Warning: Some people might find the topics discussed in this blog distressing or upsetting. It has been written by a police officer who has spent over 15 years on the thin blue line.
‘Death. A subject most people hear about but don’t like to talk about.
An experience most people come into contact with a few times in their life when loved ones and friends are lost.
A subject most people see on the news and gloss over before sinking back into their busy little worlds.
For us, the emergency services, it’s a big part of our world. As 999 responders, it’s something we must all accept and deal with.
I’ve been policing for over fifteen years now and I often think of the deaths and related experiences I’ve encountered whilst in the job.
Why? Well, there’s something quite exceptional about not only dealing with your own personal losses, but those of strangers.
You are pulled into someone else’s world, someone else’s life, a person or a family you have never met. You’re intrinsically linked with those people for a short time. It’s eerie and it’s heartbreaking.
I cast my memory back…
A summer’s evening, the sun blazing down, the birds singing, fields of green surround the suburbs, children play, barbecues sizzle.
I’m a young copper learning my trade in a reasonably sized town offering a mix of urban and rural policing challenges.
Today, I’m single-crewed and enjoying a Calippo in the station whilst I look through the active queue on the computer…
Suddenly, ‘Immediate – Car Vs Motorcycle’. I’m in the patrol car and I’m travelling before the dispatcher has even had a chance to push the pedal.
It’s a six-minute journey, it may as well be sixty. Every second counts. When I arrive, I’m met by a BMW 3 series in the middle of the road on a 90-degree bend.
The windscreen is smashed and an elderly couple is standing on my left surveying the damage, clearly shaken. On my right, two motorcyclists stand crying in the early evening sun. ‘Great, walking wounded!’ I think to myself as I stroll towards them. I couldn’t be more wrong.
I ask the fateful question: ‘Is everyone alright?’ And then I notice three motorcycles, one lying on the road. The two crying men beckon me towards a ditch running at the side of the road… ‘He’s here, he’s still moving, help him!’
For a 22-year-old police officer, the scene is still a lot to take in.
The next available police unit is travelling from a distance and the ambulance isn’t here. I’m on my own.
In the ditch, lay the third motorcyclist… Black leathers, black helmet with tinted visor, on his front, body completely still, moving his neck back and forth.
I scramble into the ditch and tell him my name, trying to reassure him that the ambulance is on its way and everything is going to be alright.
I tell him to stop moving his neck in case he’s caused damage to his spine, he stops shortly after… I keep talking to him but get no reply.
I’m laid in a ditch with this man who I’ve never met before, thrust together through unfortunate circumstances, my left hand resting lightly on his back so he knows I’m there, offering constant reassurance that things will be ok.
It feels like a lifetime, but an ambulance finally arrives.
The paramedics, those boys and girls in green who do a thankless task day in and day out, set to work.
‘He hasn’t moved his head for a few minutes’, I say.
We establish he’s no longer breathing and drag him onto the roadway to commence CPR. As I pump his chest, a paramedic removes his helmet… I still think about his face to this day.
The fixed stare, pale complexion, mucus and saliva running from his mouth and nose.
He’s quickly placed in the ambulance and whisked away to the hospital with me in tow.
The battle continues in the resuscitation room in A & E. It’s all in vain, massive internal injuries, masked by his motorcycle leathers, prove too much.
A perfect day comes to an abrupt end for one man.
A man I get to sit with for the next two hours as he lifelessly stares up at the ceiling and I stare at the wall.
For a young officer, what haunted me then (and still does now) is the fact I was the last voice this man ever heard.
I told him it would be alright and in that helmet, in that ditch, in that quintessentially English countryside on a beautiful summer evening, he knew it wasn’t going to be.
He gasped his last breaths with me at his side.
After, I thought for a long time about the motorcyclist. He had no family, no kids, no siblings, ageing parents living elsewhere in the country.
He was switched off in an instant. Tragic.
That day, like most cops, I opened a box deep within me and placed those feelings and thoughts inside before locking it back up.
Life goes on – I’m an area car driver with a few more years under my belt. I’ve transferred to the big city where I can let my proactive nature and thirst to catch criminals run wild.
It’s nearly midnight, it’s cold and I’m searching for two suspects who’ve just been seen removing a boiler from an unoccupied house.
The streets are dark and empty and I want coffee.
