Out with the police

I am a little ashamed to say, I have never been arrested, questioned, or even cautioned by the police. These are rubbish credentials for a crime writer. However I did have a formative interest in police procedure. At ten years old I was captain of the Metropolitan Police Quiz team for my school. In 1975 we made it to the semi-final (I had a perfect record going into that final round – I was in the zone) but we lost on an inconsequential traffic violation mistake. I was gutted. We got a tiny medal in a box of yellow foam (I still have it) but it was not what we deserved. So that was it – my flirtation with law enforcement was over (plus I was never going to reach the giddy heights of 5”10’ – I already knew that at ten years old, and at that time there were no short policemen). At about the same time I also toyed with turning bounty hunter. My sister and I would cruise past Putney police station in my native South London and note down the details of the wanted posters that hung in a box on the wall outside. There were always pretty good rewards for information that led to the capture and conviction of these men, so we kept ‘em peeled and cruised the avenues and alleyways. We were a cross between the double-deckers and Emil and the detectives. We searched for the entire six-week summer holiday, we found nobody – it was very dispiriting.

With the exception of a burglary (it was the neighbours eldest) and someone I know being murdered and I may have been the last person to talk to them… that was my experience of the police. Until… A Saturday night, Summer 2013. Out on the mean streets of Brighton with Sussex police.

The radio squawked and a static-filled voice gave an address. The car accelerated from a cruising-about-town thirty to over a hundred miles an hour in just a few seconds. My stomach was left behind in the road as we flew faster – heading back into town – man beating a woman. We were fast response, flying to save her. I say we, I was just sitting in the back, feeling nauseous. In the front seat a policeman I had just met was driving like a demon – a really safe, well trained demon, and his colleague was on the radio asking for more information. I have never gone so fast – sirens blazing when we came to an crossroads – lights flaring all the time like a beacon in the dead of night announcing we are the protectors of society and we are coming. We screeched to a halt, we could see a man running, already half way up the hill. People in pyjamas and robes were shouting and pointing towards him, they had come out of their tourist hotels to bear witness to the abuse. On the pavement sat the victim, a policewoman already with her, giving comfort. The fleeing man was chased and brought down with pepper spray. In the course of the take-down one of the policemen was sprayed too. I arrived too late to see most of it, though could still feel the bitterness of the spray in the air, could feel it drag at my throat and dig in the corners of my eyes. The assailant was down, compliant and breathing heavily. The gassed policeman had tears streaming down his face as he hand-cuffed the man.   He said his lips and eyes burned and I could see the spasms that gripped his face still. I left the downed man and walked back to the victim. The woman he had beaten refused to give a statement, she just wanted to go home. Nor would any of the witnesses make a formal complaint against the man – they were tourists just down to Brighton for a bit of fun, they didn’t want the hassle of returning for court appearances. They made a you know how it is shrug to the officers and melted back into the doorways and up to their beds. When the assailant recovered from the pepper spray, the police took him home, they did not arrest him. I asked why. I was told that they could arrest him only as the perpetrator of a victimless crime – it would lead to no conviction. At best it would keep him in the cells for a night, but without a claimant it was worthless. I watched the police officers melt back into the night, until there was just my two officers left, and then we got back in the car and began to cruise around again. It was just after 11pm and we had another 7 hours or so before the shift would come to an end. In that time I would see another fight and follow a young woman through her arrest and drugs test until she was processed and into a cell. We would also be called to another domestic occurrence where a partner pushed their lover down a flight of stairs. He let me into his home and sobbed before me as the police, with incredible kindness and respect, listened to his story. When dawn finally came we returned to the station. For them it was just another night, for me it was probably a life-changing experience.

I had been incredibly lucky with my first book, The Last Winter of Dani Lancing, in that I knew a local Detective Inspector and she read my first draft and advised me on police procedure and suggested some ideas for scenes. I also had fantastic help from a coroner – and between them they kept my first novel on the straight and narrow. Once the book sold though, and I was a full-time writer, I began to develop a story-line for the next novel, Summer of Ghosts (publication date: August 14 2014). This story needed far more insight and understanding of the police, not only in terms of their procedure and ethos, but what makes them tick as individuals. I also planned scenes inside a drugs gang and drug dens, and watching Breaking Bad and The Wire was not going to cut it. So I called the media department of Sussex police, and they were brilliant. They asked me what I wanted – I asked for a shift at the 999 call office, to go out with a patrol car, to talk to CID and a drugs expert. I got all that and more. It all started with the 999 call centre run by the larger than life Andy Kille (real name).

