In the bestselling DS Roy Grace series, Peter James lifts the lid on the inner workings of the police force. Read the author's account of his day on the beat in Brighton in the name of research.
I arrive at Brighton’s John Street Police Station – known as ‘Brighton nick’ – reputed to be one of the busiest police stations in England, shortly before 7 a.m. on a wet Thursday morning. The police like rain. ‘PC Rain’ some of them call it. Villains, it seems, don’t like getting wet, so the level of street crime drops on a wet day. But fortunately for me, keen to see some action, and less fortunately for the City of Brighton and Hove, the forecast is for dry spells...
This evening, I’m going out on the late shift with the Road Policing Unit, as the traffic police are now known. But first I’m spending the day with Inspector Andy Kundert, who is the duty inspector of the day: the ‘Golf 99’, as it is known. A cheery, no-nonsense, hardworking uniformed officer, Inspector Kundert is a tough but fair man, positive in his outlook and not at all jaded by years of working the sometimes mean streets of the city that once had the reputation of being the crime capital of England. As Golf 99, Andy Kundert is in charge of all critical incidents that occur during his watch. Without wishing ill on anyone, I’m hoping for a busy day. It turns out I am not going to be disappointed.
Our early morning mug of tea never gets drunk. At a few minutes before 7 a.m. the first critical incident comes in. A suspected cot-death in a family home. A six-month-old baby boy found dead by his mother. It is agreed that, because of the sensitive nature of this situation, I won’t go into the house with Andy but will wait in the car outside. He arranges a Family Liaison Officer, trained in dealing with people in tragic circumstances, to accompany him. But, while there needs to be sympathy, there needs to be suspicion too, along with a proper investigation to ensure this is indeed what it seems to be on the surface – a terrible tragedy – and not something more sinister.
At 9.30 a.m. we’re back at Brighton nick for the daily meeting chaired by the Divisional Commander, and which is jokingly known as ‘Morning Prayers’. At this meeting, the divisional inspectors and other key members of the command team, including the press officer, review all serious crimes and incidents logged in the previous 24 hours, check updates on the status of missing persons and wanted persons and the status of arrested suspects who have not yet been charged, as well as review all other business involved in the policing of the city.
We’re barely out of the meeting room when Golf 99’s phone goes again. A pedestrian has been hit by a bus in North Street, the very heart of Brighton’s shopping district and one of the city’s key road arteries. Initial reports coming through are indicating it may be a fatality.
We embark on our second ‘blues and twos’ ride of the morning and yes, almost every police officer gets a buzz out of these, and for a petrol-head passenger like me they are more of a thrill than any funfair ride! We arrive in the busy shopping street, to find the bus skewed at an angle, an ambulance at the scene attending a young man who is unconscious and bleeding heavily, and several police officers who have also just arrived. Kundert is out of the car and, after a quick assessment, orders the road closed, and assists with unspooling the blue and white POLICE LINE tape. It is no small decision to shut North Street – it will grind most of the centre of Brighton and Hove to a halt – but a potential fatality is a potential crime scene which must be preserved.
There’s a further complication. The young man is a Turkish student. His girlfriend and four other friends are with him and none of them speaks a word of English. While the ambulance rushes the young man to hospital and the paramedics are expressing doubts that he will live, Kundert is back in the car, radioing for a translator to be found. We and another police car ferry the five students to the A&E department of the hospital. Then we head back to the nick.
It is now 1.30 p.m. Andy has just mentioned lunch but, before we can do anything about that, he gets another call. I learned long ago that, when I go out the police, I must take emergency food supplies with me. There are many occasions when stopping for lunch, even for a sandwich, is not an option. Right now is one of these moments. Andy switches on the blues and twos and we’re off. The Divisional Intelligence Unit has been looking for a tagged car which they believe is involved in a drug dealing network, and it has just been spotted by a Road Policing Unit car, which is now in pursuit. The chase is heading along Brighton seafront, in our direction. A bad decision by the villains who’ve clearly not experienced the traffic congestion in that part of the city. They abandon the car in the jam close to Brighton Pier and leg it. The police open the boot, and find one of the biggest caches of cannabis they’ve ever seized in this city. But Kundert is more preoccupied with organizing a manhunt for the fleeing villains, and working with the CCTV Unit plays a key part in this. But the suspects have vanished. They’ve lost their stash, worth tens of thousands of pounds, but for the moment, at any rate, they’ve kept their freedom.
