Times, dates and names have been changed to protect the innocent and the identity of the author of this article. The author is a serving police officer in the United Kingdom.
I am a police officer. I’m relatively young in service in the grand scheme of things. However in this job, you learn to adapt and grow quickly.
Over the course of my career so far I’ve been noting things down about some of my exploits and any jobs that stand out to me. It began at first innocently in order to record jobs I could evidence certain competencies with, but quickly I started to notice a trend. The sheer amount of mental health related jobs we would attend.
Chances are, and for some of you reading this, it may have already happened, if you are to have a mental health crisis (or whatever other less corporate term you prefer to use) you’ll probably come into contact with me or one of my thousands of colleagues. That’s right, at the time you are most vulnerable and confused, a slightly bewildered, stab vest clad, handcuff toting police officer will arrive and be expected to deal with you.
Now I’m not to say someone else should be doing this job, because quite frankly, who else is there? However therein lies the issue. The police, who are expected to perform a thousand other duties including investigating crime, safeguarding children, keeping roads safe, catching drink drivers, dealing with town centre drunks and many, many more are also expected to come and try and ensure you get the help you require.
So, let me tell you how this might happen by recounting a job from my earlier career.
I am patrolling my patch, and head to one of the small offices we have in a nearby town to have a look at my emails and make sure my investigations are going as they should be. The radio has been relatively busy, but I’ve evaded being assigned a job as of yet.
I’m in my generic 1.6l diesel family estate, armed with little more than my job smartphone and a Ginsters I bought from the BP up the road. I pull into the parking space in front of the office which is attached to the rear of a village hall due to budget cuts. Meaning the lovely police station that was up the road has been replaced with a retirement home, almost insultingly named “The Old Station”.
As I pull in my personal phone vibrates and I pop it out my stab vest to check if it’s anything important, as I have a group chat with my team and occasionally things of note are posted in there. Today is one of those days and it’s a colleague asking about how a filing system we use is meant to work. I go to respond but notice a lady hovering nearby my car in the door mirror.
Now my patch is wide and vast, but this particular area is quite wealthy and well to do. It doesn’t attract a huge amount of crime, and I anticipate this lady is going to report some kind of drivel to me about an issue I am powerless to rectify for her. Something along the lines of her neighbor buying a caravan and it blocks her view now, or her neighbor’s cat that keeps scaring the birds away from her bird table. You think I exaggerate but these are honestly things I’ve had reported to me in the past in similar circumstances.
I exit the car, and do my best, “oh I didn’t notice you there” I say as I face this lady.
“Are you just finishing?”, she hurriedly blurts, and I full well expect this to be a ploy that she is going to use before complaining that her neighbors washing line disrupts the sunlight in her garden.
“Oh, no, I’ve not long started, just popping in to do some paperwork and scoff this down”, I reply, waving the Ginsters next to my head, “Can I help you at all?”.
“Oh, maybe, I’m not sure who else to speak to, I hope I’m not to waste your time”, the lady says, as I stand there expecting her to lay the smack down and regale a story of how she thinks the old Indian man across the road from her is probably running a terrorist organisation from his living room, and she knows this because her and Matilda on the neighborhood always say hello to him, and he never says hello back.
“My daughter is 14, she’s been quite ill recently and has been in and out of the school and hospital over the last year. She went for a walk after dinner, to clear her head as we had an argument over the fact she’s not eaten enough. Then she’s sent me this text. It’s been over an hour now”, the lady taps at her screen in that way only mums do, with her index finger only, and pulls up a message chain between her and her daughter which reads:
“I think I am causing the issues at home for you.”
Another message is just underneath,
“I wish I could fix it all for you.”
A third message is underneath, time-stamped as two minutes later,
“I think I’ll kill myself. I love you mum, make sure you love Ben as much as you did me”
I reread the messages again. You deal with a lot of shocking incidents in this job, and you start to build up a shell against it, but the frankness and finality of these messages struck me and caused me to pause for a while.
