“You’ve got to be… I mean… On my way,” I blurt into my radio, as we’re called to a silent alarm at a warehouse for the third time in a shift.
“What was that?” Syd asks, as he’s biting into something.
“We’re going back to the warehouse again.”
“What’s that you’re eating?”
“Dude, seriously? Could you do anything more cringeworthy? If the borough commander sees you eating a doughnut, you’re in for some serious trouble, bud.” I say, and furtively glance around, as if the borough commander didn’t have anything better to do than to sneak around, spying whether or not his officers were eating stereotypical food.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Syd said, and immediately lowered his donut to his lap, looking out of the window, spying for brass.
The suspension in the shagged-out Astra we have today couldn’t keep my shaking a secret for long, and Syd’s head snaps back to me, finding me red-faced, dying with laughter.
“You absolute asshole” he says, timed perfectly with a young mother and her 6-year-old daughter strolling by his open window.
At this point, I should be telling him off, but he’s already spotted them, and is hanging out of the window, blundering out some sort of half-stammered apology to them for swearing, and I just can’t get it together – it’s been a long time since I’ve been out on patrol with Syd the special, and whilst he’s a rather fabulous constable, he’s also remarkably gullible and open to some phenomenal practical jokes.
When I finally come to, Syd has started laughing along as well.
“I guess the borough commander has more important things to do, eh?” he says.
“You think?!” I reply.
“So, about this warehouse” he says.
Grumpily, I point the car towards the warehouse again. We’ve been there twice already, and every time there’s no trace of what may be setting off the alarm – but of course, this is also a well-worn trick for burglars: If you can kick a door hard enough to set off the alarm, you only have to do it 4-5 times, before people stop coming to check what is going on. At that point, you can rob the place bare. So, for the third time, we’re going to take a look.
Half-way back to the warehouse, we get a call.
“Mike Delta eighty-four?” my radio blasts at me. I reach for the volume button to turn it down a little.
“Go ahead”, Syd replies.
“Are you at the warehouse yet?”
“Negative, on our way.”
“Okay, spare please.”
Syd looks at me, raises an eyebrow, and switches his MTH-800 to the spare channel.
“Eight-four for Mike Delta?” he asks
“Who’s that?” comes the reply.
“Thanks, the radio ate the start of your transmission. We’ve got a call that someone has made a section 24a arrest. We need you to head over and check it out right away!”
“We’ll send the details to your MDT now.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“Mike Delta out.”
Syd looks at me, as the map for our destination loads up on the Mobile Data Terminal.
“Do you remember what a Section 24a is?”
“A citizen’s arrest, right?”
“Well, let’s go deal with it, then!”, I said, and pulled into traffic.
When we arrived at the location, it turned out to be a someone’s house. We walked up to knock on the door, but it opened before we even made it up the step.
“Thank god you are here”, a harassed-looking woman said, as she waved us past her, into the house.
“Show time of arrival for eight-four at our last assigned,” Syd blurted into his radio, as we hurried past the woman.
Inside the living room, we found a man, perhaps thirty-five years old. When we walked into the room, he seemed to be sitting on a sofa, but as we entered, we realised that wasn’t quite the case. He was, in fact, sitting on a person who was laying on a sofa. The person was remarkably quiet.
“What’s happening?” Syd said to the man.
“Oh hello, officer. My name is John. My wife Sandra and I came home to find this guy in our house. I clobbered him, and have been sitting on him ever since.”
“When was this?” I asked.
“About an hour ago”, John answered.
“Fourty-five minutes,” Sandra said.
“Okay, let’s call it fifty minutes”, John counter-offered, in a bizarre round of time-bargaining about how long he had been using a burglar as a sofa cushion.
At this point, I was more worried about the burglar than the exact time when this might have occurred, but Syd beat me to it.
“Could you get off of him, please?” Syd said.
“Oh, sorry, of course”, John said, and leapt up.
The burglar was on the sofa, motionless. I caught Syd glancing at me before leaping forward and taking the young man’s pulse. I was a little surprised at this point; At Hendon, we’re not really taught to worry about the pulse, but to instead worry about someone’s breathing instead: If they’re breathing, they have a pulse. If they’re not, then don’t waste time looking for a pulse; try to get them breathing again. Syd gave me the impression that he knew what he was doing, though, and he nodded curtly at me.
“He’s asleep”, Syd concluded.
“Yeah. Or whatever. He’s breathing, and his heart is beating just fine.”
“So what happened?” I asked John.
It turned out that John had come home from shopping, and found our sleeping beauty blundering around the living room. As a response, he clunked the young man in the head with the aluminium water-bottle he happened to have in his hand (I’ve got to admit, aluminium Sigg water bottles never made sense to me, but I can see how a full one would make a rather hefty weapon), and when he went down, John lifted him into the sofa, and literally sat on him for the best part of an hour.
“Right…” I said, looking at our sleeping burglar. I started rooting through my Metvest for an Evidence and Action Book. “Syd, get on the blower to LAS and get them to come here on the hurry-up.”
