Notes from the Frontline: Friendly Fire

By Matt Delito on at

"Hey Matt", I heard a familiar voice behind me. It was Pete, rudely interrupting a veritable feast, served on the finest flatware money can buy. Okay, so it was a slightly floppy BLT sandwich on a paper plate, but nonetheless.

"Did you hear what happened to Dan?"

"What?"

"Smith. Dan. Smithy. Dan Smith."

"Yeah, I know who you mean, you cretin. What happened to him?"

"We searched his locker just now."

"Who did?"

"I did. And one of the custody skippers."

"No kidding?"

"Guess what we found?"

"How should I know? Dodgy magazines?"

"He did have a porn mag in there, yeah, but that's not the problem. His baton and CS were in his locker."

"No way," I said.

"Yes way," Pete replied.

"Oh christ. This isn't going to be pretty."

***

One of the trickiest parts of becoming a police officer has very little to do with actually becoming a police officer. Sure, some of the law stuff takes a few days to wrap your head around, learning to deal with slick thieves comes with experience, and the Officer Safety Training is daunting at first. No, the biggest change of adjustment is coming to realise that police officers, for better or worse, are people, too.

When I first joined the Met, I had friends who started treating me differently. They would act weirdly when I was in the car with them, for example, ("Better wear a seatbelt today, eh, Matt, otherwise you'll nick me!"), or friends who I knew had been smoking weed for years would stop doing it around me. In a way, I appreciate it. Nothing is quite so awkward as an old friend doing something dodgy, and then placing me in the situation of deciding how I'm going to react to it. On the one hand, they're my friends, and I'm off duty, so what the hell should I do. On the other hand, if I am at a party where half the guests are stoned and the other half are so deep in the K-hole that when they come out they are wearing Kimonos and holding chopsticks, I tend to feel like I ought to make myself scarce. It's not that I'm not welcome, but partially, I don't enjoy the company, and partially, I wonder what would happen if the party somehow got under police attention. I can see the interview now. "And you, sir, what is your occupation? A police officer, you say?"

I think I did more thinking about who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I wanted to surround myself with the months after I was sworn in as a Queen's Thieftaker, than at any other point of my life. It was a time of readjustment, re-evaluation and the odd shred of soul-searching as well. It was exhilarating, refreshing, and - yes - a little bit scary.

The other big readjustment is to realise that common preconceptions people hold about police aren't necessarily true. But some of them are, for some police officers.

One prejudice you often face as an officer, is the idea that people drawn to being in a position of power did so because they are power-hungry arseholes who were bullied when they were kids. The recruitment procedures weed out a lot of those applicants (I recently helped with a round of roleplaying for recruitment, and some of the applicants were... Interesting), and most of the rest are gently let go when, in the course of their probationary period, it turns out they have a screw loose.

I don't think the police is worse than other organisations; quite the opposite, in fact: The police has specific checks and balances in place to ensure that people who aren't fit for duty, aren't on duty. But think about it: Consider about your place of work, for example. I'm sure you can think of a few people who are in positions where they are about as much use as a banoffee souflée in a hailstorm. Or, for example, if you've had the misfortune of dealing with certain customer service phone handlers, you've probably spoken to someone where, upon hanging up the phone, you sit back and think for a second that 'wow, this person really oughtn't be dealing with people'.

The police is a great place to work, in part because you get to leverage your own personality to solve problems and deal with challenging situations the best way you see fit. Pete uses his huge, muscular stature to intimidate. Kim uses her mum-voice to shoot down troublemakers with a glance and a snarl. I tend to use a soft voice, large words and whatever wit I can muster in the situation to defuse challenging tasks. The law is the same, but the way we enforce it differs from officer to officer.

Part of this freedom is a challenge. There are colleagues of mine who deal with situations in ways I don't like. Some shout. Some threaten. Some tell half-truths (or outright lies) to calm excited 'customers' down in the heat of the moment. I'm not saying it's wrong, but I do feel that some approaches are better than others.

Dan Smith (or Smithy, as we tend to call him) is one of those officers who has a style of policing that rubs me the wrong way something awful. He's a big lad with a short fuse and a loud voice that reflects a previous life as a shouty-type-person in the infantry. I've never been in the military myself, and I try to tune Smithy out as much as I can, so I'm afraid I can't tell you exactly what he used to do, but it was something shouty. This shouty thing he took with him into the Metropolitan police.

