Burning questions

Morning log count – 2550

One fringe benefit, if I can call it that, of terrorism is an increase in armed response vehicles, such that they are usually much more readily available for non-terrorism incidents. Although as detailed before, they have a wide variety of lethal toys on board, an ideal scenario is one where they finish the day with the same number of bullets as they started. 

So meet Bob. Bob split up with his wife and moved out, and retained access to their child, Bob junior. One day, bringing Bob junior back to his mum, Bob lost the plot completely about his forthcoming divorce, and the soon-to-be ex-wife rang hysterically as he had locked himself and Bob junior in the car on her drive, after pouring petrol over the car, and was now sat in the front with a lighter, Bob junior strapped in his car seat in the front, and the petrol can on the back seat. 

An armed response car is sent along with everyone else, including the Fire Brigade, and having heard the job over the radio, request authority from the inspector to take a critical shot when they get there, i.e. shoot Bob through the head with a rifle before he starts trying to light the lighter. The boss considers it, but declines at this stage based on the grounds that : 

*The petrol sloshed around was on the outside of the car, not the inside, and will be difficult to ignite from inside the car.

*Bob has had several minutes to try and light up should that really be his intention, and has not done so. 

*Petrol burning on the outside of a car will not be immediately dangerous to the occupants. 

*Fire Brigade are on scene and in a position to drench the car in foam in a couple of seconds, should Bob be so silly. 

An officer, armed or otherwise, can always use lethal force despite lack of such authority, if such a situation changes and there isn’t time to discuss the changes with anyone, largely common sense, but also national police policy, thank God, but there turns out to be no need. Although a negotiator is called, Bob is talked out of the car fairly shortly and arrested. Good luck trying to get access to your child through the courts once you get out of prison. 

Anyway,  as always, there is a debrief after an incident where we’ve come close to shooting someone. Questions raised : 

If the petrol had been sloshed around INSIDE the car, would they have been given the authority? Yes. A bullet passing through glass is very unlikely to cause a spark. It will, however, then pass through  Bobs skull, and cause him to stop doing what he’s doing. 

Would a bullet have been deflected by the glass enough to endanger Bob junior? Almost impossible. A bullet going at 2,500 feet a second will not be deflected much in the 1 or 2 foot gap between the window and Bobs head. 

Once the bullet had passed through Bob, would it have caused harm anywhere else? Very unlikely, we use hollow-point bullets which fragment on impact for that exact reason. He was parked near to a wall which would have stopped any fragments going further. 

Unpleasant questions to ask, but necessary. Some of the questions asked have to be answered at the scene in a few seconds, some after the event, we have all day, but we would prefer to learn from success as well as failure.

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The 1%

A list of the most recent ten jobs in force: 

1. Domestic abuse. Caller reports his mother is being verbally abused and threatened by estranged husband, who wants money for prostitutes. There is already a restraining order against him, and he’s stated that the prostitutes ‘manager’ has threatened to harm his estranged family unless he pays up. 

2. Elderly male, reporting £300 stolen from his address overnight, he found the door open this morning and the money gone and his chequebook missing also. There’s a hint of alzheimers about it, as there’s no damage to his door, but no previous history to the address to support this or to rule it out. 

3. Caller reporting someone going through black bin bags, concerned about ID fraud. 

4. Silent 999 call, no reply on callback. 

5. A repeat shoplifter violently resisting staff who are detaining him. 

6. Male with apparent mental health issues being very angry in the middle of the road, throwing bins around, and last seen heading into an off-licence. 

7. Caller at a petrol station reporting a bilking (drive off without paying) last night, £112 worth of diesel fuel taken, and the registration plate given says the car is a Nissan Micra. I used to own one, there is NO WAY you can get that much fuel into a Micra unless you’re pouring it in the boot. Either the registration taken is wrong, or it was a false plate. 

8. Contact from a triage car – several forces are trialling these, it’s a vehicle jointly crewed by a police officer, a paramedic and a qualified mental health nurse, streamlining the process of getting mental health patients into care. They contact ambulance service over a patient and log it, he is taken straight to a hospital for his own safety, and doesn’t have to come through a custody suite first. 

9. Front window to a Pizza takeaway smashed in by a large rock, which is still at the scene, making the premises vulnerable to being burgled. 

10. Semi-abandoned 999 call from a hairdressers, the number has previously been used to report a domestic assault, as the female caller this time sound confused and distressed and can’t really tell us what is going on, it is initially treated as a domestic assault this time. 

The next ten are similar. A fairly typical random survey of response work. We have over 2,000 such calls in the system at present, so that’s less than 1% of the total, and around 160 officers on each incoming shift to deal with it all. All this against a backdrop of massively increased workload after last weeks failed bomb attempt on the underground, plenty of officers are taken off normal duties to patrol (i.e. stand around visibly) nearby certain public locations to reassure people. All response officers are moving onto 12 hour shifts for at least a week. 

