I can’t believe I’m saying this

I don’t trust the Police.

It seems strange to hear me think that, without even having to saying it out-loud; I don’t trust the Police. I can’t believe that I think that. I’m a decent, honourable type, with a clear record. I’ve never asked anyone to do anything illegal, immoral or fattening in my life. Why would someone like me not trust the Police? It’s incomprehensible to me.

Trust is a strange concept. It’s about anticipation. It’s about your mental model of the future and your imagination. It’s about how you think you will be treated. Trust in public services is very variable and often completely contradictory to people’s direct experience. People often anticipate a poor service when they use the health service and are amazed at the hard work and dedication of the staff and the quality of the care they receive. I anticipated a good service from the Police and yet have received a worse-than-terrible one.

My first experience of the Police was when I was a young dad. I’d finally bought a house for my family and, even though I had to pay two-thirds of my take-home pay on the mortgage, and it was the cheapest Victorian terrace available on a busy polluted road, I loved the place. We had no money left to furnish it, so we were forced to go to auction rooms and buy fabulous antiques at knock-down prices to kit the place out. I even managed to pay for a carpet in the front room. It was luxury. Opposite the house, on the other side of the busy road, was a bail hostel. There was constant trouble there. There would be furious arguments, slammed doors, broken glass and even a fire started in one room, so we woke with the blue flashing lights of the fire brigade outside the house, and saw the smoke-stained front of the bail hostel in the morning.

Shortly afterwards, I noticed a small hole in the transom window above our front door. It was only a few millimetres wide, but went right through the glass. It looked like someone had fired an airgun pellet through our window. I felt a bit sickened at the cost of replacing it and also at the stream of cold air flowing through the hole. Heating an old terrace is about as efficient as using a patio heater.

Two days later I noticed another hole, this time through my front room window. It was a perfect hole, the size of an airgun pellet. I scoured the carpet looking for the pellet, but only found tiny shards of glass which sparkled on the bobbly wool of the new carpet. I was angry. The whole point of being a man, from my perspective, was to protect women and children, and the home I had created for us was being attacked. I looked through the window at the bail hostel opposite, and the permanently open window in the bedroom and knew exactly what had happened. One of the people on bail there had an air rifle and had shot at my windows. I had a tiny baby, just learning to crawl and he was crawling on broken glass and in danger of having his eye shot out in our own home.

I decided to ring my local Police station, and a man answered.

“Hello. My name’s David and I live on The Avenue. We live opposite the bail hostel and I’ve just found two perfectly round holes in our windows from someone who’s firing through our windows with an airgun.”

“No they’re not”, the man’s voice said.

That wasn’t the response I was expecting.

“Yes they are. I’ve got perfect round holes in the window from airgun pellets.”

“No you haven’t”, he says, mockingly.

“Well, yes I have”, I insist, exasperated.

“Where do you live again? The Avenue is it? Busy road that. Probably just a stone kicked up from one of the passing cars.”

“Well, no it isn’t. A stone wouldn’t make a perfectly round hole straight through the glass, would it? It would crack it. And we’re set well back from the road. We’ve got a wide grass verge with trees, a wide pavement and a front garden between the road and my windows. Someone’s firing an airgun from the bail hostel and I’ve got holes in my windows.”

“You’ve seen the airgun have you, sir?” I can feel my toes curl with his patronising tone of voice. Oddly, it’s when they call you sir that you know they are disrespecting you.

“No, I haven’t seen them with the gun. What do you expect me to do? Sit looking all day waiting to see if they do it again? I live opposite the bail hostel, their bedroom window is permanently open, I have holes in my windows from airgun pellets. I have a baby who’s crawling around on broken glass which is at the far end of the room.”

“Well I don’t think they have.”

“Look, I’m telling you that someone’s firing an airgun at our house. I want you to go round there and get the airgun from them and stop them firing at my windows. I’ve got a baby to protect.”

“You say you haven’t seen an airgun, so we can’t just go round there on someone’s say-so. If you see someone with an airgun, then ring us again and let us know and we can do something about it, but I’m telling you, knowing where you are, it’s just a stone from the road.”

“It’s not a stone from the road. It’s a hole from an airgun pellet. It’s the perfect size. So you’re going to do nothing about it?”

He was running out of things to say.

“I’m sorry but that’s just pathetic. Someone’s firing at me and you’re going to do nothing about it?”

I ring off and I’m so angry at my inability to protect my family. How could the Police have the barefaced cheek to tell me, “No they’re not”? I can understand why people take the law into their own hands. It’s pathetic. Hours later, I’m still fantasising about which burly friends I’d like to invite to break their door down and go and retrieve the air rifle with me, when the phone rings. It’s a woman from the Police station.

“Apparently you phoned and spoke to my colleague earlier. Just to let you know that we’ve spoken to the landlord and he’s sorted it.”

“What do you mean, ‘He’s sorted it?’ You mean there was an air rifle? And they had been shooting at my windows?”

“We’ve spoken to the landlord and he’s sorted it.”

“Well was there an air rifle there or not?”

“We’ve spoken to the landlord and he’s sorted it.”

“Sorted what? You haven’t sorted my windows. Why’s it up to the landlord to sort? Why aren’t you finding out? Why haven’t you been in there?”

“All I can tell you is that we’ve spoken to the landlord and he’s sorted it.”

“So who’s got the airgun now? The landlord? So it won’t be happening again?”

“I can’t tell you anything more, sir.” That patronising tone again.

“What about my windows? I’ve got two broken windows here that need replacing.”

“I’m sorry about that sir, but all I can tell you is that the landlord has sorted it.”

“Surely it’s a criminal offence? Why haven’t you got the air rifle?”

“The landlord has sorted it.” At this point I can imagine her face as she uses broken record technique to wear me down.

