One of the things I get asked about a lot by people who are sensible enough to have a job where they sleep at night, is dead people and deaths. "Sudden Deaths" as it is known in the trade. I'm usually asked these questions after someone has had their fill of beer and gets curious about bodily details.To the people that ask for a little too much detail, I always offer them a visit to watch a Post Mortem, something I've done more than once and find fascinating.
They always decline the offer.
We call them "Sudden Deaths," which makes it sound glamorous, as far as death can be. And yes, we deal with murders, and suicides, and road accidents and all manner of interesting ways that life ends. But the vast majority of Sudden Deaths that I come across are in homes, elderly people, very ill people, chronic alcoholics. Not glamorous, and most aren't suspicious. However, police are required to attend nearly every death outside a hospital or medical care facility, to check for suspicious circumstances.
In some cases this is easy - if there is a bloodied knife fifteen feet away from the body covered in stab wounds, I'll be thinking it's suspicious.
The problem is we are not medical experts by any definition. We can not pronounce a person dead (hence our notes always read "the apparently lifeless body"), and we can't diagnose diseases, infections and poisoning pre or post death. Again, this is when the wonderful London Ambulance Service come into play. Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou boys and girls for pointing out things that we have no idea about or miss on our very cursory inspection of the body.
I don't like the goryness, no one does, but I can cope with it. The smell is pretty appalling, but again I can usually cope, and keep a pack of airwaves chewing gum on me to mask the smell. The strange thing is that I can not stand on-screen blood and gore, and get squeamish watching Holby City or similar. Yet I've checked rotting bodies for ID, attempted resus on an 18 month old baby, sat next to a very dead old man for two hours on his only sofa whilst waiting for undertakers to attend to remove him, checked toddlers and children who have died, and fought with bleeding vomiting messy drunken injured people in A&E whilst hospital staff fiddle and stick various implements in them. Show me an episode of ER and I'll feel faint and sick. I can't work that one out at all.
Of course, the really hard bit is dealing with families. As many other bloggers have mentioned, technically I have failed as a Police Officer if I spend five hours with a newly widowed woman and her children trying to help and comfort them. No detections, no arrests, only one call resulted. But conversely, I think that is when I justify my salary, not stopping middle class students for smoking cannabis in the park on summer's evenings.
These experiences are usually massively draining to officers who deal with them. They are also a huge source of letters of good work in your file. That is obviously the last thing in your mind at a scene, but so many officers have more than one pat on the back sitting in their personal files after dealing with a bereaved family.
I find this more upsetting than anything else, and amazingly humbling; people who have gone through the worst pain possible, who have had their lives shattered by the appearance of a person wearing the blue serge then take the time to write a letter, or visit the police station, or phone a senior officer to thank us for what we've done. It is something that I am still unprepared for every time, and something that I just can not get my head around. It's also something that makes me particularly proud of the job I do, and of the officers I work with. Training can NOT teach you to do this, it is a time when what you need is humanity. After spending a huge amount of time in every shift having to keep a lid on their feelings and trying to be emotionless, impassive observers, Police Officers have to step up and then truly care for someone in a difficult situation - and they do it.