After a couple of moments I went into Police mode and looked at this lady. A middle aged mother, who looked like she had a decent few quid in the bank judging by her clothing and manner, had come to me for help. Me being the 20-something-year-old person in front of her. I note that time is of the essence and that it is literally a life or death situation. With this comes the fear that I need to make sure I get this right, because if I don’t and this girl kills herself, not only will I feel bad, but I’ll end up getting myself investigated.
I ask the lady, “This is certainly not a waste of my time, have you called this in so we can get a job started? It’s easier that way so that it can be risk assessed properly”, I stop myself. This lady has just had her daughter tell her she will kill herself and I’m talking about risk assessments, “That way I can concentrate on making sure we find your girl madam, is it just you out?”
The lady appears a little reassured, “No, my husband is over there”, as she points to a man on the phone, “he’s calling you now, but then you drove round the corner, and oh god what will I do?”, The lady loses her train of thought as the situation begins to weigh in on her. I quickly distract her,
“Good, right, where might she go?”, I’m clutching at straws at this point, this is one of the first ‘missing persons’ that I’ve dealt with where it’s more or less discovered by me, I’m not sure of the process and just hope that common sense will prevail.
The lady describes some places she goes but says that her daughter doesn’t go out much as she’s been so ill recently. She has had some kind of blood disorder which could mean that she’s more susceptible to heart attacks and that she was diagnosed with diabetes recently so if her sugar is not regulated, then she may go into a coma. Alarm bells ring with me, this is not a strong girl having a mental crisis. This is a 14-year-old girl with serious medical issues who has gotten so low that she thinks she’ll solve the issues for her mother by killing herself.
It’s at that moment the radio chirps up again. The controller shouts up with an attention drawn to a female in the area and gives a description. This will sometimes occur when the job starts to come in and while they are obtaining details they will put this out for us to bear in mind.
I respond and say I am with that girl’s mother who has just reported her daughter missing to me, but I had not yet shouted up to say. I state that I am to carry an area search of the area, and that I will send the mother home to wait there should her daughter return home. The controller agrees and I explain to the lady that she should go home and wait there in case her daughter returns. I explained I had this in hand now, and that this was for the best. The lady did not argue and silently returned to her car and drove away.
I called up control and asked for more units to assist. One of my colleagues was available, but was the other side of our patch and would take half an hour to get to me.
I spoke to the father who was in a much better frame of mind, he’d bought along the family dog who promptly tried to jump up to me when I approached, happily unaware of the situation in hand.
I tasked him with walking the dog via the walk route they would normally take as he thought it was likely she would walk this route, and that she was unlikely to go anywhere else. I secretly disagreed with him, but thought it would keep him busy while I tried to make head or tail of the situation and put together a game plan.
After a short while, and some fruitless area searching, my colleague arrived on scene and I agreed to return to the family home and do what we would call a missing persons report. This is literally a checklist and series of questions designed to gather the best evidence possible about the person who has disappeared, as well as have the officer search the family home. While I attended the family home, my colleague would continue the search. We’d also just been told our sergeant had become available and was on their way to assist in the search.
I attended the family home and was answered at the door by the mother from earlier. I could see from her puffy eyes that she’d obviously been crying, but she attempted to put on her best brave face for me as she invited me inside.
“I’ve just spoken to my colleagues who have taken over the ground search for me. I need to take some details so that we can try and do our best to find your daughter if that’s alright?” I asked as I entered the house. I immediately felt like I’d jumped into that too fast. I sounded clinical and lacking compassion. “Do you have anywhere we can sit?”, I continued, silently approving of myself as I softened myself.
“Oh we can sit in the kitchen, probably best as you’ll get best mobile coverage in there”, the lady replied. I breathed a silent sigh of relief. She’d obviously not been put off by my being clinical, and we walked through what was quite a grand old house into the kitchen.
As I entered the kitchen I noted every cleaning product under the sun was out of the cupboard and what seemed like a deep clean was well underway.
Classic behavior, the lady was busying herself in order to take her mind off the situation.
“Oh I do apologise, I was just in the middle of a clean. Would you like a tea?” The lady stated, realising I’d clocked all the cleaning products.