Admittedly, it works on some of our customers, but I can't help but cringe whenever he is an inch away from someone's face, shouting at the top of his lungs: If people see us (they often do), Dan Smith is the archetype of the 'man with inferiority complex who was bullied as a child' cliché. I have no idea whether Smithy was actually bullied, but that's beside the point. The problem is that whenever I wear an uniform, people don't see Matt Delito. People see an uniform. And if the last interaction they had with an uniform was Smithy, shouting in their face for a minor insubordination, then my dealing with this customer is going to be all the much harder. First I'm going to have to convince this semi-coherent drunk that no, I am not a complete arse, and yes, I do really just want him off the street double-quick rather than having to lock him up.

The night before, I had been called to a tube station, where British Transport Police had spotted a suspicious person with a bag. They wanted to search it, and the person had refused, saying they were a police officer.

I have mixed feelings about the call.

Whenever I am approached on the tube for a search, I do show my warrant card right away. Searching people is a pain, and if you carry a warrant card around with you, it is generally fair to assume that you're not worth searching. When I show my card, about 80% of the time, the officers have a friendly chat with me, before sending me on my way. The other 20%, I'm searched like everyone else, and I don't have a problem with that: They're doing their job, and I know they have the right to search me, so if they want to, I'm more than happy to let them get on with it. I should note at this point that I'm stopped frequently not because I look so dodgy, but because, as a police officer, I'm often in contact with drugs or people who have taken drugs. The sniffer dogs pick me out at least every few months as a result.

Anyway, I went to the tube station, and was met by a BTP officer.

"Hey there... Delito", he said, reading my Metvest. "I think we have one of yours" he said, shaking my hand.

"What's up?"

"We were just doing a knife-arch operation, and someone refused to be searched. When we spoke with him, he said he was a Met officer on this borough. He didn't have a warrant card on him, he said, which seemed weird. Anyway, our skipper decided to call one of you."

"Fair enough." I said, as we were being waved through the Oyster barriers. "What's his name?"

"Dan Smith." the BTP officer said.

I stopped.

Of course it would have to be Dan.

We're not on the same shift, but their shift pattern is very similar to ours: They are always one shift before ours, so we relieve them from their shifts. Whenever there is overlap, we work together for a brief (and sometimes not so brief) period of time.

We turned a corner, and there he was.

"Delito!" he said.

"What's going on, Smithy?"

"I got stopped" he laughed.

"Yeah, they stop me all the time, too," I said. "What's the problem?"

"I have my PPE with me" he said, referring to his Personal Protection Equipment. In other words: Handcuffs, CS spray, baton, stab vest, etc.

"Er. Ok?"

"And I left my warrant card."

"Yes?"

"So I didn't want these lovely gentlemen finding my stuff and having to explain myself. Just seemed easier to handle it like this."

"Handle it like what?"

"You know," Smithy said, "You just vouch for me, and I can get on my way."

"Where's your warrant card?" I said, checking my watch.

"I..." he mumbled.

"Mate, you got off duty seven hours ago, what are you doing still carrying your appointments around?" I asked.

"I had a thing."

"What kind of a thing?"

"Ah fuck off, Delito, let's just get out of here." he said, and took a step closer to me. I took a step away from him completely automatically, and he took another step closer. Another two shuffles like that later, and I realised I was treating him differently than others. Usually, I would have accepted one step, but been on high alert. If someone keeps moving me into their fighting arc, my alarm bells go off all over the shop. Completely involuntarily, I put one of my feet behind the other, adopting my Jiu-Jitsu fighting stance.

"What the fuck are you on, Delito?" Smithy hissed. "Come on, let's go!" he said, nodding to a non-descript direction that I took to be the general signal for 'the exit'.

"Actually, Dan," I replied, "If these guys want to search you, I think you should let them."

"What?!"

"Come on, you're job," I said, using 'job' in the 'police officer' sense. "You know what a pain in the arse it is when people are difficult during a search. Get it over with, and let's get you on your way."

"I thought we were on the same side!" Smithy roared.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Dan?" I snapped back. "You know what the deal is, and to be honest you're making me a little uneasy. Whenever I see someone so keen to not get searched, so... Well... That makes me want to search you."

"What?!"

"Do you have anything on you you shouldn't have?"

"Yeah, I already told you. The Asp and the CS."

"What else?"

"That's it."

"Wait, so what about your other PPE stuff?"

"Nope, that's all I got." he said.

Now, I was definitely weary. There are some very few legitimate reasons for why you might have to take your whole PPE kit with you, for example if you were on your way to staff a large event, or for training purposes. But in the case of the former, you'd have all your kit, and in the case of the latter, you'd leave your CS at the police station: There's no reason to carry it with you to training.

"Were you on duty today?"

"Yes."

"Are you on duty tomorrow?"

"Yeah, we're on the two-till-midnight" he said.

"So why do you have your asp and CS with you?"

