A few weeks ago on a chilly November afternoon, I found myself standing at a window of the ‘resource room’ in Nottingham’s Central Police Station, looking out at the city below. As the light dimmed outside, quiet conversation took place between officers about the briefing we had all just had. It had been a bit like a seminar; fluorescent light, a projection screen, notepads at the ready, and that inescapable pairing of pine-finish tables and blue carpet that has a familiar feel about it. But the talking-points did not: bail checks, cautionable shoplifters, burglaries to investigate, and even secret santa (‘I think we might increase it to eight pounds this year’). That, and the realisation that I’m the only person in the room not wearing a stab-proof vest and carrying a telescopic baton.
For the next eight hours, I would be following Police Constable Alex Sissons in the City Centre and Canning Circus areas of Nottingham for his evening shift. I would be privy to a world normally seen from an untold number of perspectives other than the Police Officers themselves: as suspect, victim, law-abider, news media, political party, and even from the point of view of films like ‘Hot Fuzz’ (‘Have you ever ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?’ … ‘No.’) What, I had thought on the way to the station, were the Police actually like when they’re at work on an ordinary day? As we climbed into the Police van I realised that there was no way of knowing what was ahead of us. Only one way to find out, I thought.
We’re out on patrol, and it’s only a few minutes until the first job comes in over the radio: ‘They’ve asked us to go to a cannabis factory…and we’re going down there just to help them shift it all’. Stuck in traffic on the way there, I take the opportunity to ask PC Sissons how well-behaved (or not) the student community is, and whether he has arrested many students in the past. ‘Not many, but we do end up arresting a few. Normally it’s drink-related: they’ll be on a night out and they’ll have done something that’s out of character for them’. But, as these students come round in the morning, they often get upset about what they’ve done, and what effect that might have on their career prospects. One third-year student who I talked to only fully grasped the significance of what had happened when he was released from Police custody after going through the system of questioning, talks with a solicitor and fingerprinting. Fortunately for him, he was released with a caution.
It’s not long before we arrive at the cannabis factory or ‘grow’, at an address in Beeston. The Scene of Crime officers, or SOCO, have been there for some time already. Inside the house, a camera flashes intermittently as hydroponic equipment and brown bags full of cannabis plants are piled up in the front room. We both have to wait outside in the freezing cold until SOCO have finished, and we’re stood there for a good half hour or so. Just as I start to lose all feeling in my toes, they begin to pass the extremely fragrant evidence out to PC Sissons to load into the van. It’s not long before we’re heading back to Central in perhaps the only situation where it’s permissible to be within a few feet of both a Police officer and several thousand pounds’ worth of a controlled substance.
A few hours into the shift and I can’t help but think that we haven’t had the blue lights on yet–it’s all been fairly quiet. PC Sissons agrees, although he wouldn’t use the same terms: ‘We like to say “Q” instead, just so as not to tempt fate.’ But then, forget the blue lights, surely it’s time to eat? This is an eight hour shift after all. ‘We always aim to try and get some sort of food during the day,’ but aiming for it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. As we pause at a crossing in the centre of town whilst on the way to the nearest Subway, all thoughts of food evaporate in seconds as someone knocks on the window of the van. ‘I don’t know if you know, but there’s a scooter round the corner that’s on fire and it looks like it’s going to blow up.’
Blue lights. Sirens. Hasty radio communication. The sight of a scooter on fire in the middle of the road, spewing a bright arc of flaming petrol from its side, in front of gawping onlookers watching everything unfold on the video screens of their camera phones. PC Sissons is the first on the scene and has to deal with everyone standing around. ‘Can everybody keep back, please!’ The force calls it an RTC, or road traffic collision. To me it looked like a mess.
Once the fire crews and paramedics have come and gone, it’s almost an hour before we can do the same. We have to wait until the traffic has been diverted and the charred wreck of the scooter removed. But it’s not over yet–we need to get to the QMC to get details from the injured driver about what’s happened. PC Sissons thinks trips to Subway might be cursed–something always seems to go wrong on the way there. ‘Chips might have been a better idea.’
Once we arrive at the QMC, we are taken straight into the accident ward where the injured driver is. Preliminary questions along with a search of his belongings lead to some suspicion. After an hour or two he’s discharged, but he is immediately placed under arrest for possession with intent to supply and driving while disqualified. This means a trip to Nottingham’s main custody suite, Bridewell.
Situated near to the train station, Bridewell custody suite is a grim, unmarked building surrounded by a tall fence, formidable security barriers and a slew of CCTV cameras. We park and enter through a discrete door on the side of the building to be met by a smell of disinfectant that only barely covers a caustic odour of urine and sweat. A regiment of custody sergeants peer at us over the booking-in desk. ‘He’s not from the dark side, is he?’ says one, looking at me, thinking I’m a lawyer. An easy mistake to make, seeing as everyone else in there is either in handcuffs or uniform.
After half an hour our suspect is booked in and, unlike him, we’re free to go. ‘It’s always one of two things in there. It’s either quiet or heaving. It can take sometimes up to an hour due to the number of prisoners that might be in there.’ Things do seem to take a while, and my time shadowing PC Sissons has come to an end, but his shift isn’t even close to over yet: there’s still a search of the suspect’s address to carry out and he reckons he’ll be finishing around two in the morning, a full three hours after his shift was supposed to end. ‘An average weekday, to be honest. You can’t take any one day to be the same. With this job, you do not know what will happen next.’
Earlier, when I had watched all three emergency services attend the RTC, things seemed relatively simple for the paramedics and fire services. They did their job and left as you might expect them to, whilst curious onlookers enjoyed what, to them, was little more than mild entertainment. But it’s a different story for the Police – when things really start to go wrong, they’re the ones who have to stay behind and pick up the pieces and try and get everything back on track. For PC Sissons, this meant no food or a moment’s rest for at least ten hours. ‘It’s part of the job, and you kind of get used to it really.’
Before spending a shift with an officer, the Police always seemed an unusual lot to me, shrouded in mystery and high-visibility jackets. Now, I can’t shake the idea that they are an element of society all too frequently taken for granted. They have to clear up when things go wrong, try to ignore their hunger and the cold, and generally put up with what the day throws at them. I had been looking for an average workday in the force, but I left Central Police Station that evening with the impression that there’s no such thing as ‘average’, for them. I certainly wasn’t expecting cannabis factories, burning scooters and a foiled trip to Subway but, I suppose, they weren’t either. All they can do is to try and keep things in order, and for that we should be thankful.
The ‘scooter man’ was later bailed pending further enquiries.