Saturday, 7 April 2007

Death Message

A "death message" is what we call having to visit somebody's house, often at night, and tell them that a family member has died. When you write it down like that it seems quite simple really. Turn up, give them the news, go to your next job... Simple enough.

But, as ever, the reality can be a bit different. Whether the message is being passed on behalf of a Police Force at the other end of the country, or if you've been to the incident yourself, you need as much information as possible before you go to pass the message. The family will often have loads of questions regarding how the deceased person actually died and you want to keep the amount of "sorry, I don't know" answers to a minimum. And because of this it's really important to have a proper point of contact to give to the family for any questions that might occur to them afterwards.

When you're on your way round to the house you can't help but try and predict what the reaction will be like. I told one bloke that his brother had died in another part of the country. He actually seemed a bit put out, like I'd caught him at a bad time. Given that he was holding some sort of drill thing (I'm not much of a DIY-er!) I think he was in the middle of putting up some shelves. He just thanked me and asked if there was anything he needed to do, offered me a cup of tea and got back to his shelves. Turns out they hadn't spoken in years.

I've passed a death message to a whole family before and got different reactions from everybody present. Their adult son had been killed whilst riding his motor bike, again in another part of the country, and I got the job of telling them. Mum was shocked, and burst into tears. Between breathless sobs she was asking for details about her son's death. It was really hard to understand her and I didn't want to keep asking her to repeat herself. I wasn't helped by the son's sister who was also in floods of tears, but just sat by herself on another seat staring at my boots. Fortunately for me, Dad decided to do the stoic, stiff upper lip thing. I could see that his eyes were glazed with pinpricks of tears, and clearly he was going to be having a good cry at some point, but he'd taken it upon himself to assume the role of steadying rock for his family.

I made them a cup of tea each, all of which went cold and untouched, and answered as many questions as I could before leaving them to their grief. By the time I left I just felt like I was intruding on such a personal, devestating moment for them. Whenever I think back to this job, the one detail I remember the clearest is the cold cups of tea. I wonder if the detail the sister remembers clearest is my boots?

As I walk up the path to the house and reach for the door bell I'm normally quite nervous. But you have to keep up appearances so I put my "game face" on. When the person answers the door you first, before anything else, have to make sure that you're speaking to the right person. I mean, can you imagine saying to a woman who answers, "I'm afraid I have to tell you that your husband has died". She collapses onto the ground at your feet wailing, "But he's in bed! I only took him up a cup of tea five minutes ago!" "er, this is number 15 isn't it?"

So, try and avoid that... Once I know I'm speaking to Mrs Smith (and the right Mrs Smith at that) I'm normally quite forward with delivering the news. Something like, "I'm truely sorry to have to tell you that your husband died this morning in a road traffic accident" I've never been on the other side of the fence, but we did some training and apparantly most people want us to just come out with it rather than beating about the bush and drawing the whole experience out for them.

And then you get this strange feeling. If you do this part of the job right then you can be an enormous comfort to the family, at least in the first few minutes. But you can't help feeling like a wrecking ball smashing your way through their lives. And then, ten minutes after leaving their house you can be taking a report of a burglary or restraining a violent shop lifter and you have to act just as calmly and professionally as if it was the first call of the day.

Ask A Stupid Question...

One of the first things you notice when you wear a Police uniform in public is that people expect you to know everything. And I don't mean "everything" in a general, have quite a lot of knowledge way. I mean, literally, everything.

On my first day on foot patrol, I was approached by a member of public with a question. I didn't notice him at first because I was busy looking at my reflection in a shop window. But once he'd caught my attention he wanted to know what the traffic was going to be like in central London the next day, due to some event that was on.

Now, in itself, this isn't too daft a question. If you want to know if there's going to be any traffic restrictions then ask the Police. However...we were stood roughly 200 miles away from London at the time. I bumbled my way through some advice about phoning the Met Police up (what with them actually being in London) and he seemed happy enough.

