They only got me once, which wasn’t bad going for a ten year career. Police are known for pranks and wind-ups and in the 90s, many were outlawed as unacceptable examples of a ‘canteen culture,’ rife with testosterone-fuelled mischief, ranging from the ridiculous, to the bullying to the downright criminal.
Mild examples include the teapot being super-glued to the tray, a non-existent disturbance call with people waiting to leap out of the bushes, or tricking the newbie into jumping repeatedly on the automatic barrier plate to check it’s working correctly.
My favourite, which thankfully was banned (and rightly so) shortly before I joined, on account of the trauma it caused the victims, involved some pre-planning, a trainee officer in their first few months of service and a mortuary.
Yes, a mortuary.
Acceptance from colleagues is a big deal for a new cop. You’re either in or you’re not and if you’re not, it’s a rough and lonely ride. You have to prove yourself first: a pub fight, a violent domestic or some other dangerous incident, to show that you can be relied upon. Your life is in the hands of the person next to you, without notice and at any given moment, so when it hits the fan, everyone has to know you'll get stuck in. There needs to be evidence that you won’t freeze, panic or run away or a combination of all three (which sometimes happened first time round).
This is why the mortuary prank was so effective. It played on these insecurities and enabled a dreadful slight-of-hand trick.
Here’s how it works. An experienced cop takes the newbie to one side (still wet behind the ears as the expression goes) and conspires to prank a colleague, by hiding in the mortuary. When the prank-victim arrives (to investigate a spurious intruder alarm), the hiding cops jump out and scare the shivering bejaysus out of them. For added effect, this is best performed at night; there’s no one else around, but more importantly there’s nothing like silence and total darkness to dial up heart-rate of a mortuary prank.
Naturally the newbie is thrilled to be in on the joke; finally they sense that they’re truly becoming part of the team. Except they're not. This isn’t the actual prank. It’s an illusion. This is just the set-up.
So while they cheerfully hide among the body bags stacked on sliding stretchers in the refrigerator, next to the main examination room, their colleague closes the door and the lights go out.
Unbeknown to them, there is already an officer hiding in the fridge. Not only is he hiding in the fridge, he has been zipped up inside a black plastic body bag, waiting silently among the corpses.
You can see what I mean when I say this particular one had to be banned. I’m not sure which is worse, when the body bag sits up in the darkness, when their hand grabs your wrist or when you hear the bag talk:
“Cold in here, isn’t it.”
I think I’d still be running now.
How they got me was with an intricate plan. It involved over 70 staff across 5 departments (including the police control room), an Algerian national and a large metal bucket.
About to be posted somewhere else, I was counting down my days on station sergeant duty, which to put in context of challenge and excitement, ranked right up there with defrosting an ice box with a blunt toothpick. The police station I was at had been designated for terror suspects, so in the unlikely event* that someone was arrested on terror offences (PoT**) the whole place would get shut down to become an ultra-secure zone.
This hadn’t happened in years, but just after 3:30pm one Friday afternoon, the phone rang. Special Branch had 'pot'd'*** an Algerian national with a false passport and the Inspector instructed me to get the manual and follow procedure. 'Prepare for Special Branch,' he said.
I may have mildly, secretly panicked. The good news was that a step by step guidance manual had been written and was cloaked in dust on the shelf, waiting for me. The bad news was it was thicker than a car dealers money clip and I only had fifteen minutes to read it.
I ripped out the checklist page and marched around the building, barking orders at anyone I happened across; windows had to be locked, the car park cleared of all vehicles and the cells prepared (that until that day were used for storage, lost uniform items and dead house plants).
I was frantic but after a huge and collective effort from five or six in the team and with a few minutes to spare, the checklist was complete and I sat quietly in the office contemplating. The radio was on the desk I listened anxiously to the details unfolding.
“One detained. PoT. Sus links to Islamic terror organisations on a false passport, over.” I could hear a foreign voice shouting in the background of the transmission. He didn’t sound happy. My mind was racing.
Two painfully long minutes went by and the radio went off again:
“Can we have a reception committee please he’s kicking right off.” The agitated prisoner was now going bananas in the back of the van and the arresting officer was barely audible above the screaming and banging. After muttering something beginning with ‘f’ under my breath, I started to rally a few cops from around the office and we made our way to the secure yard where the van was slowly reversing – and rocking with the prisoner’s tantrum – into position.
The Special Branch officer jumped out:
“Ready? He’s a nutter.” I could hear him screaming from inside the van in what sounded like Arabic, his face and limbs alternating their appearance at the bars in the back window. I could feel myself being ushered to the front of the welcoming party, which seemed odd at the time but I had too much adrenaline to process it. As the van was unlocked, both doors flung open and the prisoner leaped into the air like King Kong’s smaller yet equally peeved cousin. I was livid:
“Why the fuck isn’t he handcuffed?” I screamed at no one in particular and it was all I could think of as my feet left the ground, launching myself at him like a crap Superman.
No terrorist was going to spoil my day or anyone else’s. But it was at some point mid-air, at least three inches off the ground, that I suddenly realised I was acting alone. With such a large reception committee behind me. Wait a minute, why was the reception committee so large, I wondered. Why is no one helping me? Then as if to underscore my realisation, I saw the prisoner lift a full metal bucket and with a majestic swing of his arms, delivered the payload of freezing cold water it was holding with precision, hitting me squarely in the neck.
Everything stopped. I froze. Literally. I was still ticking at the lack of handcuffs and wondering what the Peter Paul and Mary a prisoner was doing with a metal bucket and then…oh.
My soul sank. Slight of hand. I was so focused on what was in front of me, I didn't spot what was really happening.
There was no terrorist. There had been no arrest. The international mastermind was in fact Ali, the esteemed payroll clerk from the second floor, smirking in wonderment of his moment: the only time in his life when he could drench the duty sergeant with freezing cold water without being hit with a baton. I never did discover who was the mastermind; I accepted defeat and took it as a compliment.
Slight-of-hand is not just for magicians. Something wonderful can be hidden in plain sight.
Just like a full metal bucket.
*This was in between gulf wars and just after the Good Friday Agreement so as far as terrorism on mainland UK was concerned, we were in a quiet period.
**PoT was the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989, superseded by the Terrorism Act 2000.
***Pot'd - to detain someone under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, nothing to do with snooker.
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