I was given a Saturday night shift which began at 10pm and ran through to 8 a.m the next morning. All emergency calls are answered by a BT operator and if you say you want the police then they connect you to your local call centre. I was met outside the unit, just before 10pm by Inspector Kille – I was to shadow him for the night. After warning me that we could be walking into World War Three style mayhem, he led me inside. To be honest I was expecting more. The unit has now moved to a new building but for years it had occupied a crumbling office building with filthy carpets, no air conditioning and half the ceiling tiles missing. Before I left my house I thought about making a thermos of coffee (the writer’s only true friend) but in the end I decided against it as I thought there would be a cafe, at the very least a vending machine to keep the officers going all night…but no. Every officer brings in their own mug, little jar of tea or coffee and little pot of milk. In the micro room they laughingly call a kitchen all the little pots sit with name tags on them. There is also a box of chocolate bars (slowly melting) that you can buy, and a table where anyone with a birthday or happy event can leave cakes and biscuits for everyone. There were three whoops reduced-price jam doughnuts on it as I walked by. I didn’t take one. I found it very difficult to see the office as a professional environment in which lives were going to be saved – and I was gagging for an espresso. I was not immediately impressed – until I sat with the teams.

I spent two hours sitting with a retired police officer who now answers emergency 999 calls for a living. Over that time the calls consisted of a student high on ecstasy running into the sea and endangering her life, a man headbutted in the street for no apparent reason, a family terrorised by the boyfriend of a woman they had taken under their wing, and a woman who called to say there were strange people in her garden – but who in the end just wanted to talk to someone about losing her mother. The officer, in between calls, kept apologising to me that there weren’t many real crimes – but I didn’t need murders and heists. What I was listening to (not only from this man but all the other call takers around me) was an amazing display of compassion and the deft touch of a counsellor. Later on I talked to the officer in overall charge about the percentages of calls that were actual crimes or actual emergencies and it seems clear that a large number of calls were by people who need help, not due to crime, but due to mental health issues; or just plain loneliness. At three in the morning when everything seems really shitty, who ya gonna call?

Then I spent a couple of hours sitting with the team who respond to the needs of the 999 callers. They take the raw data supplied by the public calls and allocate resources. I sat with one officer who had CCTV screens all around him and was monitoring responses to a large fight in the city centre – it reminded me a little of the Keystone cops, as all we could see was one little door and officer after officer piled inside, to disappear and never re-emerge. Later a message from the 999 team came in that a woman had reported being hit by her partner, but then she hung-up half way through the complaint. The officer I was with was worried about her and called her back. He asked her if she wanted to report the abuse. She said no and that her partner had said:

‘I was bad. It was my fault. He said I’d go to prison if I called the police,’ she said with fear in her voice.

‘That’s not right though is it?’ The officer replied. ‘You aren’t to blame.’

‘I don’t know. He says I am.’ Her small voice answered.

And then she hung up and wouldn’t answer the phone to us again. The officer was really upset that he couldn’t do anything – couldn’t even get her address. He tried to find it via the mobile number and cross reference with any 999 calls from the past… but in the end, reluctantly, had to give up. He was personally deeply affected by her plight – by someone he had only spoken to for a minute or two. The compassion of everyone in the unit, some 30-40 people was palpable. It was professional, personal and caring. I left them all at just after 5am. I hadn’t stayed up all night for years. They kept apologising that it had been a ‘quiet night,’ I thought that was a good thing for everyone.

So that brings us back to where we began – on the mean streets of Brighton on a Saturday night. From 11pm to 5.30am I cruised around with two officers – one of them was Taser trained and carrying. Though I was surprised to see it was a bright yellow plastic. ‘High visibility but not intimidating,’ I was told. Before we left they showed me two films from the previous day (the Taser officer wears on-body video to record all incidents for later viewing). The first was a break-in to a shed but the second was a man barricading himself into a bathroom with a large knife. They broke the door down and were about to Taser the man when he slashed his wrists. It made me more than a little queasy. They hoped we would have another exciting night – and we were off to prowl the streets.

And that is where we came in – with sirens blaring and screeching through the mean streets of Brighton. When the shift was over the two officers apologised for the quiet night but it was better than I had hoped for, and so not a quiet night. It had fundamentally changed my opinion of the police. I will admit to thinking them slightly thuggish and ill-educated in the past. Now I was seeing them as counsellors, dealing with grief and loss every night – every hour. They were incredibly articulate and dripped with empathy. And the range of experiences were so different to my expectations. Serious crimes were happening, and being dealt with, but an average night was far more about the everyday problems of people living elbow to elbow in a small city and finding a way to survive that. People were lonely, angry and suffering mental health problems. It was more In the psychiatrist’s chair than The Sweeny. So, I have a new-found respect for the police and a new understanding of how difficult it can be for them to do their job. And I am eternally grateful for how they have grounded my writing and helped influence my characters.

Now I am planning the next book… for that I am going to prison. Excellent.

 

Published on: 10 July 2013
Posted by: P.D. Viner