I can’t remember the first death scene I attended. It seems an odd fact, given it was less than a decade ago, yet I remember scores and goals from football matches I attended over three times that distance past. I don’t remember the deceased’s name, their face, where it was or the surroundings in which they were found. I would have known, fleetingly; identity, date of birth and home address. When they were last seen, why they were where they were and any relevant medical history and a life compressed into transient details became noted and forgotten before the next dispatch over the radio.
I guess I must have been apprehensive, nervous even; the strange mix of adrenalin and unease that I’ve always felt when stepping into the unknown. To me, that’s what made the job of a CSI so exhilarating: no routine, no familiar trawl, no watching the clock whilst shovelling through monotonous toil. Each day could push you physically, intellectually and emotionally. That alone made it impossible to feel fully prepared for what lay ahead. How do you learn what to do in the unknown? To prepare for sights you have never seen? So off I must have driven, alone, as ever, with my iPod blasting through the stereo of my unmarked white van, mingling into the busy traffic like many a multi-drop driver.
It was a suicide. I know that because I had dealt with many prior to my first murder. Just as the first escapes me, nor can I put a number on the amount of suicides I’ve ever dealt with. Definitely more than twenty, probably less than fifty. Yet each individual tragedy holds very few memories. No names, no faces, barely any precise details – just an overwhelming sense of waste and sorrow. However, I was aware from the start that all the victims I’ve ever dealt with were male. Life and death truly represented the stats we are frequently told. I say victims, although they are officially referred to as ‘the deceased’, as they undoubtedly were victims. Victims of circumstance, of illness, of great injustice, of betrayal, of intolerance, of society’s indifference to the suffering and hardship endured by others. The list is as limitless as the demographic of those it claims.
Although details have slipped from my memory, the circumstances remain: The young man found in his car with a note referencing issues over accepting his own sexuality. The middle-aged professional who calmly left his desk, took a lift to the top floor and jumped from a balcony without breaking stride. The elderly man who couldn’t face the onset of debilitating disease and had a shotgun in his beautiful, rural house. Most are serene scenes. Tidy, planned and almost peaceful. Undoubtedly, a detail at juxtaposition with the inner turmoil endured by those involved but a fact I had always found reassuring. No empty bottles, no chaos, no panic and signs of temper. This wasn’t frenzied escapism after a bad day, no uncontrollable outburst of rage or resentment. There is never any evidence of a failed, last minute change of heart, which is perhaps indicative of the social isolation they faced and the lack of support they might have had in their lives. In fact, the majority booked hotels weeks in advance, bought items in preparation or sent communications days before. Is this a comfort? Initially I thought so. At least they wanted this. At least it wasn’t a terrible mistake. However, my initial thoughts quickly lamented the precision of their plans, their desperation that caused them to believe that suicide was the only way to end their pain and suffering.
Consider the flip-side to these scenarios and what could have been done to stop these horrific scenes from burning into my consciousness. The opportunities for intervention must have been almost infinite. How many people must be slowly slipping into such depths of despair that this is their solution? To walk amongst society yet feel unable to reach out, to spiral downwards with no one grasping them and pulling them up again; to be able to contain such agony and channel it towards a final act. It is heart breaking. I am often alone at such scenes; standing in a room with the deceased, noting the particulars of each tragic occurrence. As a stranger, you simply wonder ‘why?’ A search of the scene may yield a wallet or phone. Missed calls, missed messages. Worried loved ones and friends. A photo in a wallet. Is that whom is calling? A friend? A lover? A family member? Happier times captured on creased Kodachrome. An inscribed keyring. It’s the context that gets you. All the blood and bones you’ll ever see mean nothing compared to the photo you find of the deceased as a younger man, smiling, holding what you presume is their child.
A wise man once told me that dealing with death is like driving at night; you learn to look without seeing. Stare closely at the headlights that come towards you on a dark, rural road and you will be dazzled, the glare encompassing your vision and making you blind to everything else. You look at what lays before you, photograph it and record every minute detail yet it somehow remains on the very surface of your sentience. You aren’t overwhelmed, you aren’t drawn in, it can’t consume you. Your mind’s eye remains like an undeveloped photograph. A short time later you leave the scene and forget the intricacies; a sub-conscious self-preservation. I don’t know if I’m lucky to be able to detach but I’m certainly glad I am. That’s not to say I don’t still feel a deep level of unease or sorrow at such jobs. I think the worst you could ever feel is realising you felt nothing when dealing with such incidents. It’s unpleasant, it’s traumatic and you see things that most people will never see. It’s only healthy to feel such lament and empathy.
There is also a need to stay ‘professional’. I’ve become a master of avoiding grieving relatives. Shuffling past, eyes down unable to whisper either words of sympathy or make meaningful eye contact. It’s a weakness I hold and I have nothing but respect for those who can assist the loved ones left behind. Maybe it is the context issue again. I don’t want to really think about what I’m doing. I want total detachment. It’s just a body: no history, no perspective, no emotion. I vividly recall attending the scene of a baby death; seizing dirty nappies, formula, bottles and bedding, photographing food in the cupboards and every other aspect of an unimaginable tragedy. Above all I remember the look in the eye of the grieving mother as she returned from the hospital to see me in their baby’s bedroom, dressed in full forensic PPE, searching for any signs that could be interpreted as her being responsible through neglect or intent. I wanted to say how I was helping her, how all I had seen was love and care and how that would show that her world collapsing around her was a natural, horrific tragedy. She fled in tears before I could even inhale to speak. Her face my only detailed memory from the whole investigation.
