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Rear View Mirror: Decisions, decisions

Tony Schumacher, ex policeman, on split-second choices forced on 999 services

Published on April 4th 2011.

Rear View Mirror: Decisions, decisions

“URGENT message for all Delta patrols to follow, reports of a male carrying a sword on Mill Lane, St Helens. All patrols to avoid the area until armed response have made the scene from West Derby... Delta out”

I opened the door, cheeks burning, angry that I’d just been bollocked for doing my job but not daft enough to start arguing with my boss

Les and I looked at each other, mouths open, and then I took up the transmitter for the car radio.“Delta Control, this is Delta Romeo 27, just to let you know, we are actually sitting on Mill Lane as I speak, do we have a better location for this male?”

As I spoke, Les started the car and put his notebook back into his pocket. We’d been sitting catching up on our paperwork after a hectic start to a late shift, it was around 3pm and we’d had to dash out of the station barely an hour earlier to a report of neighbours fighting in the street.

“Delta Romeo 27, the male was last seen near to Eaves Lane. It’s a bit sketchy at the moment, but we have had numerous calls from residents describing a tall white male, carrying what appears to be a long sword, I’m just getting a message from the incident manager asking do you have the male in sight over?”

We were craning our necks looking up and down Mill Lane but neither of us could see him. I passed this information to the operator who told us to stand by while she, in turn, informed the Force Incident Manager, who was normally an inspector, sitting in the main control room at HQ.

The FIM’s role is to pull the strings from afar, until someone of similar rank is on the ground and dealing with whatever it is going down. They are responsible for the police response, for the safety of the public and the bobbies on the ground, and like anything in the police, you got your good ones, and your not-so-good ones.

“Delta Romeo 27, the FIM is saying you should withdraw at this time from the area, ARVs are en route to deal, received over?”

Me and Les both looked at each other, we knew that there was a primary school fewer than 500 yards from where we sat. We knew that we could turn right and get out of the area in two seconds, or turn left and drive down Mill Lane towards the primary school. I keyed the radio.“Does the FIM know there is a primary school letting out shortly?”

“Affirmative, his order stands. Over”

Right then, at that moment, responsibility had been passed. If we didn’t do as we were told, whatever happened we would end up in trouble. Les had kids and a wife. I had two cats, a dog and a wife... and also a lump the size of a Watney’s Party Seven in the pit of my stomach.

“What do you reckon?” said Les.

“We can’t just get off” I replied.

We drove towards the school and arrested the male who, it later transpired, suffered schizophrenia and was being harassed by local kids. He claimed he had gone out to scare them. With the 4’6” inch long ceremonial sword he had bought in an antique shop in Aldershot years earlier.

There is peculiar atmosphere back at the nick after you have had a job like that. Bobbies will stick their head around the door and say well done. Some will come and look at the sword in its evidence bag and whistle through their teeth and say things like “you must be mad”, or “I would have been running the other way” but they don’t mean it. Nearly all of the police I know live for moments like that, a chance to taste that burst of adrenaline and do something out of the ordinary.

As we sat typing, our sergeant came and sat with us. He told us he would recommend a commendation and that he was proud of us. As he was leaving the armed response lads came in, one of them tried to tell us off.

“Do you know how fast a man with a sword can run at you? That would have gone right through your body armour and cut you in half.”

“We didn’t have any body armour on did we Tony?” said Les

“I only wear protection in bed,” I replied.

“Pampers” said Les.

The ARV lads shook their shaven heads and left as we laughed. We weren’t laughing the next afternoon when the superintendent shouted at us in his office,“You disobeyed a direct order and put yourselves and any colleagues that would have had to come and assist you in danger if he hadn’t come quietly,” he told us. “If he’d killed you there is a good chance your families wouldn’t have got anything either, you have to think of health and safety, the FIM had risk assessed that job and told you to get out.”

“The FIM wasn’t there, Sir”

“And neither should you have been! Now get out, and don’t be playing heroes anymore.”

We turned and I opened the door, cheeks burning, angry that I’d just been bollocked for doing my job but not daft enough to start arguing with my boss.

“Oh and lads,” we turned, “Well done, good job,” he said without looking up.

All of the above took place in 2002. I have a photocopy of my arrest statement in front of me on my desk right now. I’m proud of that day, but still angry. I honestly think that 90 per cent of the police officers I worked with would have done what we did, not because they were brave, but because it was their duty.

When I joined the job being a copper wasn’t about risk assessment forms and health and safety, but it was when I left. I believe the current culture of safety first is there not to protect the people on the ground, be they Paramedics, Firemen or Police; it’s there to protect the organisation and their budgets from litigation. Litigation from their employees and the public. But not only that, the FIM that day, had he told us to go in and had we been chopped up, was individually responsible and potentially liable to a prison term if found negligent under health and safety laws. So why would they tell us to risk ourselves?

It isn’t the emergency services who are solely to blame when they respond in a particular manner to a dangerous situation, it is the lawmakers who have created a society that will attack people who make a mistake in a split second decision made with the best of intentions.

That day in the patrol car, it wasn’t responsibility that was passed to us... it was the buck.

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Erik DerojaApril 1st 2011.

Who do you think you are? The Lone Ranger? You'll look funny when you're fifty....
Good story Tony. Like most jobs, and anything else worth doing, health and safety has taken all the fun out of it. With all the "dangers" in life it's a wonder that mankind made it this far without health and safety.

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