?" I say. Rehma nods. "And you?" I say, looking at the Tahira.

"Mother", Rehma says.

"His mother?"

"My mother." she corrects, and says something, presumably in Urdu.

I nod, and get on the radio.

"We need an ambulance to our last assigned. Two IC4 females, one aged around 25, the other around 50 years of age. Both conscious and breathing, but with multiple cuts and possible broken bones following assaults." I say.

"Received." the CAD operator says, and follows up with "ETA about 6 minutes" a few seconds later.

"I thank you most kindly" I transmit.

"Do you need anything?" I ask them.

"What?"

"Do you need... Anything?" I ask again. I can't really think of a simpler way of saying that particular phrase, nor any examples I can come up with to clarify what I'm asking them. Nor, come to think of it, anything I could do for them even if they did come up with something they might need.

"No?" Rehma says, unsure.

"Okay. I will be back." I promise.

"No!" she says sharply, raising her voice ever so slightly.

"What?"

"No! Don't back."

"I have to come back, I'm afraid." I say, misunderstanding what she is trying to say.

"No! Don't not leave."

"Do you want me to leave?"

"No. Please no leave."

"We have arrested your husband. You understand?" I say, scanning her face for a sign that she is understanding what I'm saying. "Arrested?"

She lifts one arm, and mimes that she's attaching a handcuff to her arm.

"Yes." I say, and point at the handcuffs, still in the holder at my hip. "Arrested."

Rehma pales visibly. Whatever her husband had been doing to her and her Tahira, she was obviously worried about the consequences of the police swooping in to take him away.

***

Domestic abuse is a pretty regular part of the job - I don't think I've ever had a full set of shifts where I didn't get called to one domestic case or another. As a result, your knowledge of Form 124D becomes so intimate that you know the contents of each page of the form by heart. Page 6, suspect. Page 9, risk assessment. Page 15 arrest notes. Page 3 evidence. Page 4, Victim information. It's gotten so bad that I swear I can navigate a 124D exclusively by the weight of the paper; I find myself asking the first question as my fingers are finding the correct page without having to look down at the form.

Needless to say, as a police officer, the biggest risk (well, the second biggest risk, after the risk of catching a kitchen knife in the jugular, I suppose) is that you become disconnected from it all. When I can feel the end of a very long shift nipping at my heels, and you're going to the second domestic in a day, it can be very difficult to keep things in perspective.

Allow me to recapitulate; Not too long ago, I went to a domestic incident to a house where several known drug users reside. There was a lot of shouting, and a lot of semi-coherent, drug-fogged accusations flying back and forth. She punched him, he slapped her, she took a frying pan to him, he tried to strangle her with a necklace, she stabbed him with a hypodermic needle, he returned the favour with a knife... Well, I could go on. I know both of these 'customers' really well, and it becomes an immense task to try to even catalogue the barrages of abuse this particular set of customers subject each other to. But we have to. It's the job.

Only a few hours later, I was despatched to another domestic, where a girlfriend had slapped her boyfriend... This is going to sound incredibly unprofessional, but I have to admit that I found myself really struggling to care about the case. They had an argument about money, she slapped him, he called the police. Don't get me wrong; I'd much prefer he calls the police than that he takes his own revenge, but when I got there, I couldn't help but think that they were a relatively healthy couple, and that he could have gone for a walk, come back, and then had a decent conversation about what had happened, and the case would have been solved without police involvement. Especially against the backdrop of the torrential horror of violent abuse I had just come from, I found it really hard to connect with this case.

At some point, I realised that there was only one thing I could do, and I asked very nicely if I could use the bathroom. When they gave permission for me to skulk off, I splashed my face with some water and sat on the toilet lid for a minute. 'Pull yourself together, Delito', I whispered to myself.

In this job, it's sometimes easy to forget that the general population doesn't come in contact with the police all that much. So, when Alice slapped Eric, and he chose to dial 999, this was the peak of something that had been building for a while. The apogee of action, the pinnacle of drama. On Eric and Alice's intensity scale from one to ten, Alice's assault and Eric's picking up the phone to call the police to report someone he (presumably) loves, is an eleven; Tsunamis of emotion and more than a few thimbles worth of tears. That Eric and Alice's incident barely registers as a two - perhaps a three, if I'm being generous - on my emotional compass is irrelevant: As a 'law enforcement professional' (as the US cop shows seem to call us these days), my job is to go to every job with a clean slate, and to muster empathy and strength in equal measure for every job I go to.