But, to be fair, I don't mind questions like this. They're rather endearing and I like the interaction with people who are, generally, quite nice. People who know you do it too, and it's quite nice. You can be out walking through the park talking to a friend and the Police helicoptor will go overhead. You can guarantee they'll ask "what are they up there for?"

You think "Er, dunno. Because I'm down here. And they're up there." But instead I'll mumble something about "Well, they're probably looking for somebody. Maybe a criminal who's on the run..." and my friend will accept this quite happily, like they've been let in on a bit secret. I'll be honest, I'm not sure what it does when I'm on duty most of the time so if you catch me holding an ice cream and wearing sandals then you're going to be disappointed with the answer.

Then there's the question that people ask, not because they don't know the answer, but because somehow having it confirmed by a Police officer makes them more comfortable. I've been stood on a cordon before, with a bit of road or footpath taped off with Police tape and I've been approached by a member of public. I'm normally wearing something yellow and shiney and holding a rather serious looking clip board.

"So, this path's closed off is it?" I look around slowly to make sure I haven't missed anything. Twelve year olds think it's an absolutely marvellous game sneaking in behind me! Nope, all is as it should be. So I reply, "Erm, yes, I'm afraid it is." "Ah, thought so" comes the reply before the person thanks me and walks off.

Or you attend a Road Traffic Collision. Broken cars everywhere. Glass in the road. Police cars, Ambulances and Fire engines everywhere, blue strobe lights lighting up the street. Perhaps somebody is sat on the curb, crying and being attended to by the paramedics. The street is being closed with cones and "Police Accident" signs. People are running around doing their jobs, looking very serious and saying things like, "Two vehicle RTC, slight injury, road closed" into their radios.

And sombody walks up and asks "has there been an accident?" The temptation to reply "well, apparently but I can't seem to find it" is enough to make me curl up into a ball.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

An Englishman's Home....

If the gas works or factory containing explosive material next door to me was on fire, I'd probably be quite grateful to whoever knocked on my door and told me. And if they suggested I'd be safer somewhere a bit further away then I'd like to think I'd agree, grab my coat and make big steps down the road.

It's really interesting (and sometimes frustrating) to see the reaction you get when you try to evacuate somebody because of a suspect device, fire or gas leak etc. To be fair, most people do thank you for making the effort and leave as quickly as possible.

However, not everybody is quite so cooperative.

You get the person who just hates the Police, opens the door, sees the uniform, mumbles "Piss off" then slams it shut and gets back to watching the football. Oblivious to their impending death. In the interests of decency you have to knock again to try an explain. But if they answer the door a second time with "I thought I told you to piss off! What do you want?" then you'll have to forgive me if it crosses my mind to say, "Er, nothing. Just thought I'd say hi. I'll be off then".

Or the really stubborn person who says, "I know you mean well, but Jerry couldn't budge me so some little fire's not going to be able to. Now, would you like a cup of tea?" "Er, no thanks. Your house is on fire. And your Yorkshire Terrier appears to be suffering from smoke inhilation."

Actually, they're not as frustrating as the person who agrees that they need to get moving but who just has to grab "a few bits" before they come. And then they start loading up the car like a refugee fleeing a war zone. You have to say to them, "Look, could we hurry this up please? That building over there could blow up at any time and I'm not even on overtime".

And then you get the daft (but somehow really endearing) questions. But I'll save them for another time...

Appropriate Adults.

Whenever a juvenile is spoken to by Police in an official capacity, whether as a witness, victim or suspect, they will have an appropriate adult present. This will normally be their parent. I say "normally" because the parent isn't always the most appropriate person.

We have a lad who lives on our patch who has just turned ten years old. This is important because he is now able, legally, to break the law. Somebody under the age of ten can't break the law because they're not old enough to know the difference. They can be naughty, but there's not a lot we can do about it.

