Written by Sgt. Harry Tangye
It was quite warm which was always a bonus, one less thing to worry about at 3 o’clock on this very dark and very still morning. The single car involved was completely unrecognizable, it was dry and only a slight breeze caressed the branches of the trees around my head. I had travelled at speed for over an hour to get here. I knew it was too late to save life, but any delay meant a further delay to open the road, but more importantly, I needed to get there to ensure no vital evidence or witnesses were lost. I had learned over the years it was a thin line between patronising skilled and experienced officers by ensuring they had done things correctly, and losing evidence had I assumed something was done when it wasn’t.
When I joined the police back in 1990 as a 21 year old, I have to say I was well out of my depth and I always felt I was the one who managed to fool the interview board into giving me a punt. It had taken 2 goes at the 3 day assessment, and on the second attempt, I almost didn’t get in because my blood pressure was so high. But here I was, standing at the scene of a double fatal road traffic collision, and in charge of the investigation.
I had ensured all witnesses were accounted for, and the next of kin of the crash victims were being contacted by family liaison officers. I’d managed to get an account of the driver of another car who had seen this car careering towards him. “I knew I was in trouble officer” he stammered. Not because he had done anything wrong, but because a huge angry metal monster was charging down on him, spitting fire and metal shards, smashing into trees, a spinning whirl wind with debris shooting out like fireworks. The car took one hesitant pause as it balanced precariously on its rear end, before slowly tumbling over like a felled tree onto what was left of its wheels. The witness had seen all this happen in front of him, gazing at the car. It panted steam from its mouth, breathed its last and then, silence.
It was dark, very dark in this country road, a main route between two large towns, but it was quiet for now. The witness had gingerly got out of his car, and hesitantly made his way towards the mangled wreckage. He used the lights of his car to light the wreckage, but he found he was causing a shadow across the scene blocking his view, so slowly approached it from the verge with his phone in hand and with the torch app switched on. He hesitantly gazed into the car, every panel smashed to pieces or crushed to an unrecognizable form. His eyes followed the light into the depths of the car and he saw the twisted bodies inside. Two of them, a youngish male and female. There was no obvious car door to open, it was as if it were welded to the shape of the crushed bodywork of the car, no hinges would help him here. He listened, then whispered through the dimly lit gloom.
He pressed number nine, three times on his phone realising his finger was shaking uncontrollably. He was surprised at the lively reply on the phone, “Which Service please?”
His voice shaking, “Ambulance, Fire… Police, just get everyone here please”.
He crumpled as one of the ghostly faces entered his mind. His first flash back, it was just the three of them, he burst into tears. The first police officers arrived soon after although it seemed an age. He calmed the man with soft tones. It’s often difficult to establish what could have gone on to cause such a collision at this early stage. The fire service did an amazing job by freeing one of the bodies, but then held off as I needed to keep the car intact for the vehicle examiner to examine the car. The male remained contorted inside. It’s no good cutting the car to pieces to free the bodies only to find the car falls apart on lifting it onto the back of a recovery truck. That would potentially destroy the steering rack, the brake lines and other potential vital clues that would tell us the cause of the loss of control. It will inevitably be too much speed but we can’t ever take that for granted. So the last body stays in the car for the next few hours until the scene examination is done. An officer has already ensured some dignity for the occupants by covering them as much as he can with blankets. It’s some time before I can give the go ahead for the Fire Service to come back and cut the final one out. It seems harsh, but it’s important. The cause for this was going too fast for the circumstances, and simply losing control, getting caught up in the moment, which left two families utterly devastated for the rest of their lives.
I have numerous similar scenes to talk about over the near 30 years I have worked in my role. Most of my career has been with the Armed Response Unit which is dual rolled with the Traffic Unit in Devon and Cornwall. I’m qualified to advise Firearms commanders on tactics and to lead firearms teams and to carry out vehicle interceptions with my Armed Response Unit and I was a Senior Investigation Officer for Fatal and Serious collisions for 15 years. I have attended over 150 fatal road traffic collisions over those years, and with many ghostly faces entering my mind when I think back. I am fortunate however, that I have a very close band of brothers and sisters I work with and even though that family have changed over the years, a cop is a cop is a cop, and they have saved my sanity through the very open discussions we share; sharing those experiences that so few others have. I am so far able to place each horror scene in a box, and pack it away at the back of my mind, until they decide to open on their own accord, but until then I should be okay.
The work I do, I enjoy incredibly. The police are being painfully pulled apart into an unrecognizable body by the government who have no idea what the police actually do anymore. I no longer feel the same community in the police I once had as the government has shown such contempt for police officers for far too long now. I see the new officers coming through and I worry for them, and the public they will serve. Policing used to be a community, we did what we could to make it work and to an extent people still do, but if you’ve been devalued for so long, made to feel like a number not worth a decent wage, then officers start to believe they are worthless. When they get assaulted and their assailant is free to goad them and their bruised face the following night, then what hope is there for discipline and authority? Officers will come to work, do the work and go home again. It never used to be like that. The social life has gone. The bars and even the canteens are closed, so there is nowhere to defuse anymore apart from around a briefing table with your close colleagues. Even the WhatsApp rooms are not trusted by officers, as it only takes one to take offence at some foolhardiness and then many are investigated for not turning on their colleague. It’s sad, but it slowly is becoming just a job, no longer a vocation. The government has won.
So it may surprise you that through all that I do still get immense satisfaction coming to work, but it will be my time to go in just under two years. I get satisfaction from attending a minor RTC and comforting the driver who is terrified and upset, feeling as though their world has fallen apart. I like catching the bully who has terrifying his girlfriend by leaning over her petrified shaking body with a shotgun, telling her he’s going to shoot her and then pulling the trigger with just a click, and a laugh. To arrest this man under gun point is, I confess satisfying with the shoe being on the other foot. I also get satisfaction from running a happy and professional Section of officers, to offer support when they need it and to laugh a lot with them. It’s your colleagues you work so hard for now, it’s the law abiding public you want to help, the bigger picture of representing the police force is now being forgotten as its soul is so nearly lost in the UK.
I think back at that 21 year old. I think of the growing up he will do, learning to put a decent court file together, how to search a person properly, a car and a house. I think of the tears he will shed when he fails a course he wanted more than life itself but then I remember the tears of joy when he passed it a few months later. I think about the times he will give comfort to an elderly man who was scared in his own house, and the smiles when he left them with some confidence for the future again. I think of the kids who had run away from children’s homes, and the ‘You’re not like the rest’ comments from more than a few. I think of the relatives he will give closure to when they have lost loved ones.
I think of those he arrested at gun point, the tormented he talked away from the edge, and the few he will fail to, but over all I think, that lad did okay I guess.
Sgt. Harry Tangye is a Devon & Cornwall ARV Ops Firearms Commander, Tactics Advisor (Firearms & Pursuit) VIP Protection officer with over 29 years of dedicated service – Please check out his YouTube Video “Learn 2 Live” which lends itself to the post above – Video May Cause Some Upset