Alternatively, I recall the afternoon I spent in a hospital awaiting legal authority to photograph the catastrophic injuries of a young child. They had suffered horrific abuse and were covered in many burns, caused by grooming implements, leaving perfect marks reminiscent of henna tattoos. I looked on as they slept, propped upright against a favourite stuffed toy and in cartoon character pyjamas. As the consultant pointed out each injury for me to record and photograph I kept thinking, ‘if I take my time, just maybe something will change’. It didn’t. I completed my work and left the room. The machines keeping the child alive were switched off and life ebbed away. It’s hard to know what the prevailing emotion was. Anger? Grief? Disgust? None of it helps you do your job. The desire to achieve justice is all you can embrace. Proxy emotions of drive and determination recycling the anguish you try not to release and are determined not to waste. People say some folk become ‘married to the job’. I doubt that’s through choice, it is just how they metamorphise the feelings they are forced to deal with on a daily basis.
Even during the most intense challenges it’s remarkable how durable the human mind can be. I once spent an afternoon assembling the dismembered remains of a murder victim, wrapped in plastic and secreted in a black bin liner. I pulled them out, one by one, unwrapped them and noted what they were whilst a colleague photographed them. It struck me that I used to do something similar as a youngster at Christmas. My mum always went overboard and spoilt me rotten. I recalled pulling Christmas presents from a pillow case whilst trying not to see the size and shape of the other gifts within; looking without seeing. It was an uncomfortable flashback that unnerved me slightly. The ‘jigsaw’ complete, my colleague and I had a cup of coffee whilst trying to avoid the glare of the assembled media outside the cordon. We agreed there that, whatever we felt like once the work was complete; we would seek some counselling through Occupational Health to make sure no demons were stored within our sub-conscious. It is still the only time I have actively done so.
In my experience, there is no machismo involved in seeking help within the Police service. No one judges you or claims it’s just ‘part of the job’. Everyone is aware they have seen things nobody should and, no matter how you are in the short-term, there is always a danger that you could wake up screaming one day and be unable to stop. That is not the problem. The problem is the attritional wearing down of staff due to an ongoing exposure to events. As austerity continues and police numbers fall further it is inevitable that the workload is condensed. Staff and officers go to more major crime and untimely deaths and get less time dealing with the ‘mundane’ in between. I always found that the greatest form of therapy was simply speaking to colleagues who’ve been at the same or similar scenes.
Personally, I always felt that all the TRIM (Trauma Risk Management) in the world wouldn’t make me feel better than a cup of tea with a colleague would. Talking nonsense about TV, plans for the weekend and what to have for dinner; about everything and nothing. Anything. Just being there. Understanding that not talking about what you have both dealt with can be better than going over it again. Eye contact, a smile, maybe a squeeze of a hand. You’re not alone. Like old friends who rarely meet, I’m always around. An unspoken self-help group…because you’ve seen everything I’ve seen yet you still find it funny to sellotape every door of my van shut and fill my kit-bag with the contents of the shredder bin. That is normality. Not what we did together last week.
To me, this camaraderie is the biggest casualty of cuts to policing. The ability to find this time is forever decreasing. Newspapers belittle officers photographed in a shop/café/on a park bench together. The one, small thing that many find key to their mental wellbeing is what is derided by others and the first thing lost when staff levels are falling. Yet we are told that mental health provision is better than ever. “If you need help just dial a number and make an appointment where someone will listen to you”. That can’t be the only answer. I have no doubt that anyone suffering from a mental health issue would now get more assistance than ever. However, preventing an individual reaching such a crisis point seems to be way down the priority list. I’m sure the force management teams by no means want this to be the case but it is an inevitable consequence of trying to get more from less.
I’m equally sure that this problem is not unique to the police service. The NHS has faced huge cuts, their staff being forced to do far more with fewer resources. The Fire Brigade also have lost many stations and colleagues with Firefighters facing immense danger on a daily basis. There is only so much that these vital services can be squeezed. When patients are dying on trolleys in hospital corridors, how can they expect to reasonably look after their staff and avoid them burning out?
Above all, society itself can make a difference. We accept the policies of cutting the funds to our emergency services whilst demanding they maintain the performance of more prosperous times. “So-and-so got burgled last week but the only copper I have seen lately was buying a sandwich in the Co-op. They are bloody useless”. It’s an agenda peddled by many a gutter rag that sell their bile to a world that has undoubtedly turned nastier over the past few years. There is always a scapegoat and there is always a victim. Vitriol and intolerance go hand in hand with the anonymity of social networks. Lifestyle envy is blasted through every media defining success and failure, strength and weakness, winners and losers. The impact is deep and can be devastating. People don’t talk and make very little effort to understand or tolerate each other. What hope is there for those on the fringes of society facing a daily battle to find the will to keep going? Things must change. People must have a place to turn.
I’m lucky, I know I am. However, I have seen far too many people who aren’t. People who through no fault of their own have suffered unimaginably and some who have felt they have only one, devastating way out. People who want to help but cannot do so in a system designed to grind the compassion and support away in exchange for stats, savings and increased ‘productivity’. Those desperate to do the best they can for others fight only to be let down by those charged with protecting them. Those who have given more than they had, cared more than they could. They had no option but to pull the ladder up and prioritise their own well-being over everything else.
But change can’t all come from the top; we all have a part to play. Never forget that we can all make a difference. It starts with the smallest of things; a smile, a nod, a hello; a split second’s act that may be the highlight of somebody else’s day. Mental health issues affect every part of society. It is only logical that every part of society can play a small part in reducing its consequences and the suffering it causes.
This article was written anonymously.