After the drowning, I was back on nightshift. On the busier nights, you might have ten to twenty suspects brought in for interview. And then there are the drunks. They go straight to the cells, where they usually spend four hours or however long it takes for them to sober up. You know they’re sober when they eventually sit up in their cell and have the good sense to be disgusted by their surroundings and their own life choices, in general. That, or they finally stop calling you a c*nt.
We check drunks every 30 minutes, or every 15 minutes if they’re what you might call, “scary-drunk”. You have to actually go into the cell and rouse them to make sure they’re okay. They usually don’t answer at first, so you give them a gentle nudge.
“Are you okay? Can you answer me? I have to make sure you’re still alive.”
“Fuck off, c*nt,” will be the reply for the first three hours or so. Eventually, they’ll remember their manners.
The long-term prisoners are kept separate from the drunks and don’t usually require too much attention once you hand out the bedtime meds, serve final coffees and lock them down for the night.
It had been a year since the death in custody and by this stage, I’d gotten used to working the cells again. I wouldn’t say I was completely comfortable, but it felt manageable and I just avoided that particular cell whenever I could. I also felt that I’d had my fair share of critical incidents out on the road and didn’t mind being inside the station for a week. I was looking forward to the solitude of the sergeant’s office. It seemed a safer place to be, physically and mentally.
It was supposed to be like every other night. I arrived a little early for my 10 PM shift, got changed, then headed straight out to the cells to greet the afternoon shift custody staff.
One of the local vans had just arrived with an offender for processing. We watched as the arresting members removed and secured their firearms, then entered the sallyport to receive a briefing. The cells are strictly a firearm-free area. Custody staff don’t wear them and any other police members attending with a suspect or prisoner have to first secure their firearms if they want to get any further than the sallyport, which is basically just a big garage.
About half an hour earlier, this van crew found a large group of angry young guys hanging around a train station, presumably looking for a fight. One of the first males they spoke to had an outstanding warrant, so they grabbed him and threw him in the back of the van. They didn’t even have time to handcuff him.
“We’ve been watching him on the camera,” said the senior member. “We think he might have some drugs down the front of his pants. He’s been fiddling with the waistband pretty much the whole way here.”
They opened the back of the van and the male was told to step out and walk through to the cell area. I then watched as he sauntered off towards the holding cell.
Crooks are funny the way they walk. Even when I’m not working, I can always spot one walking along the street, because they swagger. I don’t know, they just do this thing that says, “Get the fuck out of my way, I need to get to Cash Converters”. And sometimes they have these little accoutrements that are also a dead give-away. Like a bumbag. Criminals love a bumbag. Why? Because they carry small things. A neck tattoo is another good indicator. And then there’s my personal favourite, the high-vis work shirt or fluoro vest.
High-vis work gear has actually become a kind of camouflage for the modern criminal. It’s like hiding in plain sight. People see a guy in a fluoro vest on their street and they think, “Oh, it’s just a courier. Or maybe he’s a tradie, he’s probably here to fix something.” They don’t give it a second thought. Even after they realise their car or their house has been broken into, the absolute last guy they suspect is the one in the fluoro vest.
“That was him?” they’ll say in disbelief. “I can believe it, he seemed so legit.”
“Well, because he was wearing a fluoro vest.”
It makes me laugh. I actually think it’s kind of brilliant in its simplicity.
So anyway, this guy got out of the van and swaggered off into the holding cell and two of our custody staff followed him to conduct a search.
Moments later, I was standing at the charge counter when I saw Luke*, one of the custody officers, step out of the holding cell with something in his hands. It was another moment or two before I realised what it was.
Luke would later tell me that when he started to search the male, he asked him if he was carrying anything that he shouldn’t be.
“Yeah,” was the reply. “I’ve got this.” The male then produced a handgun from the front of his pants.
As I stared at the handgun in Luke’s hands, I felt a rush of heat from my chest. It spread down to my legs, out through my arms and up my neck towards my face. At the same time, it felt as if the whole room had suddenly gotten brighter and every little noise had been amplified into a loud roar in my ears.
This offender had managed to enter our cells with a handgun. It was actually unloaded, but that made little difference to me. He had entered the most secure area of the station with a handgun. At the time of his arrival he had been surrounded by police officers, but he was the only one who was armed. He could’ve climbed out of the van pointing it at us or at his own head. It could’ve been loaded. He could’ve shot himself. He could’ve shot any one of us. He could’ve shot all of us.
This was my station. My house. My fortress. The one place in the world where I should’ve been safe. My last refuge. The walls had been breached. The final line of defence had been crossed and I was no longer safe.
I felt betrayed. Trust is one of the first things you lose as a police officer and it gets to the point where the only people you can really trust are your workmates. You trust them with your life every time you go to work. That was now gone. In that one instant when I saw Luke carrying that handgun out of the holding cell, I felt that trust was gone. Completely and irrevocably.
If any of the other officers there felt the way I did, they didn’t talk about it. Certainly, they didn’t show it. But I stewed on it. Months later, I was talking about that night with another member, one who wasn’t involved. I told her that I was still unhappy with the arresting members and couldn’t understand why they didn’t stop the van prior to arriving at the station. “They could’ve got the guy away from his friends,” I argued. “They could’ve stopped the van two kilometres away, got him out, searched him, found the gun and handcuffed him.”
“And it still might have turned to shit,” she replied. “They might have been shot on the side of the road with nobody there to help them.”
I hadn’t thought of that. It was an alternative perspective that I hadn’t considered and it made me realise there was no right or wrong answer. I couldn’t blame those members for what happened, because it wasn’t their fault. It could’ve happened that way to anyone one of us. Sometimes shit just happens.
But I still believe that was the day I should have died. It was like a death omen. It was like a giant hand coming down and pointing at me and a voice saying, “That was your one and only chance.” You don’t get many second chances in policing, I’ve always been sure of that.
There are 101 ways to die as a police officer and being shot is top of the list. Statistically, it’s probably not the most likely, but it’s every cop’s biggest fear. I’d always thought that if I was going to die at work, it’d be by gunshot. And this was as close as I got.
That day changed everything for me. It was the final straw. After years and years of the constant chipping away and wearing down, I felt as if I had been stripped bare.
This is the best way I can explain it: if you grabbed someone off the street and put them in a police uniform, handed them an equipment belt with all the gear in it and told them to go out and police the streets, they’d just look at you.
“I’m not trained to do that,” they’d say. Even with the uniform and all the equipment, they wouldn’t know what to do. They’d actually feel panicked at the thought of doing something they’re not physically or mentally prepared to do.
And that’s how I felt. After 18 years in the job I suddenly felt as if it was all completely alien to me. I felt unprepared and ill-equipped.
I just couldn’t do it anymore.
(*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of those concerned.)