A Brush with the Law

26th October 2018

It isn’t every day that one of your teenage daughters goes looking for a drug dealer while her sister searches his crack den. This summer, Kathy Walton and her 17-year-old twin daughters, Philippa and Lucinda, each joined a police ‘ride-along’ for a day. Lucinda and Kathy spent their days with Watford police while Philippa was based with officers from Rickmansworth. After serving their time on the beat, both girls helped Kathy with her enquiries. Here she describes their experiences…

With some trepidation, I report for a briefing at 6.30am to Watford Central Police Station, which is located, splendidly, in Shady Lane – a great name for a place that deals with criminals. Before I sit down, I’m handed a hi-vis waistcoat with ‘observer’ in large letters, just in case anyone mistakes a short, unfit, middle-aged woman for a guardian of the law. Predictably, given that I am the wrong side of 50, the officers round the table look so ridiculously young that I am tempted to ask if they’ve got a note from their mum to be allowed out at this time.

I’ve only been here five minutes and already I’m struggling even to understand the professional argot. For instance, among the 41 calls logged overnight is a vulnerable ‘misper’ (missing person); a ‘domestic’ (a woman’s ex-partner has threatened to set fire to her home); and a man suspected of ‘cuckooing’, which I think might be my favourite new word until I learn its meaning: allowing others to take over his flat for drug dealing. I realise I need to learn the lingo fast.

My two minders for the day are PC Rob Loveday and PC Becky Clark. “Every day is different,” they tell me. “You get good and bad days, but we work with wonderful people.”

A sign on the Shady Lane fridge reads ‘Don’t leave your lunch in here in case it gets sold.’ One officer tells me that if you dropped a £1 coin on the police station floor, it would still be there in six months – but leave an item of police kit unattended while you go to the loo and it would be gone by the time you return. I decide that my lilac handbag is safe, but keep hold of my sandwiches, just in case.

Our first call is to a block of flats near Watford High Street, where Mick*, an elderly insulin-dependent diabetic, hasn’t opened the door to the community nurse for his daily injection. When we finally gain entry, we find Mick in pretty bad shape and call an ‘ambo’. (I’m learning…). Once the paramedics arrive, Mick admits to being a heavy drinker, something he flatly denied to the PCs. I am shocked by the state of Mick’s flat, but hugely impressed by the compassion and patience shown by Rob and Becky.

Within minutes, another call comes through, this time about a ‘misper’ who has been located in the intu shopping centre: John* is a young man with a history of mental illness, who is apparently suicidal. On our arrival, I have to run to keep up with Rob and Becky, as they approach him. “It’s all right mate, nothing to worry about,” the officers say, surprisingly calmly, considering that they’ve just warned me that things could kick off very quickly.

John, who looks as if he’s come straight from Central Casting (trainers, trackies, hoodie), and who has made violent threats against one of his parents, is told, very gently, that he is being detained under the Mental Health Act. Flanked by Rob and Becky, he is led away in handcuffs to a police car which will take him to hospital. I follow, rather sheepishly, conscious that shoppers are eyeing me with suspicion. It feels surreal.

My final call of the day is to a local supermarket, where an alleged shoplifter has been detained. When Rob, Becky and I are escorted to a back room by the store manager, customers part in the aisle. Talk about feeling important. Then comes a moment of confusion for me when Becky and Rob greet someone they recognise – “Darren!* How are you?” – and I conclude that the man I took for the alleged shoplifter must be an employee…

But it turns out that I was right first time, because Darren “is known to every police officer in Watford”. I ask if he is something of a Norman Stanley Fletcher, the unrepentant old lag played by Ronnie Barker in BBC TV’s Porridge? Rob or Becky have no idea what I’m talking about: too young.

Darren insists that he fully intended to pay for the £230 worth of meat hidden beneath a pile of crisp packets in his trolley and that he just popped into the car park for some fresh air. The security guard says it’s an old trick that he’s seen before. Darren is extremely rude, yet is treated with tremendous courtesy by my two PCs. Because he is of no fixed abode, he is taken into custody to be interviewed, so that he can present his side of the story.

Rewind a fortnight and my daughter Lucinda is also on a ride-along with two Watford officers, PC Laura Grant and PC Nigel Waldron, when they’re called to a ‘domestic’: a woman has chucked out all her husband’s belongings, and is clearly distressed. While Laura and Nigel try to make sense of the situation, the woman hands Lucinda her baby. Minutes later, the indignant husband appears and yanks the infant out of her arms. “Don’t you ever leave my baby with someone you don’t know,” he snarls at his wife – and at Lucinda.

Next up, Lucinda and Philippa (who is spending the same day with Rickmansworth police) are both getting the blue-light treatment. Philippa, who was being regaled by PCs Phil Gourd and Chris Bignell about the previous day’s ‘Pastagate’ (when an argument between a retired Italian couple over whether the spaghetti was sufficiently al dente turned nasty), finds her patrol car being dispatched to the canal basin in Croxley Green to look for a potential suicide.

Coincidentally, at about the same time, Lucinda and co are called to a flat in Watford, lair of a notorious crack dealer. “It was like [the film] Trainspotting, only worse,” she says, prompting me to wonder if I should be policing (ha!) her Netflix choices. As it happens, Pete* is not at home… but then a call comes in that someone fitting his description has threatened to throw himself into the canal – and that a patrol car from Rickmansworth is already on its way…

Back home after our fascinating experiences, we have pages of notes to compare. We all agree that we are bowled over by professionalism of even quite young (to me, anyway) police officers when dealing with extremely difficult people. (Criminals that is, not us, in case you were wondering.). We’ve seen and heard things that have both shocked and moved us. We loved the police’s compassion, and their commitment – and their laddish humour too: Philippa was driven home by her two PCs, Phil and Chris, who, for the sake of our neighbours, made a great show of escorting her to the front door and saying loudly: “Now don’t let me ever catch you doing that again, young lady.”

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