This particular chap has been causing all sorts of problems for his neighbours over the last couple of years, culminating in him actually killing one of their cats. Unfortunately, his mum can't see that he's a little so-and-so and chooses to believe that the neighbours, the Police and the Council are all picking on him. Because of this, she overlooks all his bad behaviour and so, obviously, he knows he can get away with pretty much anything. (Until the next time we catch him that is. He's got a shock coming when that cell door closes on him).

One of the officers on my team had to go round to his house about six months about something that he'd done. Mum answered the door, TV blaring in the background and dirty dressing gown barely managing to keep her covered. The officer explained that she needed to speak to her and the boy about the incident. He shouted from upstairs, "I ain't done nuffin! She's lying!"

Mum decided to play Devil's advokate and keep an open mind. By turning to the officer and saying, "You heard him. Now fuck off!" before slamming the door in the bobby's face.

Now, I'm no child psychologist, but I really don't think she's setting the best possible example for her spawn. Maybe by telling a Police Officer to "Foxtrot Oscar" in front of the kiddie she's condoning this sort of behaviour? Just an opinion.

Anyway, I've started to get a bit cheesed off with parents who refuse to take responsability for their kid's actions. With the times we phone a parent and tell them Little Johnny's been nicked again, so would they mind awfully popping down to the station to act as his Appropriate Adult. And for me to be told, "You can fu**ing keep him! I've had enough!" and then to have the phone slammed down on me.

I honestly think that the only time some of them would notice that their kids weren't there any more would be when the child benefit stopped. Then I'm damn sure they'd remember the little bundle of joy they brought into the world.

Maybe the answer is to make parents who can be shown to not be taking an active part in their child's upbringing liable to paying fines and compensation for what their children have done.

The next time we have to speak to the ten year old, if he ends up in Court and the victim is awarded £100 compensation and Mum has to pay this I'm sure she'll be a bit more careful about what he gets up to in future.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Concern for welfare...

Like I said in my last blog, I'm a big wuss when it comes to dealing with "sudden deaths". I don't know why. I mean, a fifteen stone drunk with attitude is much more likely to cause me some harm. I just get the feeling that it's bad karma to be there, getting all involved.

Still, it's part of the job so...

What normally happens is a concerned neighbour, friend or family member phones the Police to report that they haven't seen a particular person for a while, and perhaps they've been round to their house and all the curtains are drawn, there's 18 bottles of milk on the doorstep and no answer at the door.

We then turn up and our main aim is to ensure the welfare of the person concerned. We'll knock on the doors and windows, and try to see through any gaps in the curtains in case we can see the person. We'll speak to the neighbours and check with the local hospitals to make sure the person hasn't been admitted.

However, if all our enquiries draw a blank then we'll force an entry to the property and search it for the person. This normally involves using the "big, red door key" (a heavy piece of metal called an Enforcer and which is used as a battering ram) to force open the door. Sometimes though we'll break a window or someone small (so that'll be me, then) crawls through an already open window.

Once inside, this is probably my worst part of the incident. Imagine walking through a house which is often pitch black expecting to come across a dead body at any moment. You're heart's racing and your imagination's working overtime. Maybe you've left your torch in the car and you're having to feel your way around the walls, praying you don't trip over the body. (I know an absolutely hideous story about this. Another time maybe...)

You're working your way slowly down the hallway and, every time you come to a door, you take the handle in your hand that's starting to get all clammy and slowly open it. You take a deep breath, close your eyes and pop your head around into the room. You un-scrunch your eyes, one at a time for some reason, as if it'll help. And as they begin to's the kitchen and it's empty. So you carry on down the hallway to the next door and do it all again. Not too bad in a one bedroom flat but some houses have got bloody dozens of rooms! By the end of it I'm normally a gibbering wreck!

