On the third anniversary of the book’s publishing, I figured it might just be time to tell the story of how it all came about.
Hello, hello, hello! What’s all this, then?
About six years ago, I had left my most recent job as a producer for a TV station in the UK, and found myself writing a series of books about photography. It was fascinating work, and I loved every minute of it. However, there was definitely one aspect of work missing.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, but it came to me when I went out shopping; the check-out chap asked me something, and I realised, as I was answering, that it was the first time in days I had said anything to anybody.
One way to resolve that, I figured, would be to take a volunteer job.
That, it turned out, was harder than I imagined; I wanted to volunteer, for sure, but I also wanted to commit quite a bit of time, and learn a lot in the process. I spoke to a few different charities, and I discovered that not a lot of them have any sort of formal training as part of their onboarding, and wouldn’t be able to let me work as much / as often as I wanted.
“A volunteer police officer? That’s a thing?”
I went and spoke to London Ambulance Service at one point, where a fantastic lady eventually asked me the question I hadn’t formulated for myself: “What do you want out of this?”. I explained to her what I envisioned from a volunteering position, and she got a look across her face, as if she’d just had an idea. “It sounds like you ought to go talk to the Met”, she said, and wrote down an URL for the Special Constables recruiting site.
“A volunteer police officer?” I remember thinking. “That’s a thing?”
It turns out that yes, that is a thing. Not only that, but the special constabulary in the London Metropolitan Police has a tremendously long and illustrious history. It has been around since 1831; the Metropolitan Police is generally considered one of the first police forces in the world, and the special constabulary followed in its ground-breaking footsteps.
Special constables in England have the same powers as full-time officers: Powers to arrest, investigate, etc, and while the duties differ slightly (there are a lot of roles where being part-time doesn’t fit with the job that needs doing), in theory specials can do everything normal police constables can do.
I applied, was accepted, went through the training, and decided to jump in with both feet. For a couple of years, I was working every late shift that ‘my’ team was doing, working two shifts per week, mostly responding to 999 calls. I was zooming around in police cars. I did street patrols, helped break up fights, dealt with domestic disturbances, made a load of arrests, and learned more than I could have possibly imagined.
I laughed a lot, I cried a few times. I was more scared than I’ve ever been in my life. I was tricked; frequently in the beginning, but I eventually learned to figure out when people were trying to pull a fast one. I discovered that knowing jiu-jitsu came in handy a few times.
Of course, policing is far from all-action all the time. Quite the opposite in fact: I’d say that 80% of being on duty is a whole lot of nothing happening. You drive around and help reassure the public. You wait around for someone to steal that bike you’ve planted as a sting operation. You idle about, driving around in trouble areas, you look for people who were flagged in the shift briefing. You help out as back-up on the odd arrest here and there. You’re waiting for someone to dial 999 with your next assignment. During the downtime, I was usually paired with a more experienced officer; and I did what people do: we talked. We shared stories.
At some point, I realised that yes, I’ve had stressful jobs in my time, but it was nothing compared to policing. Imagine coming across a situation where every fibre of your being is making you want to run. And you do, but instead of running away from the situation, you run toward it. It’s terrifying. More than once, I’d find myself at home after a shift, trying to figure out how I should have handled a particular situation.
I predict a riot…
When the riots happened in London, a lot of it went down in the borough of Hackney — which happened to be ‘my’ borough. I worked basically non-stop, going home only to eat, sleep, wash my uniform gear, and head back out on duty. It was intense. But also the time I think I made the most of a difference: People were tense, scared, and being out there, visible, helping was tremendously rewarding. My fitness tracker tells me I did 40,000 steps on a regular basis.
As it turned out, after working god knows how many days of 12-hour shifts in a row, my time as a Special Constable was coming to an end. I was moving to Buenos Aires to follow my wife — she was working on a film there.
However, the riots stuck with me, and I ended up writing a piece about them (reproduced below). The story was fictionalised — you can’t write about active situations — but the idea was to write a hyper-realistic piece of fiction. The way it could have happened, complete with the procedures you follow, the things you need to do, and the strategies you employ to try to keep yourself and your colleagues safe.
One of the editors at Gizmodo UK read the piece, and said “this is awesome”. A story went live on Gizmodo in September 2011, and was the first of a series of stories. Some of them were things that happened to me. Others were stories I was told by colleagues, things I saw happen, or situations that were described to me in training. Yes, it is best classified as fiction, but I was hoping to give people an impression of what policing was like.
Of course, I needed a pseudonym. Given that I had just moved to Argentina, I had noted that the word for ‘crime’ sounded a lot like a name. I also borrowed my best friend’s first name, and there was my pseudonym. Perfect!
And then there was a book
It wasn’t long until Harper Collins said they might be interested in publishing it as a book, and suddenly I found myself working with a team of editors to turn my blog entries into a book.
When I finally moved back to London a few years later, I went back to my borough and asked if they still needed my help.
A lot had changed in the meantime, however, and it turned out that specials working ‘on team’ (i.e. doing what I had been doing before: Working regular shifts with a particular team of response officers) was quite rare. They also had an abundance of special constables, and so I decided to hang up my handcuffs. Being a special constable was definitely one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done: I learned a tremendous amount about policing, about myself, and about how people treat each other.
I’m very glad I’ve done it, and a little bit sad I’m no longer able to. Having said that, policing in the UK and policing in my new home country — the US — is incredibly different, and I don’t think I’d be particularly well suited to the style of policing in the US.
Having said all that, I am very glad I committed a chunk of my life to helping make London a safer place. I have the memories. And a book. Which you should totally read.
Below; an excerpt from the first story I wrote about my experiences of policing in London. The book is still available in paperback and on Kindle; just search for Matt Delito on Amazon.