“I’d love a coffee if that’s not to much trouble?” I replied. I didn’t really want a drink, but it helped to keep the mothers worries at bay while she concentrated on something else. The lady nodded and started to fiddle with what I can only describe as a spaceship of a coffee machine more akin to the bar top of your local Starbucks.
While the mother did her best barista of the year impression, I opened up a missing person report and silently flicked through the contents. Part of this process is to ask about the subjects medical history, including mental health and any medication they may be on.
“Do you mind if I start asking you these questions?”, I ask of the lady, her back facing me as steam and noise erupted in front of her like some kind of crazy science experiment.
“No, no, go ahead, your coffee is almost done.”
I started to complete the questionnaire, we delved into details such as where she frequents, where I learned that our subject only really had one friend because she had been deathly ill over the past year, and many of her school friends had drifted away for whatever reason.
The one friend she kept had a severe eating disorder, similar to an eating disorder that our subject suffered from too. I also learnt that her daughter had tried to self-harm in the past, starting by simply scratching her own arms.
However it quickly developed into proper cutting which had left scars on her left arm. The mother continued, recounting a time after her daughter had an argument with her husband over not eating properly and had tied a dressing gown belt around her neck and tried to hang herself from her bedroom door.
Her mother did not believe it was a true attempt, but it still rung alarm bells with me, especially when I learned that the argument they had after dinner was in relation not to her eating disorder, but to similar circumstances to when she attempted to hang herself.
I excused myself and made a call to the duty inspector. I explained the circumstances and said that I thought this needed to be graded as high risk given the circumstances.
The inspector agreed and said they would update the control room. This was a minor victory. By this case being graded high risk, I would have access to the police helicopter and could possibly get authorisation to get her phone traced, however the inspector was a couple of steps ahead of me and as that updated the control room over the air, they requested the helicopter and for the steps to be put in place to initiate a phone trace.
I returned back to the mother in the kitchen. My coffee had been done now, and was deposited on the coffee table. I thanked the lady and told her how the helicopter was lifting to assist and that we would attempt a phone trace. The mothers face changed. I think that was one of the best bits of news she’d heard since this whole ordeal began. I completed a few more questions on the report and then asked if she had a recent photo of her daughter been could distribute to assisting officers. The mother produced two that had been taken only that day, and I snapped them on my work smartphone and sent them to the control room for distribution.
Having now seen a picture of the girl in question, a wave of worry swept over me. It confused me at first, however I then realised that the reason for this was because I could finally put a face to all the paperwork. This was an actual real human person, who was having a mental health crisis and I was the man tasked with bringing her back from the brink of no return.
While I’d been at the house, my sergeant, a dog unit and another of my colleagues had attended the area and were searching. The helicopter had received our job and was identifying search areas for us. The phone trace had been returned, but unfortunately as this wasn’t CSI all it really tells you is what phone mast their phone last pinged, and the rough distance it is from the mast. With this information you can draw a search radius around the mast and focus your efforts. Unfortunately in this case, the search radius encompassed a huge area of rural land. An area that would be almost impossible not search manually by foot.
However the helicopter team had agreed to assist in those areas. However, unfortunately again, large parts of those areas were heavily shrouded by trees which can make it hard for the helicopter crew to scan the area.
By this point I had resorted to making small talk with the mother. I was on the topic of how lovely her garden was, and how it must be a right little sun trap in the summer.
Just like I was on some odd version Grand Designs, except the home owner kept sobbing and I’m trotting about in a stab vest.
Thankfully it was this point that the father returned home having been sent back by my colleagues searching.
He was remarkably well put together, and immediately I saw a wave of relative relief wash over his wife.
The man hugged her and said, “There’s loads of them down there, they’ll find her.”, and as if on cue, the police helicopter swept overheard. They had arrived to begin the search if the areas we had identified.
“State of the art that”, I said in order to break an awkward silence that had ensued. “I’m told they can read the number on my shoulder from up there in a clear day. If your daughter is out there, it’s them that will find her. Failing that the dog that is out there at moment is excellent. I have every hope”.