At 3 p.m., just as Kundert is hoping his day might be starting to wind down, we get a call out to a ‘domestic’. Because of a shortage of officers – everyone is out looking for the drug dealer suspects – Kundert decides to take this himself, with me tagging along. A domestic – a fight in a private home – is something almost every police officer dislikes getting involved in. When intervening in a violent dispute, it is often the officer who gets hit with a chair by one or other of the irate partners. I’m about to get an education – but of a rather different sort. Back on the blues and twos we race up to Hollingbury, one of the city’s big estates, which has a large amount of council housing, and we rush up to the fourth floor of a small tower block.
The front door is open and we go straight in – to one of the worse smells that I have ever experienced. The air is rank; it stinks of excrement, mould, damp, unwashed feet, the residue of ten thousand fags and rotting food. The City Mortuary smells like the fragrances section of a department store in comparison. The carpet is filthy and our feet literally stick to it as we cross it. The floor is littered with soiled nappies, soiled underwear, MacDonald’s and Chinese takeaway food cartons covered in fungus. Of course, there is a 50-inch plasma TV screen on the wall . . . A baby is screaming, and somewhere at the back of this hell-hole we can hear a male and female human being shouting at each other. Kundert bravely steps into the fray and, using all his skills, firmly but tactfully calms everything down, establishing the relationship – the woman lives here, this is a boyfriend. The woman, in her late twenties, has a black eye. The man, also late twenties, has a cut lip. Kundert asks the woman if she wants the man to remain and she says she wants him to go, but she doesn’t want the police to take any other action. Kundert orders him to leave, and he does, meek a lamb and ponging of BO. A few minutes later, we leave the mother with her baby. As we head towards the front door, across the sticky carpet, the inspector turns and whispers to me a wonderful new phrase to add to my collection: ‘Peter, this is the kind of place where you have to wipe your feet on the way out!’
Just after 5 p.m. I arrive at the Road Policing Unit base in Hove. I’m going out with two officers I really like, who’ve worked together as pair for some years: Ian Upperton and Tony Omotoso. They’re in the middle of showing me videos of some spectacular crashes they’ve been in recently during high-speed pursuits, when a Grade One 999 call, or ‘shout’, as it’s known colloquially, comes in. We’re despatched to attend a single vehicle accident in one of Hove’s smartest residential streets, Shirley Drive.
Into the RPU’s latest car, a smart 5-Series BMW estate, and on with the blues and twos. God, how I wish I had these in my car! A journey across the city, during rush hour, which could easily take me twenty minutes, is covered in a little over 90 seconds. We arrive at the accident, first on the scene. A Nissan Micra has veered off the road and knocked down a bollard on the pavement, which is now wedged under the car. We get out, and I put on my high-viz yellow jacket, with the words POLICE in blue letters on the back. To the world I’m now a traffic cop – apart from my lack of a cap!
Inside the Nissan is a sweet but bewildered looking lady with a wizened face, who turns out to be comfortably on the far side of ninety years old. She’s apologetic, explaining that she leaned forward to switch on the lights and somehow swerved off the road and now she’s stuck. Firmly, but with great compassion, PCs Upperton and Omotoso explain to the lady that she could very easily have killed a cyclist or a pedestrian through this action. She agrees. We have a problem, which is that because the car is at an angle, blocking one of the two lanes, traffic is backed up all they way down Shirley Drive and this is having a knock-on effect elsewhere, starting to grind parts of the city to a halt. Rather than wait for a breakdown truck the two police officers decide to try to move the car off the bollard themselves. I help lift the back end, physically bouncing the car, until it is free. Then PC Omotoso drives the old lady to her home, to check the car is not damaged. He informs her that she may be prosecuted for driving without due care and attention and that she may be required to take a driving test because of her age and what happened.
Then, just as we leave her, we get another Grade One shout. A dog has been reported running loose on the A27, the Brighton bypass, with fast moving traffic. We weave through the rush-hour traffic, the police officers exasperated by how little notice some drivers take of the lights and siren: it seems some never look in their mirrors and drive with their music up so loud all other sounds are blocked out. When we get onto the bypass, the offices begin to create a rolling road-block to slow the traffic down, in case the dog is still on the road ahead. They do this by weaving from side to side across all lanes, as if the driver were drunk! It is very effective and, within a couple of minutes, the road in front of us is empty. Then we get a call. The dog has returned home to its owner. PC Upperton is a passionate lover of dogs. His relief is palpable.