Riots in London
“There they are”, says the man sitting next to me in the Honda Civic, and both our hands go to our radios, covering up the tell-tale little brightly lit square that pierces the darkness whenever the dispatcher or one of my colleagues transmits on his radio. Usually, I carry my radio with pride. Today, it may be just the thing that could get me recognised and subsequently seriously injured.
The place is London. It’s in the first week of August 2011, and tensions are running high. Night has fallen. Less than a mile away, we know there are a series of running battles going on between rioters and riot police. Anything that is happening there, is happening on a different radio channel. Inside our little black car, the radio stays eerily quiet.
There are only two of us. We don’t have guns. We don’t have shields. We don’t have riot gear. The only things we have to defend ourselves is a stick and a fist-sized deodorant can filled with mixed spices. A call comes in. “We’ve just had another I-grade call. A large group of youth is gathering”, along with a street name. The name of the street is the name of the street we are on. The next thing I know is that we come around a bend, and we can see it all in front of us.
An ambulance is coming the other way, towards us. Its sirens are blaring and its blue lights are flashing, but it is not making the kind of progress you would expect from an ambulance rushing back to the hospital in its effort to save a life. The crowd is in the way, and the ambulance has to slow down to less-than-walking pace. The youths in the crowd show little interest in moving out of the way. They are looking at it. We’re looking at them.
There must be forty of them. Fifty perhaps. There’s a couple of faces I’ve seen before, and my mind is feverishly trying to associate them with known gang members, past victims of crime,anything that can help me figure out exactly what the hell is going on.
Some of them them are on bicycles. Many have their faces covered by scarves. More than a few are carrying sticks, bats and pieces of scaffolding. Some have made an attempt at hiding their weapons, and others are raising them in the sky, as if to say “Look at me. Today, the streets are mine”.
Then I spot the really worrying part: A couple of people are holding wine bottles. It all clicks into place. I know my police station has already lost a few police cars to arson; that the mood among some of the youths we encounter is, shall we say, not wildly enthusiastic about the police; that if these guys are, indeed, gang members, that they might finally decide that this is their chance for payback; that those wine bottles are relatively unlikely to contain wine. Images from my public order training — part of which is a petrol bomb demonstration — flash in front of my eyes.
For the first time in my year-and-a-half as a voluntary police officer, I’m afraid. Cold palms, shallow breath, and a god-awful rush of adrenaline. Time slows down, and I’m looking around for options. What if they surround our car? What if I have to run for it? What if I have to defend my colleague? What if something happens to that ambulance? What if… What if…
I see one of the youth lift up a cigarette lighter and the wine bottle. I see the flint of a lighter sparking brightly in the night, and for a very brief moment, it is the only light source lighting up the universe. I know there is no way it could be possible, but I would merrily swear on a bible that I could hear the cigarette lighter from inside the car.
“Uhmm”, I hear my colleague saying, as he is surveying the scene in front of us, “Let’s go the other way”. He stops the little car dead, backs calmly into a side road, turning the car around, whilst I do my duty as an operator. I reach for my radio. “Golf Delta receiving…”. My own voice crackles as I hear it loop back through the in-car radio set and my colleague’s personal radio. I sound even less like myself than I do normally, as encryption protocols, interference, echo, feedback, network overload and fear are mixed together in a delicious comms cocktail.
“Go ahead”, comes the reply. “We’re on location of your last”, I say, referring to the call that was put out seconds earlier. “We’ve just encountered a group of forty to fifty youths, some of them are believed to be armed with petrol bombs”. I hold the push-to-talk button for what feels like an eternity whilst I try to get my wits together for how I’m going to round off the transmission. “Eh, we’re going to turn around”.
I recognised the composed-as-ever voice of the dispatch operator when she first put the call out. I have no idea what her name is or what she looks like, but for the occasion, images of Angelina Jolie with a microphone headset are flashing through my mind. She is rapidly typing the information she has been relayed by yours truly. “Received”, she says, waits a beat, and adds “Be careful”.
The dispatcher enters the intel into their computer-assisted dispatch system (CAD), and it is presumably handed over to a group of fire-proof superhumans known as “Level 1 officers” in the Metropolitan police — or “riot police” to everybody else. It is with a tinge of disbelief that I recall that “riot police” actually have the same tools at their disposal as I do. Sure, they have full-body padding, a helmet, a fire-retardant suit, and a shield. But where it matters, they are the same as us. Still police officers. Still human beings. Still carrying only a truncheon (if slightly heavier duty than mine) and a (slightly bigger) bottle of CS spray, and a picture of their children in their wallets.
I look behind us, as we’ve just about turned the car around. The ambulance has nearly made it through the crowd. One of the youths throws something, and I see the street lights reflect in an item made of dark glass flying through the air. The ambulance has finally cleared the group of youth and accelerates away, past our police car. On auto-pilot, both my colleague and I raise our hands to the paramedics: You never know if they’re saving your life next.
The bottle thrown by one of the hoodlums shatters into a thousand pieces onto the dark asphalt, and I’m expecting the next vision to be a massive fireball trailing the Ambulance, engulfing the street in an inferno of heat, smoke, and fire. But nothing happens, and as we drive away in search of a call we are equipped to deal with, I wonder: Did the rag not catch fire? Did the wind extinguish the flame before the bottle impacted on the ground? Could it have been empty or filled with wine or water?
I’ll never know, but I was relieved to see the crowd get smaller in our rear-view mirrors.
And that was only the first five minutes of my 14 hour shift…
- Kat Hannaford, then editor of Gizmodo UK, for believing in the project
- Scott Pack, publisher at the Friday Project, for making it happen as a book
- Rachel Faulkner, my incredible editor, without whom the book wouldn’t have been nearly as good.
- Katie May, for painting a portrait of “me” for the cover of the book.