More routine work will inevitably have to wait longer, and the overtime bill will go through the roof. Thanks to last weeks payrise, the money we as a force have to spend on overtime has just gone down. As an individual, I’m glad to get a 2% payrise this year, not the usual 1% and there’s no point in saying otherwise. But as a taxpayer, knowing that government imposed the payrise on forces but didn’t give them any extra money for that payrise, means I know the money has to be cut from somewhere else. As around 2/3 of force budgets are on wages, which have gone up by 1% in real terms, this means a roughly 2% cut in everything else our money is spent on to balance the books. So cars will take longer to get fixed, uniform will take longer to arrive, when computers break, they will take longer to get fixed. Maybe less officers will be recruited in future.

So the 1% isn’t really an improvement from your point of view.

La la, la la la la, la la la la la!

smurfTaking the train to work for a little bit as my car’s off the road, I was not best pleased to get half-way in one day and realise I’d neglected to pack a work-shirt in my bag. Especially as I was wearing a Smurfs t-shirt for the journey to work, that won’t be appreciated in the afternoon strategy meeting. Thankfully I manage to find a spare fleece hung up somewhere and conceal said Smurf.

Last week, I had to help the conductor throw an angry woman off the train for shouting abuse at random passengers because the compartment didn’t have fitted TV screens. Like you do. We get free rail travel in this force area as long as the journey is to, from or during work, on the understanding that you get involved in something like this if you have to, this was the first time for me in 20 years, so I haven’t done bad.

I mention the Smurf episode as talking to the duty Chief Inspector yesterday about why so many of his staff were on restricted duties, normally due to injury/pregnancy etc, one of them is restricted purely because he’s transferred from another force, and he hasn’t been supplied with uniform yet. It’s strange how I can find spare uniform when required, but the force who’s supposed to supply it to me can’t. I’ve got new trousers on order, and I’ve been waiting 2 months so far for them to arrive.

Incidentally, ‘Smurfing’ is a phrase used in financial crime. If you’re a drug dealer, and you have lots and lots of paper money to bank, you can’t just turn up at the bank and drop 5 carrier bags of £20 notes on the counter and not expect to get remarked upon. There are limits above which any financial transaction has to be reported to the authorities in one form or another, to try and identify suspicious transactions.

Let’s say the limit is £10,000. You employ lots of minions to take £9,900 each and go transfer it by Western Union, bank and then eBay, bank it etc, to go just below the trigger level for reporting. As this can involve lots of little people running around like lunatics to get a job done as efficiently as possible, it became known as Smurfing. Perhaps we should employ some of them to run the stores?

It’s a good start to the day when…

You’re three hours late to work, because of someone threatening to jump off a motorway bridge and kill themselves. I’ll be bringing the cakes in tomorrow for lateness, courtesy of the Independent Cake Punishment Commission, the ICPC. Any similarity to any genuine independent organisations who investigate the police is a pure coincidence. The ICPC don’t take 4 years to investigate something, the decisions are quick, just and final.

Or you get in the door at work to find your sergeant struggling on the floor with a geriatric having a paranoid mental breakdown through too much cannabis use. As one half of the fracas is trained, half the age of the other and twice the weight, it seems rude to get involved, so you just stand and watch in amazement.

On the plus side, it gets better. I’ve made myself semi-redundant today. Normally, my job consists of listening to peoples request for more officers, looking sympathetic, then saying ‘no’, as there’s no-one available I can suggest moving. Today I passed a milestone, when someone actually assessed their situation for themselves, came up and pretty much asked and answered their own question all in one go. With the word ‘No’. I didn’t even have to speak. So, back to the crossword.

I don’t take joy in not being able to help, I just refuse to feel bad about it either. It’s not my fault there’s so few toys in the box. And this is when we’re 12% over minimum staffing today on earlies. Lates, when we’re predicted to be 10% under, will be a nightmare. I’ll be in the garden with an iced lolly or two by then, listening to my son tell me about the last day of his SATS.

Total jobs ongoing just now, around 1300. It’ll hit 1450 or so by 9pm tonight. With less than 200 officers to deal with it all. Not my problem.

What is my problem right now is an eternal one, namely “Why can I never find a bloody fork in a police station when I want one?” There’s thousands of spoons in the various kitchens round the building, enough knives to carve Michaelangelos David out of the nearest tree, but can I find a fork? No. I’m reduced to eating a reheated Chicken Fajita with two spoons. Paranoid thoughts start creeping in about which one of my colleagues has opened a highly profitable second-hand fork shop, until the fajita is gone.

 P.S. finishing this off the day after it happened, I found out why the woman wanted to jump. She was a single mum who’d met a new fella, who moved in and months later murdered her child. Grief and guilt being what they are, I’d probably want to jump too. My son got an extra big hug before bed tonight. 