I can’t believe that they’ve done that. A criminal with no place to stay, is living in a bail hostel, has got a weapon and is destroying my property and endangering my baby and the Police will do nothing about it. Firstly they’ve denied it’s happened at all and secondly they’ve said it’s sorted without ever saying it happened.

Two hours later there’s a young, tall, male officer at the door. He asks to come in. He says, “I’ve spoken to the landlord and he’s given me this to give to you for your windows. He says he’s sorted it.” He holds out a £5 note.

“He’s sorted it, has he? Where’s the airgun then?”

“I believe the landlord’s sorted it.”

“What use is a fiver? It’s probably going to cost me £20 to have them replaced.”

“Well you don’t have to take it, he says, still holding out the £5 note to me.”

I take it with a look of disgust on my face. The Police have denied that there’s been a crime, have denied that there was an airgun and now have passed on a cash bribe from the landlord to keep it all quiet. There never was a crime, no-one was investigated, no criminal damage was committed and no airgun was used to endanger anyone. Is it any wonder I don’t trust the Police?

I later found out that the landlord has several properties and, in one, which was planned to be a children’s home, the staff had been inappropriate with young people. Nothing was done about it.

Whenever there’s an investigation into any disaster or malpractice, the same line gets trotted out; “It wouldn’t happen now”. The simple truth, though, is that people don’t change, and of course it would.

That wasn’t my only bad experience with the Police. Someone vandalised my car, so I rang the station to report it. They said, “So what do you want me to do about it?”

I asked them for a crime number for insurance purposes and rang off. I can only imagine how awful it must be to have anything to do with the Police if you’re the victim of a serious crime.

In 2021 I had another experience with the Police after I went to photograph Cuckoos on Dartmoor. Here’s one of my blogs on Dartmoor’s Cuckoos:

As I arrived at the car park, I saw three men striding out just in front of me. They looked curious to me, because they weren’t dressed for a walk on Dartmoor and they had no rucksacks or water bottles with them. They were also not keeping to the path down to the nature reserve, but were striding across scrub, gorse and heather in the direction of nothing at all. One was wearing a fluorescent coat, one a lumberjack shirt and one a dark sweatshirt with the hood pulled tightly around a peaked cap, hiding his face. It looked like they were heading nowhere with a purpose.

The one in the hoodie was carrying something in his hand, though; a soft black bag with an outside pocket and what looked like a handle or black drawstring top. Inside it was something triangular. “That’s odd, I think, distractedly. I wonder what it is?” It was a bright day with blue skies and my thoughts should have been on Cuckoos, but the strangeness of the three men stayed with me.

I headed down to the nature reserve and, when I was 100m from the car park, I heard the sound of a gunshot. It was so loud I flinched and ducked, thinking that I was being fired at. “Someone’s trying to kill me”, was my first thought. “Surely that was a gunshot?” I looked behind me and heard a two-stroke motor-scooter buzzing along the road and thought, “Maybe it backfired?” Then I thought, “That wasn’t the sound of an engine backfiring, that was the sound of a gun”. I turned and looked back properly, and the three men were facing one another out on the moor, looking down. I got my camera up, trained the telephoto lens on them and could see a shining, silver-barrelled, square-section, handgun in the right hand of the man in the hoodie.

I took a few photographs, all on the wrong settings. I was going to say a took a few shots, but I wouldn’t want to confuse you. I was in full camouflage, and I didn’t want them to see or hear me. They were doing a finger-tip search of the ground, in amongst the gorse. I could see the flat barrel of the hand gun glinting in the sunshine. The man holding the gun was looking around anxiously, out of the side of his hood. As he turned back, I could see a large hunting knife on the back of his trousers. It had silver on the hilt, an orange handle, a curved gold-coloured blade-guard and a six-inch blade tucked into a scabbard. I decided to hide rather than being seen taking photographs of them.

I crouched down and thought through my responsibilities. Hand guns have been illegal in the UK since the Dunblaine massacre in 1996, with very few exceptions. These three men didn’t look like they owned it legally and discharging it in a public place is clearly a danger to the public, even if they had just fired it at the ground. Maybe their finger-tip search was them looking for a discarded shell casing? Was one of them selling it to an underworld contact? Had he just had to prove it worked before money changed hands?

I decided to creep nearer to them to get some better photographs. The gun was now hidden, bulging in the front pocket of his hoodie.

I needed to get behind a stone wall so I had some cover. I ran low, with my rucksack and camera and got to a stone wall. As I peered over the wall, I was distracted by a man and a woman in front of me having sex on the grass. She was kneeling down and I could see her thighs wobble as he thrust into her. It suddenly became a farce. I couldn’t take photographs there as they would hear my camera and I didn’t want to put the couple off their stride. If they saw or heard me they might have given the game away and there were three men with a gun and a knife nearby who I was sure didn’t want to be discovered.

I backed off and got some clear, but distant, photographs of them and watched as they left, heading back to their cars.

Back home I rang the Police.

“I’ve just seen three men walk onto Dartmoor with a hand gun and fire it.” I tell them the whole story. It’s when she asks me “Are you an expert on firearms, sir?” that I get the same feeling as I had years before. I’m just an annoying interruption in her day. She’s matronising me. I tell her that I’ve got good photographs of the three men, and I describe the hand gun and the hunting knife.

She listens and gives me a crime number. I never hear from them again.

I don’t trust the Police. I can think of few things more serious to come across on Dartmoor than a working, illegally-held, firearm being procured for the purposes of crime. And the Police weren’t interested in even seeing the evidence.

Would I bother in future? Would I carry out my civic duty? Would I take my responsibilities seriously. I think the answer I would give the Police under all circumstances in the future is, “No comment”.

Cuckoo - The Hall of Einar - photograph (c) David Bailey (not the)

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