Tuesday, 30 June 2009
It must be the `Batman` in my soul
I watched BBC's "Crimewatch" last night. I haven't seen it for ages. I only watched about 3 minutes because I was in need of sleep after a busy few days which included a lot of work, a bit of motorcycling in the hot weather (no complaints there) and watching Bruce Springsteen and the blistering E Street Band, live from Glastonbury, until 1 am on Sunday morning followed by another long day of work - I take a little longer to recover, these days. The 3 minutes of "Crimewatch" featured an armed robbery on a small bank and used actors for the re-enactment, interspersed with actual security video. What I saw took me back a few short years, to a job I was tasked with and it also served to remind me of the raw fear and shock that these thieving, robbing bastards inflict on innocent people who are just going about their business trying to earn an honest living. I joined up to nail thugs like this - and very occasionally I would see a bit of `justice` prevailing. The job it reminded me of, and it was the fear portrayed by the actors that jogged the memory, was an armed robbery committed on a Friday afternoon at a small south coast town's equally small bank. It was 4pm and I was the duty firearms tactical adviser, just tidying my desk before leaving work for a weekend at home. My pager directed me to attend `Smalltown` police station and speak to the superintendent. I threw my `go bag` in the boot of my car and headed out into the Friday afternoon traffic, heavy with workers heading away from their work except for me, or so it always seemed on these occasions. I arrived at the police station and made my way to the super's office. He was sitting with the detective inspector and they briefed me on what had happened about 90 minutes before. In the office was a TV and video and we watched the grainy images of the lone suspect (what am I saying, `suspect` for? I was watching the man who robbed the damn bank, he wasn't a suspect to me). He was stood quietly in a small queue seemingly waiting his turn. He even had a short conversation with the lady stood behind him, in what was a typical modern open plan bank foyer. Then, realising he was now alone, he chose this moment, pulled out a handgun, leapt onto the counter and went into his robbery routine. We watched as the staff, 3 women and a man, were forced to put their hands on their heads as he ranted his demands at them. One poor young woman was forced to her feet and made to empty the cash into his happy bag. We could see her shaking with fear and could see her pained expression as the pistol was pointed into her face. Then it was all over. He grabbed up the bag and was gone. Then came the moment that stayed with me. There followed several seconds where everyone remained frozen to their chairs so that it seemed as if the film had been paused. Then, almost as one, they collapsed in various positions across their workstations, the young cashier who had taken the brunt of the threats bursting into hysterical tears while the others, some head in hands, tried to comfort her and each other. The film then ended as the superintendent switched it off. The villain was a thug, recently released from prison (surprise, surprise) and this was the town he grew up in. The woman he'd had a short conversation with actually knew him. Cases with perpetrators this stupid rarely require intensive detective work, but a gun could clearly be seen, hence I was sat there with them. So before I'd even arrived to offer my tactical advice on the arrest, the local police had a name, an address, a witness who knew him and who was there talking to him just before he pulled the stunt. Bank transaction records can be so helpful at times like this. So, off I went to recce stupid thugs's address. I always travelled in plain, ordinary clothes to jobs like this. Senior officers eventually got used to this, because I had taken great pains to explain to them that me and my team always liked to do our own `eyes-on`. It was essential. We trusted no information presented to us 100%, until we had acquired plenty of corroboration and that always included our own observations. I returned with all the information needed to put to the arrest team. Satisfied that no one had made any enquiries that could lead directly back to him, it was agreed that we would do a subterfuge entry the following morning at daybreak. The plan was committed to paper, along with all the contingency options I could think of, and the boss duly signed on the dotted line. I arranged for the duty team to RV at our base at 0500 the next day and was just about to set off home when another gun incident was paged to me. I had a 15 mile `blue light run` in heavy commuter traffic to an incident on a `sink` estate where handguns were being brandished and shots were being fired. I was in an unmarked car with just a pair of dashboard mounted blue strobes. This would not be a fun run. But no more of that tale for now. The next day my team assembled at Smalltown police station. When a tactical firearms team arrives at a police station it always creates a lot of interest. Local `old hands` would say hi to those of us they knew and then leave us to get on with our thing; the newer officers would stand and stare at the mysteries of our arsenal, as we kitted up and armed ourselves with self loading pistols and carbines. For some it was the first time they'd seen this for real and I know that it came as a shock to some them, facing the fact that this is what it often came down to and that although they were unarmed officers in a predominantly unarmed police force, they were policing a society where guns were used by criminals. To this day I always maintain that the police who face the greatest risks are, by and large, the unarmed ones who are the first to respond to spontaneous incidents involving weapons followed by the Armed Response Vehicles close on their heels. The plan was in two parts; subterfuge to get the door open nice and gently, backed by a direct entry of the more up-front, overt dynamic nature. We hoped that our previously gathered intelligence would do the trick, as we had the added risk of there being a wife and two children in the house. I'd condsidered a `contain and contact` option (usually my favourite as it put my officers in less danger) but this loon's profile suggested a risk he'd go to seige and neither me or the superintendent wanted that but it was a calculated risk as it always is, mainly because the suspect never attends the police briefing so never knows or does what he's supposed to do. After the brief, we moved out to our tactical rvp. There the two teams formed up. The one man, one woman (I only had the one female, much to my frustration) subterfuge team, wearing jeans and casual shirts covering covert body armour, were to knock on the door and ask for the suspect by name. Having been told that his wife always answers they would then foot the door and hold it whilst the overt team flowed in and `did the rooms`, the priority being upstairs, again calculated by the hour of our entry. Containment/entry teams formed up. Subterfuge team formed up. I was concealed in bushes at the front of the premises and counted it down. "Door team stand by, stand by, strike now". A Mk.1 knock on the door, a pause, a second knock, a third. Any more and I'd call for an overt entry. Thankfully, the door opened a few inches, there was a short exchange of words and I could call "Entry team strike now, strike now". The stick moved briskly (we didn't run anywhere) and as the last one disappeared inside I called the containment team to tell them I was going in. Amid much shouting I scaled the stairs of the smelly house and came up behind Sgt Bob, one of the most experienced officers in the unit, with hundreds of armed ops under his belt. he was issuing a hard challenge into the bedroom. My hand on his shoulder, `any weapons Bob`? `None seen Boss - COME OUT FROM BEHIND THE BED`. I peered into the room. There was a bed on its side. One of the team had removed the children from their room and the thug, realising what was happening, upended his bed to hide behind it. He eventually stood, with his hands held up. He was looking down the barrels of 3 Heckler and Koch 9mm carbines and he had pissed in his pants. The gun he'd used to rob and terrify turned out to be a replica, but neither us nor the poor bank staff knew that. I guess he knew our's were not, hence the soiled underwear. That little message was one I was determined to get home and I broke with my own policy of not engaging with the people we arrested for others to deal with. As we cuffed him and waited for the local police van and CID to answer our call of `all clear, one detained`, I took just a few moments to whisper in his ear that I was making it my duty to let the bank staff know how he urinated in his undies, in his own bedroom, when we came to bring him to justice. I wasn't expecting him to receive a more deserving penalty than that. Those 3 minutes on "Crimewatch" can never convey the full story and the personal anguish and long term damage done by these worthless bottom-feeders, but they did a good job on me last night. Then again the images I and countless others like me recall are most often those little snapshots of activity that take place away from the newspapers, the You Tube snappers and the ten second TV soundbites.