Cross border support, AKA My dad’s bigger than your dad.

Borrowing cars from one area for another for a day or half a day to deal with uneven workload is happening more and more. Common sense enough, except no-one likes to give up their own toys for someone else to play with.  If your inspector wanted more resources, they’d ask the neighbouring inspector. If they said they had no-one free, it would to to the senior force duty officer, along the lines of ‘we’ve got a large crime scene to fence off all night, if we do that we’ve no staff for anything else.’. The duty officer would make the decision, but to be fair, usually had far more important things to worry about than referee bickering.

These days, each area is clustered with another and they borrow off each other as required, without needing permission. As it’s a regular relationship, they don’t screw each other over, whereas before it was akin to the prisoners dilemma game – as soon as one person takes advantage, no-one helps anyone.

So that’s well established and works smoothly. Where we seem to struggle sometimes is other departments requesting help. Let’s say you need Bob locking up for hitting his girlfriend, and you’re off duty for 4 days. Should Bob enjoy his freedom for longer because you’re off duty? Of course not! The support department will try and lock him up at 4 or 5 am on the morning you’re back in work at 7, so he’s sat ready to be interviewed. All the DV (Domestic Violence) arrests like that are screened so we do the nastiest first.

It’s the same with prisoners – you lock Bob up, and because he’s a self-centred moron, he keeps banging his head off the cell door to be difficult. Either you have to watch him at the cell door and stop him or he has to go to hospital. Rather than keep a panda car off the road for the entire shift, the support department may be able to send staff to take him off your hands.

Prisoners are graded safety-wise level 1-4, with 1 being calm, sober, physically and mentally well, up to 4 who you dare not leave alone for a second, be it for physical or mental health reasons. Support are only there to manage level 4 watches, or hospital stays of 2 hours or more.

It is truly amazing how many custody staff ask for extra officers for a level 4 watch, and after being told there are none free at that point, the prisoner is mysteriously downgraded to a level 3, for them to deal with. Or hospital staff apparently tell officers their prisoner will not be seen for at least 2 hours, they ask for someone to take over and when no-one is forthcoming, the prisoner is done and dusted within the hour. Hmmm.

We have a simple rule overriding everything else, the Chief Constables explicit policy, that the nearest suitably equipped and available officer will go to an immediate grade job, regardless of department or rank. As it should be. So no sending a detective who’s out on enquiries with only his Costa Coffee travel mug and mysterious blue A4 hardback notebook (they ALL have one) to fight a knife wielding maniac, but if you’ve got stab vest, baton and gas, you’re going. The DC  probably wouldn’t have his bloody radio with him, but that’s another issue.

Some may say their boss has sent them out to do <insert task> so they can’t go, but when reminded it’s the chiefs policy, so they either go or book an appointment with him to discuss the matter, they go. I’ve never had that conversation twice with the same person. It’s nice having dad on your side.

Do you want fried rice with that? II, AKA photobombed by rats.

Not exactly austerity policing here, but due to workload at the time, it felt like it. A while back, my division had a long bad period, it worked out at a murder/suspicious death every 2 1/2 weeks and a serious shooting around once a week, for a year. By serious shooting (as opposed to the comical variety), I mean either someone was wounded or automatic weapons were used.

A friend of mine did a 3 month CID attachment at the time, all he did every day for 3 months was go to work for around 16 hours, come home, occasionally buying food on the way, eat, sleep and occasionally run the washing machine/tumble dryer so he had more clean shirts. The three months paid for a new car.

So. Busy busy. One evening during this time, Bob and I got sent to a fight outside a Chinese takeaway, only about 200 yards from the station. Get there quickly and find two drunken idiots, one of whom had a serious head injury. We left him with ambo and got a description of the offenders from the other.

A little bit of a drive round, we spotted one of them, a quick foot chase and a bit of a scrap in an alleyway and he was in cuffs and in the back of the car, with a bit of gravel rash into the bargain. What can I say? If you will fight the police whilst face down on the pavement already, it’s not going to end well for you. Bob lodges the prisoner and as he’s now behaving, I amble back to the scene.

In short, two drunken idiots picked a fight with two other drunken idiots outside the Chinese  takeaway. One of them went into the Indian takeaway next door, took a stool out and clattered another over the head with it. Once he was released from hospital, he suffered with permanently severe epilepsy.

In the meantime, his box of sweet and sour chicken balls had fallen to the floor, and whilst standing there, I watched as rats ate it. Nice. Even if I did go onto the crime scene and chase them off, they’d only come back the minute I stopped, so the simplest thing to do was leave them to it. The scenes of crime guy was too busy to wait for them to bugger off, and as they effectively indicated where the ‘victim’ had been standing anyway, they ended up in the photos.