Sometimes you know before you enter the property that there's a really, really good chance that the person inside has died. If they've been dead for a little while the smell's quite distinctive so when you open the letter box halfway through shouting out, "Hello, Police" you get a lung full and at that point I tend to start calling in favours from my colleagues.

Eventually, as you open one eye, your gaze falls across the person you're looking for. You can see that they look pretty dead, but you still have to check for vital signs. Maybe they're just really deep sleepers. (Experience has taught me that it's always worth asking paramedics to attend so that they can do this bit). Assuming that they are dead, I'll look for any obvious signs of trauma to the body such as bruising or cuts. If there's a possibility of a suicide then I'll be looking for a suicide note. Even if the death isn't suspicous, there will still be an investigation by the Coroner if the death is unexpected, so I still have to maintain enough composure to gather evidence about their physical and mental state prior to death. I'll gather together any medicines or presciptions and put them to one side.

I'll also look for any details which may assist in finding a next of kin, because they will need to be visited and told the news. The undertakers will attend and take the body to the morgue, and a Police officer will have to follow them down to book them into the mortuary. And then, after the paperwork (obviously) gets completed and faxed off it's done. We move on to the next job, normally after some good natured joking about with any other officers who were there.

Actually, this would seem really insensitive if anyone saw us but it's actually a really important way for us to unwind from what is a really stressful and sometimes emotional incident to deal with. And it's normally the various different shades of yellow and green that I turn that's the butt of the jokes.

Even less nice...

I went to a suicide yesterday. I'll do a blog about "sudden deaths" in general another time, but I always find suicides specifically really sad.

It doesn't help that I'm a bit of a wuss when it comes to dealing with bodies. It doesn't matter that I've come across so many since I joined the Police. I'm still waiting for it to get easier (as I've been promised on so many occasions). But suicides are especially sad.

Very briefly, and without too much detail, this lad had hung himself using electrical flex. His friends hadn't seen or heard from him for over ten days and they had called us. When we got there, I lifted up the letter box and was fairly certain, even as I called his name out, that he was in there and that he had died.

We forced an entry to his flat and found him there. And so we went through our procedures (again, I'll go into them another time). Looking around the flat, I got a taste of the desperation he must have felt in the days and weeks leading up to his death. His flat was dirty and untidy, as if he'd long since stopped caring about himself. His suicide note mentioned an apology to his daughter and I wondered what was going through his mind as he wrote it. There was very little in the flat to suggest much interraction with other people, and I wondered if he just felt desperately lonely. That, perhaps, if for whatever reason he hadn't felt so alone then he'd still be here now.

I also wondered how the child's mother was going to explain to her that her dad was dead. And how the rest of his family would feel; would they be angry with him or feel guilty at themselves. Apparently I'm not very good as staying emotionally detached sometimes...

He was a heavy heroin user and had become depressed about the way he saw his life spiralling out of his control. This is actually the third suicide of a heroin user that I've had direct involvement with and each of them had chosen the same method to kill themselves. I've also attended suicides from overdoses, shotgun blasts, jumping from high buildings and one guy who even doused his car in petrol and set fire to it with him inside.

No matter how they did it and for whatever reason, each of them shared a deep, black desperation; a feeling that no matter what they tried they were always going to feel their pain, be it grief, physical pain, shame, guilt or desperation. And each person decided that there was no way to make things better, to be happy again. So, they decided to stop their pain for good.

A lot of people describe suicides as a selfish act, one where the people left behind are left to deal with the grief and guilt etc. And to an extent I agree. Our squad, some years ago, dealt with an incident where a male threw himself in front of a train. And I swear, that will haunt the driver of the train for the rest of his life.

But maybe committing suicide also takes some courage as well. Physical courage if nothing else. Taking that one final step over the edge of the roof or placing a shotgun in your mouth and slowly pressing the trigger.....

To be honest, the truth is that everybody involved adversely affected to some extent. I just hope that fate and my radio give me a nice break before the next one I have to deal with.