Crime writers versus crime fighters. Or a grass roots perspective on reality versus fiction. More view-from-the-bottom than room-at-the-top. I do write crime fiction, but it is based largely on fact.
I offer the following as a recently retired policeman with 30 years on the job, all of it in the field, including 15 in SOCO and more recently back at the front line as crime manager on one of the division’s patrol teams. Sort of halfway house between uniform and CID. Any crimes that are too complicated for patrol staff but not serious enough for detectives. All the shit in other words. Oh and being first target for any nutter with a gun. And that’s what I’d like to talk about first, drawing inspiration from an article in Red Herrings (the Crime Writers’ Association in-house publication) about provincial forces having Armed Response Vehicles covering 24 hours a day. So, let’s get down and dirty, and reveal what really goes on out there while you lot are asleep in your beds.
It is correct to say that having ARV’s covering the Force Area gives theoretical containment of the scene until backup arrives but who contains the scene until the ARV finally turns up? Well, that task falls to good old Pat and Col (Pat MacDonald being my partner – police, not sexual as someone mistakenly suggested recently. A fact I’m sure his wife will be relieved to hear.) Here’s how it works. Call comes in from a passing motorist. “I’ve just had a man wave a gun at me as I drove past. He’s gone into the house at the end. Seventeen Nowhere Street.” The call centre flags it up as a firearms incident and contacts the team inspector, who has a minor heart attack then contacts Firearms Support Unit. The duty head views the log and says, “I need more information.” That filters back to the inspector who sends for Pat and Col.
Now, while somebody gets a more detailed description of the gun over the phone we’re sent in a plain car to drive past the house and see if the gun’s still being waved at anyone. Namely us. The theory here is that sending a patrol car could provoke him but us plain-clothes officers are less conspicuous. Less protected too. My stab vest’s in the PSU store behind the garage and Pat doesn’t even have his gas with him. Not that either will be much help if we get shot at. And as for, less conspicuous, well, here’s what happened.
Pat drives up and down outside the house a couple of times and confirms there’s nobody waving a gun around. We’re then deployed to keep an “eyeball” on the front of the house and check if there is a back door. The only way to do that is walk past whistling casually, which I do before rejoining Pat in the car. He’s found a spot across the road in a cul-de-sac facing the house. Of course having line-of-sight on the house means the house has line-of-sight on us, but of course we’re inconspicuous in plain clothes. Yeh right. The car is not only well known as a police car but unless there’s a couple of gay boys holding hands it’s definitely coppers doing covert obs. So covert that a helpful neighbour taps on the window and offers to bring tea and biscuits.
And where are the ARVs? Two cars are sent to a rendezvous point three miles away while they formulate a plan. This includes Pat giving them a description of all faces of the house; doors, windows, etc. Then divisional staff have to close off the main road half a mile either side of the target house to minimise civilian casualties. And Pat and Col have to hold position in line-of-sight. Hours go by while all this is happening and who comes across the road to the phone box we’re parked right next to? Got it in one. The gunman. Same description and everything. Comes right out of the front door and over to us, one hand in his pocket. Now, even he doesn’t think we’re gay so there’s only one thing to do. Get out and talk to him. “Hi ya mate. Can we just have a quick chat?” Five minutes later he’s in the back of our car while the ARVs search his house.
That’s only one of several scenarios we’ve been faced with. Sometimes it seems like there isn’t a week goes by without at least one firearms incident coming in.
I remember being sent to a house one night after an abandoned nines call. “Help. I’ve been shot.” Just that. Call came in from a mobile so the inspector authorised a trace that came up with the owner’s address. FSU viewed the log. “I need more information.” Send in Pat and Col. By the time we got to the end terrace house someone has at least had the good sense to phone the caller back. A young voice wouldn’t give any details other than that it was a joke. No name. So it was up to the front door and the policeman’s knock. Bearing in mind this was a, “Help, I’ve been shot,” call. Worse case scenario, there’s a body in the library and not with the candlestick. And the shooter still has the gun. Oh, and the ARVs? Not even sent to a rendezvous point because Code 121 wasn’t authorised. Turned out to be kids messing about but you never know.
Another time, we were sent to scout a possible man with a gun at a ground floor flat in one of those box-of-Lego developments. You know the ones. Not even the people living there know where the hell Flat 3 is. This time the call came from the phone box over the road. Anonymous. “Tommy Teacake has a gun at Flat 3. He’s depressed and going to shoot himself.” Great. No gun seen. Forget the ARVs. Go straight to Pat and Col.
We were under strict orders not to approach the address but ob it from the road and scout for a back door. Now in Legoland trying to find the back door without approaching the address is impossible because you can’t even find Flat 3 until it’s in front of your face. From there you have to backtrack round the corner to find the patio door. During this procedure Pat remembered dealing with Tommy last year. He was a sad-sack no hoper who had been burgled umpteen times by local drug addicts. Pat took the crime. At the same time the radio operator told us that British Transport Police had stopped Tommy on a train a few weeks ago. He had a replica pistol and had been waving it around hoping the police would shoot him. Depressed you see.
So, all this added up to Tommy not having a real gun and probably ringing from the phone box himself to get shot again. Nobody knew if BTP had given him the pistol back or if this was another one. By now ARVs have finally been dispatched to the rendezvous point and Pat and Col are still trying to find Flat 3. Counting back from Flat 7 we found it when Tommy came out to see what was going on. I’ve never heard Pat say, “Keep your hands away from your pockets,” so quick in my life. When we took him inside there was a replica Walther PPK on the floor and a box of dummy ammo. Poor lad had been in the psychiatric hospital but couldn’t cope when he was farmed out to Care In The Community. What happened to him is another story. Maybe I’ll tell you later.
Finally, just in case you think gun crime in my part of the world is all toys and false calls, spare a thought for the two detectives (not Pat and Col thankfully) who were doing a routine enquiry following a murder by shooting. It was one of many routine visits to known associates of the victim. No hassle. Low threat level. Not even an ARV three miles away at the rendezvous point. Definitely no Code 121.
Turned out it was the murderer, who became agitated and shot both officers before making good his escape. One detective in the stomach and one in the leg. The stomach was a graze but the leg kept the bullet, which had to be surgically removed. It matched the bullet from the murder and, when they found the suspect dead in his car with a bullet to the head, it matched the murder weapon too. That’s one way to get your evidence. The female detective shot in the leg had to suffer the added embarrassment of being told if it wasn’t for the cellulite in her thigh the bullet would have gone clean through. That’ll be going round the CID office for the rest of her service.
So, there you go. Life at the sharp end. Not like in the books is it? Except mine and Joseph Wambaugh’s. All the best. Oh, “And let’s be careful out there.”
Yorkshire writer, Colin Campbell, is as prolific as he is diverse. He has written three horror novels, two supernatural thrillers, two children's books, and two police thrillers that have been described as "Heartbeat" with teeth. He is currently working on another “tribute-to-the-boys-in-blue” novel. Add to this is a veritable treasure trove of short stories ranging from the heart warming to the downright scary and all points between. ”Through The Ruins Of Midnight,” is currently being adapted for TV with Shane Ritchie in mind to play Mick Habergham. You can find out more about Colin at www.campbellfiction.com.
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