My colleague in the passenger seat agrees and we’re just about to call it a day when… ‘Any unit for an I-graded call, male found slumped at the roadside covered in blood by his friend. He’s not conscious, not breathing.’
Blues on, accelerator down, adrenaline flowing.
We arrive to find a lifeless young man, covered in blood, not breathing, with puncture wounds all over his abdomen.
‘He didn’t arrive when he said he would so I came looking for him. I’ve been looking for a while’ states his friend, visibly shocked.
An ambulance arrives on the scene, the paramedic decides to commence CPR and rushes the young man to the nearest hospital.
The writing is on the wall, however, and I find myself sitting in a room with his body. My colleague brings coffee but I’ve gone off it. I look at the young man on the gurney in front of us.
Stabbed to death for what?
Some loose change and a cheap mobile phone, that’s what.
It makes you angry. The senselessness of murder. The stupidity of carrying a knife and the personal, misguided determination to thrust it into another human being.
The young man had no criminal history, was about to start a new job after graduating from university, had a decent family who cared and had moved to the city for work.
As police officers, we can’t be everywhere, I know that… but I wish I’d been there to stop those robbers from stabbing him to death.
There are two images that stick with me from that incident: The lifeless blood-covered body of the victim, clearly beyond help and the CSI officer placing a clear plastic bag over the victim’s head in the hospital.
He was switched off in an instant. Tragic.
Now, a fair few area car drivers are probably known for being a little bit confident whilst airing on the side of arrogance at times.
It comes with reaching the ‘pinnacle’ of your career on a response team.
You’re trusted with a better car and a Taser, you get the best arrests, attend the more ‘juicy’ incidents and generally pick up the least amount of paperwork.
I always enjoyed my time on the area car, but there were times when my ‘can do’ attitude was really tested…
A beautiful crisp Sunday morning in winter.
Most of my colleagues are taking statements and dealing with prisoners from Saturday night… but not me.
I’m patrolling some of the finest council estates in the Kingdom looking for any trouble I can find.
My search is interrupted by a personal radio call from the sergeant. Name, address and details of the incident. I pull over to the side of the road, open the boot and fish out my seldom-used flat cap from my kit bag.
I have a message to pass on and a professional image is important.
My colleague punches the address into the sat-nav and we make our way.
As I drive, I’m acutely aware that I’m about to shatter someone’s life. I’m about to enter their world, give them the worst news possible and leave again.
It doesn’t come naturally and it certainly doesn’t come easily.
A police car on a quiet cul-de-sac in a nice part of the city stands out like a sore thumb. We stood out – curtains twitch, neighbours tittle-tattle.
I put my flat cap on, take a deep breath and start the slow walk to the front door.
The female inside has already seen us through the window and opens the door as we approach.
Now, I’ve given a number of these messages and I always find there is a haggling process at the front door.
The female knows I have a message to give, but whilst ever she can keep me from crossing the threshold, it might just be a bad dream.
She leads us into the living room.
A further haggling process takes place before we all sit down. The female’s lip quivers and so does mine:
‘I’m afraid I have some bad news…’
The message is delivered, her world is shattered and I feel terrible.
A tear rolls down my cheek and I take myself into the kitchen to put the kettle on.
A cup of tea can be a powerful thing at times like this.
My colleague stays with the female, taking up the slack whilst I have a moment making the tea.
A family member arrives soon after and as quickly as we arrived into her world, we leave again.
I’ve lost count of the shootings, stabbings, suspicious and non suspicious deaths I’ve attended.
I’ve carried out CPR on a few occasions and I’ve felt my own mortality whilst searching for occupants in a house fire.
That feeling of ‘this is it’. It certainly makes you think.
I cried at my locker when I heard about Fiona and Nicola, two people I’d never even met but felt connected to.
Death can stir up powerful emotions, even when you’re not directly linked. We all remember where we were when Princess Diana died, don’t we?
Police officers may moan at times, they may come across as brash or even short-tempered.
But, they’re dealing with the stuff that nightmares are made of.
They really do understand that life is precious and it can be taken from anyone without notice.
I’ve opened the box to share some of those memories tonight.
‘There may be no single thing that can teach us more about life than death.’
Anyone feeling emotionally distressed call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Mental Health Charity’ Mind’ also operate a mental health helpline for members of the emergency services. To make contact with a member of their team, call 0300 123 3393.