"I forgot to leave them at the station," he said, in his first obvious and blatant lie of the conversation. There is no conceivable reason for why that should ever happen: The CS and the asp live in your utility belt or in your locker; never outside of them. And certainly never in a hold-all, in a tube station, seven hours after the end of a shift.

"Sorry, mate, but I'm going to have to search your bag."

"Fuck off, Delito, don't be such a pussy."

"Actually, Smith, I'd rather you wound your neck in. I am searching your bag."

"No."

"Really? Why are we having this conversation? There's half a dozen BTP guys here", I said, and nodded at the small crowd of day-glow-uniformed bystanders we had gathered, "And I'm searching you one way or another."

"Whatever" he grunted, and dropped the bag in front of me. Two of the BTP officers stepped forward and did a quick search of Smithy, while I had a look inside the bag.

There was some gym clothing, two police-issue batons, and a canister of CS spray.

"Why do you have two batons, Smith?" I asked.

"I had a second one issued."

"Yeah, but why?"

"I thought I had lost the first one."

"Lost? A baton?"

"Yeah. Got a lot of shit for it, too," he said. I believed him; losing an offensive weapon was going to ruffle some feathers.

"But you found it again?"

"Yeah."

"And you decided to take it with you? After work?"

"I just forgot to take it out of my bag."

"Why was it in your bag in the first place?"

"Dunno."

"What about the CS?"

"Dunno."

"What do you mean you don't know?"

"I don't know why it's in my bag."

"Is it yours?"

"Yeah."

"Why isn't it in your holster on your utility belt?"

"Dunno."

"Mate", I said, really starting to feel uneasy about this whole exchange. "You'd better come up with some good answers really bloody quickly. At this point, you've got two made offensive weapons and a section 5 firearm on you, and no good explanation for how they ended up in your bag, or why they were there."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm not saying anything. I'm just saying that I don't like it."

"Listen here, you little fucker", he hissed.

"Language, Smith"

"Oh fuck off."

"Seriously, one more time, and I'm nicking you."

He laughed a laugh of utter derision, a solid reminder of all the reasons I really don't enjoy working with Smithy.

"Delito?", he said. "Fuck. Off."

"Right, that's it", I said. "I am arresting you for possession of a section 5 firearm, several offensive weapons, and section 4A of the public order act."

I half expected him to do something really stupid, but he let one of the BTP officers put him in handcuffs without struggling. They had a caged van parked outside, and were happy to give me a lift back to the station.

At the station, we did get some weird looks as we arrived, but Smithy had fallen silent, and just seemed to be in a foul, quiet mood. As you would be, I suppose, if you were a freshly arrested police officer.

We went though the booking in procedure quickly enough, Smithy demanded a solicitor, and due to the utter weirdness of the case, the custody skipper ordered a drug test to be administered as well, just in case Smithy's behaviour could be explained by being high on something or other.

***

It wasn't until many hours later that Pete showed up and told me that they had made their way into Smithy's locker, revealing that his CS and baton were in the utility belt where they belonged.

Ergo, Smithy had somehow gotten his hands on two extra police-issue gravity-lock extendable batons and a canister of CS spray.

"What happened next?" I asked Pete.

"Well, we went to the cell and nicked him for theft as well."

"Theft?"

"Yeah. Next, we looked into the serial number on the CS spray."

"And?"

"It belonged to Syd." he said, with an apologetic shrug

"No fucking way?!" I whispered.

Syd is one of the special constables we work with.

"Yeah. So we called Syd on his phone, and he came in to the station right away. Turns out the CS spray was missing from his holster, and he has no idea when it went missing. He says he had it at the beginning of the last shift he did, but that he doesn't think he checked whether it was still there when he ended his shift."

"So... What does Smithy say?"

"Nothing. He is in with his solicitor now."

"Holy fuck. There's no way that Smithy would have been able to mistake the spray for his own, is there?" I asked.

"Not impossible, I suppose", Pete said, but left the end of the sentence hanging. My eyes met his, and we both knew it: If you found a can of CS spray on the ground, the first thing you'd do would be to try to find the owner, or hand it in to the quartermaster at the police station. Sticking it in your own bag? Inconceivable.

"He is in so much shit." I said.

"I think so too," Pete nodded. "He's fucked his career for sure, but I'm not even sure he'll escape without a prison sentence, you know..."

"Bloody hell. Theft, off/weap, firearms... I think you may be right. What the hell was he thinking?"

In light of the findings in Smithy's locker, his house was searched as well, but the search team didn't find anything untoward.

Smithy's case hasn't gone to court yet, so I have no idea how this saga ends, but part of me is relieved that he's no longer interacting with the public.

***

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.