The truth is… there really is nothing else that comes close to policing.
Challenge and complexity; crisis and risk; weapons and violence; heartbreak and harm; helpless innocents and deeply troubled souls; the frayed edges of society.
And you get days like Friday 27th April 2012.
There I was, in the office – doing the dull things that desk jockeys do – when the first call came out on the radio: initially to a suspected fire in an office block in Tottenham Court Road; then to a possible hostage situation at the same location.
The Daily Telegraph front page of the following morning called it ‘The Siege of London’.
Drop everything and go. Downstairs and into the nearest available car. Pulse quickening, mind sharpening.
Listening on the radio as my colleague picks her way through the traffic, blues and twos going. Trying to work out what on earth is happening; trying to come up with the beginnings of a plan.
As I arrive on scene, a scattering of local officers are there already. Putting themselves in harm’s way. Traffic is at a standstill and broken glass and computer equipment are about to start raining down on the street from several floors up.
What the hell is going on?
Piece by piece, the information begins to come through.
White male, dressed in what looks like a suicide vest – wired and ready to go – and carrying a flame thrower.
A suicide vest and a flame thrower….
Multiple hostages believed taken at the location – condition unknown. And, now, a steady cascade of glass and hardware.
A small sample of what clatters through your mind: in no particular order, all at the same time:
• Who is he?
• Get the cordons in place;
• How many hostages?
• Call for the TSG to help with evacuations;
• What on earth is his motive?
• Establish a command structure;
• How many weapons has he got?
• Call for Safer Transport Officers to help with road closures;
• Anyone injured?
• Get the DCI on the phone to establish an Intelligence Cell;
• Are all my First Responders accounted for? (Some of them have already been inside the building – no thought for their own safety – trying to get people out);
• Get a team of Hostage Negotiators here;
• Specialist Firearms Officers too;
• What about the hostages?
• It’s three months until the Olympics;
• What are we missing?
• Make sure the LFB and LAS are briefed and know what we need them to do;
• Bomb Disposal Team on the way;
• We’re in the process of shutting down what feels like half of Central London;
• Anything on the hostages?
• ACPO on the phone wanting to know what’s happening;
• Call the Late Turn in early. This could be a long one;
• Establish a command post. Starbucks will do;
• Get all the team leaders in there. Tell them what little we know;
• Get the advice and recommendations of the specialists. Brilliant people, all of them;
• What’s the plan?
• It’s not complicated: Get everyone home safely at the end of the day;
• Are all the cordons in yet?
• What am I missing?
• Any update on the hostages? Numbers? Injuries?
• Does everyone know what we need them to do?
• The Commissioner’s Office on the phone: “I know you’re busy, but…”
• Do we have an Emergency Action plan?
• What about some holding lines for the press?
Trying to give direction, talk on the radio and answer the phone simultaneously.
As we move the public back, police officers – and colleagues from the Emergency Services – move forward.
All around me, people get stuck in.
Cordon tape; radio traffic; shouted instructions from all points; buzzing phones; new teams arriving and deploying; fresh briefings; hardware; that sense of movement, of urgency, of speed being of the essence; no one knowing everything; everyone playing their part.
I’m standing in the middle of it all: thinking; praying; talking; listening; trusting; juggling; hoping; wondering.
And within a very short space of time the whole thing is being broadcast live on the rolling News Channels. This is not an exercise and there will be no second chances.
Our first break. We get a name. Our suspect appears to be a former client of the company whose computers are now littering the street. Not a happy man.
We start to run checks. Could be that he is ex-military. Former Royal Engineer.
I will never forget the man from the Bomb Squad, now standing next to me:
“If he’s ex-REME, he knows how to take that whole building down.”
This is serious.
• Extend the cordons;
• Are the Negotiators ready to go?
• Are the SFOs in position?
• Please God, don’t let this one end badly (I’ve been there before);
• Move the command post further up the road. The furniture display in the front window of Heals has a table big enough to get the team around;
• Next briefing. Try to record it. Press the wrong button on the dictaphone;
• There’s a fire engine within the Inner Cordon and it’s overheating. No way of getting to it at the moment;
• The hostages are out. We think all of them;
• He’s still in there;
• The Flame Thrower works;
• The vest looks real enough;
• Units heading to the suspect’s believed home address – outside London. Might be booby trapped;
• Emergency plans in place;
• Several tube stations closed. Buses all on diversion;
• The On Call Commander arrives to handle the press. One less thing to think about;
• Still live on TV. Our every move being analysed, critiqued and second guessed;
• Everyone doing a blindingly good job;
• How much is this costing the local economy in terms of lost business? Hundreds of thousands I expect;
• And goodness only knows how many emergency services personnel we’ve got here now;
• Hope my family know I’m OK.
And then it ends, almost as swiftly as it began.
He surrenders and emerges into the street, bare chested and handcuffed.
He’s not ex-military after all. Turns out the company has two clients with exactly the same name. What are the chances of that?
And, whilst the flame thrower was real, the suicide vest was a fake. Not that anyone knew that until afterwards.
It could have ended in any number of ways. But this one ended well. Not a scratch on anyone, including the suspect.
The brilliant best of the Met:
• PCs on cordons;
• PCSOs on junctions;
• Snipers on rooftops;
• The TSG waiting to be deployed;
• Detectives researching intelligence and debriefing hostages;
• Negotiators in the back of a cramped van;
• SFOs kitted up and ready;
• Bomb Disposal Officers ready to go in;
• Control Room operators juggling channels and multiple calls;
• Sergeants & Inspectors marshalling everyone;
• All of them prepared to put themselves in harm’s way;
• My privilege to be lost in the midst of it all;
• And a whole Dixon’s worth of computer equipment piled up in the middle of the road.
These are the days you join for. These are the days spent on the inside of the cordon. These are the days surrounded by people who are damn good at their jobs. These are the days when you stumble home, exhausted, with your head spinning and that priceless sense of a job well done.
These are the days when you are the headline news.
These are the days when you could not possibly feel any more proud to be a Police Officer.