Tanja swings the Astra patrol car into the driveway. “Ah great” she remarks, “The family are here. We can get on with this”. She’s careful how she opens the drivers door. She doesn’t want the family to see her hit their car parked next to her. That would not get them off on the right footing. Tanja’s crew mate Jo jumps out of his seat and is already on his way over to a woman in her mid 40’s who’s standing on the front door step. Her 18 year old daughter is looking bored next to her. It’s 9.30 on a cold boxing night, and the first thing Tanja notices is the nervousness on the mother’s face.
The house is a Victorian semi detached. It’s substantially built with wooden framed windows. It’s been well looked after and the family look quite well-to-do.
“I’m getting a little worried now” the woman says as Tanja catches Jo up near the front door. Jo asks the usual questions regarding the woman’s concern and why the police response unit have been called. Her 15 year old son had refused to go out with his Mum and sister to visit friends that evening, so they had left him at home. He had been acting a little strangely but she had put it down to being a teenager. It’s just one of those teenage times they have to get through. But the concern had began to grow since they had tried to phone him several times that evening on both his mobile and on the house phone. She had received no answer from him. They decided to come home early but now they couldn’t get into their own house. They were at a loss as to what to do next.
Jo disappears around to the side of the house. It’s cold enough to leave a trail of breath in his wake which dissipates through the light thrown from the street light. Tanja knocks loudly on the front door, pushing the doorbell repeatedly. “Simon!” she shouts through the letter box. “It’s the police here now. We will have to break our way in if you don’t answer the door”. She turns the key the woman has left in the lock, but it has no effect. The dead lock is on. Tanja glances to the woman and daughter and comforts them. “Don’t worry, this happens all the time. It’s probably an attention thing. These teenagers hey?”
The woman forces a half smile and anxiously turns towards the direction where Jo had disappeared. He comes around panting slightly, “I’ve had a look, and there’s no obvious way in. He’s not answering my knocking.”
“Okay, we’ll make it as minimal damage as we can” Tanja says to the woman, “Are you happy for us to continue?”
“Yes, there’s nothing else we can do is there?”.
Tanja gets her baton out of her Police utility vest and without hesitation, taps the corner of a pane of glass twice. The glass smashes immediately and large pieces fall inside. This is enough to allow her to get her arm through to turn the lock from the inside. Jo turns the door key at the same time and the door swings open.
The house is in darkness except for the light from the street light opposite. There’s no noise, quite eerie really. Tanja pushes past Jo. She’s keen to show she’s a little annoyed now and even more so when she gazes through the hallway and there standing as upright as a statue is the figure of a young man. “Simon!” Tanja shouts in annoyance, “You have totally wasted our time and your Mums”. Tanja fumbles for a light switch getting ready to give her wrath to the 15 year old, the lights flicker on and Tanja spins her head round to face Simon again.
She stares at him, taking in the scene for a second but holding her breath, she looks at his eyes staring at her but something stops her going further. She gazes at him up and down and then feels an icy shudder flow over her body as if she were wearing nothing but a nighty in this -3 degree temperature.
He face moves from anger to confusion to fear, “OUT, OUT, GET THEM OUT JO!” She swings around grabbing at the front door and pushes him out towards the two women. He’s already realised and doesn’t need any persuasion, and is spinning the mother around on her heels, pushing her down the front step towards the patch of frosty grass. The door slams closed behind him leaving Tanja inside staring at the broken glass left on the floor. She dreads looking at him again, but there’s a creaking sound that forces her to. A creak that only comes from a thick rope twisting with a heavy weight on the end.
She stares at the 4 inch space between his toes and the floor. She slowly gazes up from his bare feet to his jeans then on to his pale hands hanging loosely beside him; then on to his faded Harry Potter T-shirt. A well built young man, athletic, and she continues to look up to the rope around his neck. His round young pale face with a horrible contorted expression. Her eyes followed the half inch thick rope up from his neck to where it was very well fastened to the top banister rail. This rope was not going to snap.
Tanja was already holding his legs realising she had shut Jo out. The sounds of confusion outside meant mother and daughter had not seen the terrible scene of her beloved son hanging there for her to see when she’d got home. But Simon was obviously dead. There was no recovering him. Jo came back in again and between him and Tanja, managed to cut the body down. The ambulance were on scene very shortly afterwards, but no attempt was made by them once they’d realised he’d been dead some time.
Tanja had 4 days off after that night. Just rest days by a stroke of luck, but it turned out to be very bad luck. She wasn’t able to talk the job through with her colleagues, and when she did go back to work, she threw herself into it with gusto, to shake those haunting thoughts of poor Simon hanging there from her mind. And it was only when she was tackling a drunk with her colleagues a couple of nights later, when she was struggling to get the handcuffs on him, that she realised something was wrong. Something was very wrong; she didn’t feel herself, and she was scared because she didn’t know why.
Tanja has now left the police. She suffers from PTSD but has got on with her life and is doing very well having received counselling. This account is very much based on real events she witnessed and suffered. She even said I could use her name. Now here’s why I think we are in some trouble for the future.
20 years ago, we played cards over breakfast with the Section in the Station Canteen. We had already decided who would rush out to the next job if disturbed. We played rugby together, we finished a late shift at 10pm and quickly went to the already bustling bar in the station for a beer before time was called before we walked home. We had a christmas pantomime where we took the mick out of ourselves, especially the bosses. We went to the police ball and enjoyed leaving dos attended by many, because we all lived nearby. We defused.
Now we all live 20 miles from work. Response officers once briefed will work single crewed and attend many jobs just as Tanja did. They will attend cot deaths, fatal car crashes, sudden deaths, be assaulted and have many complaints made against them by unscrupulous people who have an axe to grind. They have no canteens, no bars, and put up with some journalists who complain when they see them buy food or have a cup of tea in public with their colleagues. A leaving do consists of a drink in a nearby bar with 5 or 6 colleagues as no one stays in the same department for long now. There are no pantomimes as the facilities have gone and there are no police balls because the community has gone. Those single crewed officers often drive home to their empty houses and deal with the same additional private life problems we all have to deal with, but on top.
This isn’t healthy. We have Trim, (Counseling) and Wellness campaigns designed to improve our mental health. It is being recognised by the police service, but as you can see, it may well be too little too late after any traumatic event. We need to bring the community feeling back into policing, but I fear it’s probably too late, and I worry for the mental health of officers in the future.
And finally, I see further issues with attempts to isolate officers when it is pushed for them to be segregated from their colleagues having taken the most important decision of their lives to maybe shoot someone in order to save others, or their own life. When certain media will turn against them for what they have done to make a cheap headline, and then the families of these often vicious criminals gain strength from the criticism thrown at the police to forge their own despicable campaigns. I see great warmth out there for my colleagues, but I fear for the future of the mental health of all our emergency services; because it’s the same for all.
Sgt Tangye works in the Devon and Cornwall Police Armed Response Unit.
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