“Aye-aye”, he said, and got on the radio to get London Ambulance Service to send an ambulance to our current location.
When you grow up, you’re probably thinking that police can do pretty much anything they like. They have hitting sticks, little canisters of mace, and there are more than a few stories about the friendly neighbourhood constable giving unruly boys a clip around the ear to sort them out. Reality is quite dramatically different: Sure, you do hear stories bout police violence from time to time, and I won’t try to say that there aren’t a few bad apples among us, but in reality, use of force is the most-drilled part of policing. We’re shipped off to Officer Safety Training (OST) every six months or so, which includes endless repetition of the laws and guidelines about use of force.
The main reminding factor for uses of force is, perhaps surprisingly, article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which, from a policing perspective, can be distilled into the mnemonic ‘PLAN’. Basically, all use of force has to be proportional, legal, accountable, and necessary. I could write a 2000-word essay on each of those key elements, but to keep this relatively brief, as soon as John explained to me what had happened, I realised that he might be at odds with both the ‘necessary’ and the ‘proportional’ elements of ECHR article 2.
“Did it look like he might attack you?” I asked John.
“No, he seemed really out of it. Like he didn’t even really see me. Maybe he was on drugs or something.” he said.
I looked over at Syd, who was in the process of moving the sleeping beauty to the floor, and placing him in the recovery position, all the while checking whether he was still breathing.
“What do you think would have happened if you had just pushed him?”
“He would probably have fallen over”, John said, and laughed nervously.
“So really, do you think there was any need to hit him in the head with a heavy metal object, and then sit on him for an hour?” I asked.
“Don’t answer that”, Sandra snapped.
“What?” John said.
“It’s a trick. They are tricking you.”
“Can’t you see what’s happening? He’s making it sound as if this guy was completely innocent, and that you attacked him! This is outrageous!”, she was working herself into a hysteria.
“Sandra!” Syd said. She looked down at him. “Please, we’re not here to arrest you or to cause problems”, he said. “We just need to find out exactly what happened. That’s our job, and unfortunately, part of doing our job is asking some uncomfortable questions.”
I looked at Syd. Then at John. Then at Sandra. I nodded.
“Right”, I said. “We aren’t here to arrest you. We are here to arrest that fellow.” I said, pointing at our unconscious burglar. “Which reminds me, I don’t think we have actually arrested him yet. I know it feels weird, when he’s obviously out cold, but would you do the honours, Syd?”
All three of us stood by patiently whilst Syd went through the motions of arresting and searching a passed-out man on the floor. As he completed his search, he found a recently used injection needle that had rolled under the sofa, and a fresh injection mark in the man’s arm.
I won’t lie: I felt a wave of relief. Sure, it might still be that John had done permanent damage to the man by assaulting him, but at least there was a chance that the man was unconscious because of the drugs rather than the blow to the head.
When the ambulance arrived, they didn’t spend a lot of time on ceremony; a quick check, on the carrier, and straight out to the ambulance he went; straight on blues-and-twos, and go-straight-to-the-hospital-do-not-pass-go. Syd had to go with his prisoner in the ambulance, but I stayed behind briefly to ensure I got all of John and Sandra’s details and checked their ID’s, to make sure I was talking to the people I thought I was.
As I left the house and climbed into the panda to go to the hospital and find Syd, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done in the same situation; what would I have done if I had found a semi-comatose drug addict in my house? But then I realised, it wasn’t a fair comparison. I have years of practice of dealing with people with various amounts of alcohol and drugs in their system; I have years and years of martial arts, and I’ve been in more brawls whilst in uniform than I care to remember. All in all, I’d like to think that I would be able to read the situation correctly, an confront John in a way
I remember thinking that John might very well find himself in hot water; Was his use of force legal? Undoubtedly: He was defending his wife, himself, and his property. Was it proportionate or necessary? I guess that wasn’t up to me to decide; If I had smashed an already-mostly-out-of-it burglar across the noggin with a steel cylinder, it would almost certainly not be a proportionate use of force. For John, however, it would be entirely dependent on how much experience he has in self defence, and the general state of mind he was in.
As I pulled into the hospital car park, I realised that Syd had spoken the truth when he said that we weren’t there to arrest John… But I was also nearly completely certain that at some point in the next 48 hours or so, another pair of officers would come a-knocking to arrest John, to effectuate a prompt and effective investigation into an instance of assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
On the one hand, it’s easy to say that John should have the right to defend his property – and I completely agree with that. But on the other; where is the line? Would it be OK to bludgeon every burglar to death if you find someone in your house? Is it OK if you merely maim them for life? Should you shoo them on their way? Or perhaps there is a happy medium?
“Hey, it’s not my job to judge”, I said to Syd, as we were both sipping at cups of the satan’s scrotum-juice that passes for coffee in NHS hospitals, “and I’m bloody happy I’m a police officer and not on the bench, because cases like this would be really, really hard to decide either way.”
Syd nodded, scrunched his face up, and took my cup of ‘coffee’ away from me.
“You wait here,” he said. “I’m going to get us a couple of cups of real coffee from Costas, just up the road.
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.