At Crown Court, I was asked by the judge to explain why we only had one defendant in the dock, not two, despite the fact he was named and identified. I had to plead our collective workload at the time, that identifying gunmen and murderers meant the CID didn’t have the resources to chase the relatively less violent too long, we had to settle for 50% of the results for 2% of the effort it would have taken to get 100%. Sad but true, and it happens more and more these days. His Worship seemed content with the answer anyway. I just wish the Daily Fail, oops, Mail was too.

The amusing postscript to the case was when the now epileptic victim refused to come to court. His honour threw his judicial teddy out of the pram and directed us to arrest said victim and drag him to court. Of the two officers who went, one was Bob of email prank fame. Bob and mrs Bob had just bought a house together, in the same town as me, and Bob was not best pleased to suddenly find the defendant lived 3 doors away from him. In a town 20 miles away. I mean, what are the odds? Anyway, we somehow choreographed it so they didn’t meet.

The less amusing postscript is when the victim (who was also a repeat offender, as is often the way), years later moved in with a woman in the same town, within a five minute walk of where I live. The probation service spoke to her due to his record, obviously I don’t know the exact content of the conversation, but it would have gone along the lines of ‘You do know that he’s a violent impulsive psychopath, don’t you? And that they don’t ever change?’.  She thought it would be fine, and found she was wrong when he stabbed her to death in front of her ten year old daughter for no real reason.

Once I heard that, I couldn’t repress the wish that the guy with the stool had hit him just a little bit harder.

Care in the community

Tonights most random call ‘Come quick! There’s two Asian men in my back garden, setting up an anti-aircraft gun!’.

Not the wierdest I’ve ever heard or been to. That prize goes to the lady who rang to report her ex-partner had abducted their child and was going to take him out of the country. On speaking to her, in her rather dingy flat, it was a perfectly plausible tale of boy meets girl, boy moves in with girl, boy and girl have a child, then all of a sudden, boy moves out for no reason, then a short while later, boy takes child out for the day and plans to abduct child back to America.

Although I was mildly intrigued as to why you’d come all the way from the US of A to this particular tobacco-and-cheap-cider reeking ghetto hell hole, no actual alarm bells were ringing at this point. This was a while ago, I’m far more cynical now. Then I asked for her ex’s details, thinking we’d need them if he needed stopping at the airport etc etc.

Her reply? ‘It’s the Hollywood actor Brian Dennehy!’. And she was being sincere. Although he plays a good serial killer, he was just acting in a film – I don’t think he abducts people in real life.

The more I asked, the more it appeared that her grip on reality was tenuous, to put it mildly. But as long as there’s no harm in being mad, it’s not really a police matter. Referring people to the mental health services is what we mostly do. Not that we think they’re perfect, any more than they think we are, but that’s how it works.

Good old Sn 136 of the mental health act gives us the power to detain people for assessment if they are a) exhibiting signs of a serious mental disorder, b) that disorder appears to be putting either them or someone else at risk and c) they are in public. Only a) applied in this case, so I said we’d look into it, left sharpish and referred her.

But back to Asian men and anti-aircraft weaponry. I sent a crew out to this – it wasn’t long after September 11th, and we’re under the flight path for the nearest airport, so who knows? They get there soon, and it immediately becomes apparent the poor caller is riding the crazy train. There is no anti-aircraft weaponry there, no burn marks from the backblast of a shoulder launched anti-aircraft missile, and definitely no Asian men either.

His back garden is like a jungle, you’d need a strimmer to get more than 2 feet from his kitchen window, if they had been in his back garden, he’d never have seen them. Somewhere in the local mental health system, there is a syringe of haloperidol or something similar with his name on it.

This is not a criticism of the mental health services, merely a criticism of the system they have to operate and the resources they’re given to do it. If a family member of mine suffered a dangerous mental illness, I’d rather they were treated in hospital than in the community, as from what I’ve seen, the latter leaves too much to unmonitored chance. I’ve been to, or sent units to, too many incidents involving care in the community patients where either they or someone around them have come to harm.

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine was murdered by a psychiatric patient who was being monitored in the community. It’s the only time I’ve ever cried in this job, ringing my parents the moment I saw it on the news so they’d know it wasn’t me, then feeling guilty that I was able to. The offender was visited weekly by his CPN (community psychiatric nurse) and given his anti-psychotic drugs to take, when they searched his flat after his arrest, they found 6 months of the drug neatly stored in his bathroom cabinet alongside the aspirin and toothpaste.

Frequently a limiting factor on patients like him being hospitalised is bed availability. You have to have a bed available, the mental health team available to actually assess and section them, the police there in case it gets physical and an ambulance there to transport them to hospital. Four groups from four different agencies, getting them all in the same place at the same time is like herding cats.