For the next couple of hours we cruise around, and all seems quiet. The weather is dry now, but for me the night looks like it’s turning into a washout. But that is soon to change. We return to the base, stopping to pick up a sandwich on the way, and have a break. Then we go back out on patrol, criss-crossing the city. Every few minutes the Automatic Number Plate Recognition system pings, and a registration number – or ‘index’ – of a car that has no road tax or insurance, or is stolen and is close to us, will appear on the screen. But the system is not perfect and most of these are false alarms. One is genuine. Omotoso spins the car round, turns on the blues and twos and we give chase. But the car has vanished and after a few minutes we stand down.
We drive out of town and onto the M23 motorway to see if we can find any speeding cars or drunk or erratic drivers. It is a little known fact that more arrests are carried out by traffic officers than by any other divisions of the police – over 50 per cent of all arrests! This is because, in part, if villains are fleeing from a burglary, it is the RPU who will usually head the pursuit. In part, too, it is because someone who has just committed a crime is likely to be in a ‘red mist’, a heightened state of anxiety, which will make them drive erratically and instantly raise suspicion. Many crimes are solved simply from the vigilance of RPU officers not liking the look of the occupants of a car, for no other reason than a simple ‘copper’s nose’ explanation.
Just as we reach Pease Pottage, ten miles north of Brighton and the limit of their beat, we get a call that changes the whole night. Almost every traffic police officer I’ve ever met is a petrol-head. That’s why they do this job: their love of cars or motorcycles. A car has been stolen from the Whitehawk estate in Brighton. It has been sighted several times travelling at high speed. We are to get over there right away.
Inside the BMW the atmosphere changes. It’s electric! Upperton, in the passenger seat, switches on the blue lights and siren then surreptitiously tightens his belt. Omotoso stiffens and floors the accelerator. For me, and I suspect for these guys too, it feels like all my Christmases have come, as we rip down the motorway, the roof spinners throwing eerie blue shadows across the dark tarmac on either side of us. We come into a series of bends that an average driver would be nervous taking at 60 m.p.h. We take them at race-car speed, and while Omotoso is a fine driver, my mind is going back to those videos of high-speed-pursuit crashes that these two officers were showing me only a few hours earlier . . .
We slow when we reach the city limits, but not by much. And then, disappointment. Just as we approach Whitehawk we are told to stand down. The stolen car has been abandoned and the driver has legged it. There are some moments of almost funereal silence inside the Beemer. Three kids robbed of our toy . . . then, joy! The radio crackles into life. The same guy has now stolen another car! We get a description, a white Ford Fiesta, and the index. Even as Upperton is writing it down the ANPR on the dash pings as a car flashes past us. A white Fiesta. The Fiesta! He’s driven straight past us!
For the next half hour I have the greatest ride in a car I’ve ever had in my life as a passenger. We chase the Fiesta, which is in the hands of an uncommonly skilful boy racer, around the streets of Brighton and Hove, out into the country and back into the city. We become the lead pursuit vehicle of six marked police cars, a dog handler unit, and the helicopter that has just been scrambled. We’re tearing up and down the city’s streets, popping speed cameras, running red lights, trying to get a TPAC formation to box-in the rogue Fiesta with some of our other units. But then, suddenly, on a stretch of open road heading out of the city again, the BMW is able to overtake him. Moments later, the Fiesta is successfully boxed into the side of the road, with us in front, another police car alongside it and one behind it. The driver jumps out – a teenager in a tracksuit top with a white baseball cap on the wrong way around – and attempts to leg it again. He gets no more than ten yards before a rugby tackle brings him crashing down.
Half an hour later we are in one of the prisoner waiting rooms at the Custody Centre. It’s not a room you’d want to spend any time in. Windowless walls, bare apart from a sign which says, YOU HAVE BEEN ARRESTED and lists your rights, and a hard bench to sit on. I’m in there with Ian Upperton and the joyrider whose name I’m told is Darren. Darren is 15, small, thin, with a fair scattering of zits on his face. There’s no bravado about him, he just looks like a scared kid. Outside, Omotoso is filling in paperwork. He tells me Darren has a string of ‘previous’. He also tells me that it’s 11 p.m. and they’ll be lucky to have processed Darren through custody before 2 a.m. He’s wrong. It is 3.30 a.m. before we finally leave. I’ve been on the Brighton beat for over twenty hours with barely a break. Time for bed. And I’m thankful it’s not in a cell . . .