The mother did not really respond to my statement, but the father smiled and said, “Thank you. I really appreciate all you’re doing for us officer.”
“Not a worry, it’s the main thing we do sir, protect life and limb” I replied.
By now, the girl had not been seen for close to 4 hours, and serious concerns were beginning to be raised about the condition of her, due to her medical issues and her past self harm attempts. It had been a relatively warm day, but there was little cloud cover and the temperature was dropping quite quickly. As far as we were aware, the girl was wearing a jumper at most. However I masked my worry in order to put on a brave face for that lady and that man currently sat on their garden bench locked in an comforting embrace.
I looked on them for a moment, I was stood behind them so they weren’t aware of my attention. My mind suddenly switched to worst case scenario. What if their little girl was dead? How would I word it? Would I be the best person to do this? What if I’ve done something wrong and it indirectly leads to us not getting to the girl on time?
Thankfully my thought train of doom was interrupted by my phone ringing. It was my sergeant.
I answered the phone inconspicuously so as not to alert the parents that I may have an update just in case it was a bad one.
“Don’t say anything just yet. But we’ve managed to speak to the girl, but she won’t tell us where she is at the moment.”
“Ok, I see”, I respond, trying to sound as generic as possible.
“She’s not really said a lot”, my sergeant continued, “so we don’t know what state she’s in currently, but you need to break the news gently and then I’ll update you in a bit”, the phone went dead. Time was of the essence.
I returned the phone to my stab vest pocket and took a deep breath before stepping through the French doors beside the two partners.
“We have spoken to your daughter.”, I paused, and the tow parents face’s lit up almost with joy, “however at the moment she won’t say where she is, and she sounds quite confused.”
“That will be her blood sugar! It must be getting low” The mother exclaimed as she leant forward in her seat, breaking the embrace she had with her husband.
“I know, were doing what we can to try an locate her.” I replied.
At that moment, my phone rang again. It seemed I was having a lucky day for cues. “We’ve got her, she’s not in a great way, but we’ve got her unharmed. We’re on our way back now.”
“Good to hear, I’ll let them know.” I responded and closed the call.
“Good news, we’ve got her…”, I wasn’t able to finish my sentence as the mother hurled herself at me and flung her arms around my shoulders. She was sobbing into my jacket.
“Thank you, Thank you so much”, the mother snivelled through her tears.
I was caught some what off guard by this embrace and just sort of instinctively held this lady who’s life I’d invaded only hours earlier for a few minutes as she cried tears of relief.
My sergeant arrived shortly after, one of my colleagues in tow escorting a very tired looking teenage girl.
Both parents moved to meet her in the hallway, and hugged her more tightly than I imagine they ever had before.
I sort of half-awkwardly stood in the doorway of the kitchen, looking at my sergeant for direction. My sergeant gestured for us to leave and I said farewell to the couple of very thankful parents.
Outside I breathed a heavy sigh if relief. The responsibility of the situation had been lifted from me and my sergeant congratulated me on a job well done, before giving me a proper debrief to ensure I was all alright.
I was, but after I was returned to my car, I went to a petrol station, got a coffee, and sat in the forecourt for a while, considering what had just happened. I was proud of myself and hoped that the girl would now get the support she needs.
After a couple of minutes, my radio vibrated. A direct message from the control room. They asked if I had finished on my current assigned as they had a burglary that needed attending. I agreed and headed back into the fray.
I have no doubt that the work of my colleagues and myself saved that girl’s life that day, and I have no doubt we’ll do it again one day, but what struck me, and what still sticks with me to this day is the fact that her parents thought they were wasting my time at first.
I’m a police officer, I pledged an oath to my queen and country that I would preserve life (amongst other things) and I’m damn well proud about it.
Yeah I might not have extensive knowledge about mental health or medical issues. However I like to think common sense prevails and as a first response we can, and quite often are that first step to getting the help you or a friend or a family member may need.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, hey we’re not going to be a golden solution, but in that hour of need, I’ll be there, and I’ll try my hardest to help you the best I can. Despite what the media, or social media may say. I will help as best I can.