The reason I go on this towering tangent in my tale is to illustrate some of the emotional investment we have in some of the calls we go to. In many ways, from an emotional standpoint, the easy jobs are harder than the easy ones, (bear with me...) precisely because it can be exhausting to dig deep for the called-for level of empathy to deal with a particular case. It is easy to feel for and to express emotion when you bring tales of a recently deceased teenager to their parents; not because the task is itself is easy - far from it - but because the empathy is real, natural, and readily available. In the case of Eric and Alice, it sits much deeper. It might just be me, but I find it emotionally exhausting to continually remind myself that what seems to me like a run-of-the-mill case of common assault is everything but for the people involved.

Back in the house of our Pakistani family, Pete has managed to get some information out of the husband, Haidar. Apparently, the family - all three of them - have been in the country for nearly six years. But since they somehow managed to enter the country illegally (I have no idea how they actually made it across the border - but then, it's not my job to conduct that particular part of the interview), Rehma and Tahira were never able to make use of local government services; No English lessons meant that they were unable to communicate with the local community. No official presence in the country meant that when Rehma suffered a miscarriage, it was somebody from the local Pakistani community who offered 'medical' 'assistance', the injuries and subsequent infections of which left her infertile.

***

"Sandwich?" Pete said, holding out his lunch-box to me as we were stuck on a crime scene cordon.

I accepted gratefully; Pete had recently started dating a girl who decided he could do with gaining some weight. As a result, he always had the most fabulous luchboxes, and he had more than enough food for two.

"Hey," said Pete. "Do you remember Rehma and Tahira?"

"It rings a bell," I said, scouring my hypoglycaemic brain for hints.

"The wife and mother we freed from Haidar down in Kent Avenue."

"Of course!" I said, and felt a pang of shame of having already forgotten. It wasn't long since I had testified in court in the case against Haidar. At the end of the court case, he was put away for a rather long time, on a veritable feast assault charges.

"I heard that they were given the choice of applying for asylum here in the UK, or getting on a plane back to Pakistan."

"And...?"

"They picked the plane."

"What? Really?"

"Yup. I think they had explained to them what the asylum process is like, and I think they decided that they'd rather put the memories behind them and move on."

"Wow..." I said, unable to come up with something actually intelligent to say.

"Yeah."

We sat in silence, nibbling at the sandwiches.

"Fuck me", I said. "I really cant' think of a worse fate than being confined in a house with an abusive prick like Haidar. Imagine it, man?"

"Yeah..."

"Six years, wasn't it?"

"I think so. Yes. Nearly six years."

"Six years, man. Six years without really speaking to anyone, no medical attention, at least one miscarriage. The sheer volume of tragedy is just unfathomable."

"Yeah." Pete said. He looked pensive at the police car that rolled up. The skipper in the car delivered some quick messages, took the crime scene log from us, and declared that the crime scene could be released.

"And yet," Pete continued, as if he hadn't been interrupted, "they seemed to be doing relatively well when I saw them at the trial."

"You saw them?" I looked at Pete.

"Yeah, on one of the last days - I was in court anyway, and decided to kill some time until my other trial came up, took a seat and had a look at the final bit of Haidar's trial."

"People are incredible. I'm not sure I could have bounced back, if something like that had happened to me."

"I know. It's weird, isn't it; you'll find people going into hysterics about the small stuff, and somehow the capacity to shoulder the really big things... Incredible."

"I have a theory about that," I said.

"Oh?"

"Well, when you are dealing with small stuff, for every little thing you deal with, it all piles up; every little problem you catch becomes cumulative, because no manner how many little problems you solve, it still seems as if you're struggling against a thousand more little things. It's like death by a thousand paper cuts."

"And the big things?"

"Ah, well imagine your dad dies, right? Suddenly, the entire universe revolves around one thing, and one thing alone: The death of your dad. From one moment to the next, all the small stuff pales into insignificance, and because nobody expects you to deal with the bullshit - after all, your old man just croaked it - you are able to shoulder it, because you can focus on dealing with one enormous task, rather than a thousand little ones."

Pete stopped chewing his sandwich, leaned back, and looked at me for a little while.

"Fuck me, Delito, are you some sort of philosophy professor or something?"

I started answering, but was interrupted by the radio putting out a call for a domestic disturbance. Since the crime scene had just been dissolved, and I had just shoved the last piece of sandwich in my face, we were technically off our refreshment break. In other words, Pete and I were at a loose end.

"Want it?" I asked him.

"You know, I don't" he said.

"Me neither," I said, and pressed the transmit button on my radio. "Show 84 for your last, and send the details to our MDT, please." I said, accepting the call. We are professionals, after all.

Even though Rehma and Tahira's scale of one to ten lived in a completely different league as the domestic we went to that afternoon, I think this case stuck with me, mostly because it helped me to somehow realised that people's frames of reference are all different.

One person's inner circle of hell might be another person's moderately bad day, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter: As long as the sight of a police uniform and a stern talking to or a swift arrest can make someone's life better, this job is still worth doing

***

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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