Notes From the Frontline: A Pinprick Is Nothing Like a Paper Cut

By Matt Delito on at

“GET BACK”, I scream at the top of my lungs, as I’m slowly shuffling backwards, away from the man facing me on the 7th floor landing in the council estate. Behind me is the stairway I just came up; to the right of me is a low black railing and a 70-foot drop. In front of me is a "customer." He seems dazed, confused, and absolutely furious. Something has happened to him, and he sobs, shouts, mumbles, drools, spits, and shouts some more. The words “Elise” and “I’m going to fucking kill him” keep being repeated.

The adrenaline boost is giving me tunnel-vision and aural exclusion. I’m aware of it, but I can’t help it: I can’t hear or see anything apart from the man I am facing. He isn’t a very tall man – about F507*, perhaps. He is around 40 years old, IC1*, and has a build which bears witness of a long, hard life of substance abuse. He is hunched forward, and holding onto the railing with his left hand.

I reach for my radio and press the Red Button. When I do, the other transmission (something about a RTC) is cancelled, and I can speak for 10 seconds without having to clutch my radio. “Urgent assistance required”, I say, calmly, not breaking eye contact with the man who is edging closer to me very slowly. I tell the radio where I am, and follow up with the words I know will catch everyone’s attention. “IC1 male with a knife”, I add, glancing down at the man’s hand for the briefest of moments, before returning my gaze to his eyes. I take a firmer grip of the gravity friction-lock baton I have in my right hand, as I feel my foot touch something behind me. The only direction I really want to go – further away from the drug addict in front of me – is blocked by a wall.

Another jolt of adrenaline streams through my body.


And then, it all gets a bit stabby

The man doesn’t have a knife – that’s what you say over the radio to convey ‘sharp weapon’. Samurai sword? Knife. Bayonet? Knife. Stanley blade? Knife. Surgeon’s scalpel? Knife. Similarly, all bat-like weapons are ‘sticks’, and any projectile weapon is a ‘gun’. Makes it easier to assess the danger, and it’s easier to say “knife” when you’ve got adrenaline oozing out of your pores than trying to decide whether you’re facing a madman with a foil, a sabre, or an épée. From our point of view, if it cuts or stabs, it’s a knife.

This particular madman, however, has a whole different class of ‘knife’. He’s holding an injection needle of some sort. It’s tiny. The only reason I know he is clutching it, is the occasional sparkle of the surgical steel needle in the ghastly overhead lighting.

I'm not a hero; I simply have a well-adjusted approach to risk management. Hypodermic needles scare the bejesus out of me, because there's no way of knowing whether you'll end up with a scratch or a death sentence.

I’ve faced suspects with guns, bats, knives, tyre-irons, even a chainsaw once. But nothing scares me as much as a hypodermic needle. When you’re against somebody with a bat, it is a fair fight: They have a stick, you have a stick, you have a good little fight, they get arrested, job done. You may walk away with some bruises, but ultimately --fair enough. Guns are slightly worse, of course, but I’ve perfected the art of running-away-very-fast-and-waiting-for-the-cavalry-to-arrive.

When faced with a "hypo," you have a huge problem: The worst the tiny little needle can do is to give you a bit of a scratch. And if they come close enough to give you that scratch, they’re only moments away from being wrestled to the ground and arrested. It feels strange to be completely out of my head on adrenaline for a weapon that you can barely see. And yet, a million statistics are swirling through my head. For example: in England, 90% of all cases of hepatitis C and 6% of all HIV cases are caused by injecting drugs. I’ve had my Hepatitis jabs, of course, but a cure for HIV is still far enough away that I’d rather not have to deal with it.

The man takes a step closer as my radio jumps back into life. “Mike Delta Five Nine Two. Status update”. I briefly touch my PTT. “Could do with some help here, guys. He’s armed with a hypodermic needle”. The operator fires back. “Received. ETA one minute”.

I try talking to the man again, interrupting his incoherent tirade for the sixth time. “Mate, let’s get you some help. We’ll find out what’s happening, and I’ll help you. I promise”. He takes a step closer still, but some of the wildness has extinguished from his eyes. Finally a hint that I’m getting through to him.

“Mate, I know you’re hurting. I can help you. I don’t want anyone to get hurt," I say, and involuntarily move my baton side to side a little, my knuckles still white from the iron grip I have on my 21-inches of extendable stainless steel. The movement catches his eye. He straightens up a little, and, in the process, slumps against the railing just a little bit.

Behind him, I see two of my colleagues. They must have gone up the wrong stairway into the estate, and ended up behind the man. Or perhaps they knew the layout better, and went around on purpose?


Dicing with death

I start talking, and I don’t stop. I have to keep his eyes on me. His attention has to stay with me. I need his full… “What’s your name? Can I call you Simon?” It’s an old trick: Call someone by the wrong name, and they are insulted. “Matthew”, he barks back. At least he has stopped moving towards me. “Matthew? That’s great. My name is Matthew too. We’re like brothers, you and I. You’re not that much older than me. Perhaps you could have been my bigger brother, and we could have been Matthew and Matthew. That would have been confusing, wouldn’t it”? I force a laugh, and Matthew is confused. He starts to laugh, but then remembers whatever it was that was bothering him in the first place, and a look of determination comes over his face.

My colleagues arrive behind him. Our tactics worked out, and they managed to sneak up on him, leaving him oblivious to the impending attack. Craig grabs the man’s arm, and Tim puts him in a head-lock. “Drop the needle”, Tim shouts. Matthew does as he is told. For a brief moment it seems as if he wants to throw himself off the balcony, but all three of us jump on him, and minutes later he is led downstairs in handcuffs.

Once we had Matthew under arrest, we ran him through the PNC. His PNC record had warnings for Drugs, Violence and known carrier of Hepatitis A and C.

As the results of the PNC check come over the radio, the three of us look at each other. An involuntary shiver runs down my spine.

“I’ll take a knife fight over this any day of the week," I half-joke to my colleagues. Instead of laughing, they nod silently in agreement. We all walked just a little bit closer to the edge than we’re comfortable with today.

*Glossary and all that

>IC1 – is the Identity Code for a white person.

>F507 – this is how we write “five foot seven” in police reports. If you are given an estimate in meters, you’d write M170.

>RTC – Road Traffic Collision

>PTT – Push To Talk; the button you’d push to transmit on your PR

>PR – Personal Radio. As opposed to a vehicle set.

>PNC – Police National Computer. A database of people who have been in contact with the police, and certain details about them


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.