Society Magazine

Careless Policies Cost Lives

Posted on the 22 October 2011 by Minimumcover @minimumcover

Meet Frank.

Frank has never been in trouble with the Police. He is a genuinely nice guy; the sort that would always acknowledge you if you made eye-contact with him in the street, even if you didn’t know him. The sort that, without thinking, checks behind him when he goes through a door to make sure that there is no one behind him that might benefit from having the door held open for them. 
Frank has a steady job in the city about 15 miles down the road and has been there for seven years without any real issues. He does his job and does it well without complaint. He has a wife of 17 years, two kids aged 14 and 11, a couple of dogs and lives in a nice detached home in one of the greener parts of the patch.

Recently though Frank’s mother died…three months after the death of his father from terminal cancer. He was really close to both of them and he took the loss badly. Frank dropped, un-noticed at first, into a spiral of depression and began to let himself go. He started to drink a little more than he used to and became distant from his family and friends. Being a proud man, Frank refused to accept offers of help – he was always the one that people went to and genuinely believed that he was coping.

Over a period of only a couple of months, Franks depression grew deeper and deeper. The news that the company he worked for was relocating and downsizing was pretty much the final straw and Frank began to consider drastic steps to end the pain.On Thursday evening Frank’s wife came home from collecting the kids from their respective social events and found a note. It was a hastily drafted apology and she knew exactly what the final paragraph meant.

I love you and the kids and hope that by doing what I am going to do I will allow you all to get your lives back without me dragging you down too. Don’t worry about me, by the time you read this I will be free from the pain. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me and move on.

There followed a frantic phone call to the Police. Frank had emptied the cupboard in the kitchen of painkillers and had taken a nearly new box of sedatives that his mum had been using when she was staying with them after her husband died. There was enough missing to make sure that Frank would not be waking up again if he took them all and didn’t get immediate help.

We had three cars available at that time, and all were immediately called away from whatever it was that they were doing to search for Frank. Unfortunately he had taken his car and that infinitely increased the potential search area. Officers did the usual checks of the home and garden and the controllers made calls to the local hospitals between answering 999 calls. It was quickly ascertained that he was not going to be easily or quickly found.

One saving grace was that he had taken his mobile phone with him. His wife told us that he only charged it up over night and that it sometimes went dead by late evening. She had been nagging him to get a new battery for ages. This small detail was a real concern for us. We called the number and it rang but went unanswered. We tried again….the same result. The control room then sent a message to the phone asking Frank to call us so we could make sure he was ok. The message was delivered to the handset but there was no reply.

My Sergeant asked the question that usually results in hours of frustration:

Can we consider a ping of the phone please

For those of you that don’t know, mobile phones have unique numbers attached to both the handset and the sim card being used. When you make a call, or the handset checks in with the network there is an exchange of data including those numbers and this can be used to identify and ultimately locate the phone. It is possible to use one or more mobile phone masts to attempt to work out the exact location of the phone by triangulating its position or, more commonly, obtaining a rough distance and bearing from a specific mast.

Careless Policies Cost Lives

This is a very powerful tool but unfortunately, like all the best tools, it has fallen foul of huge amounts of restrictive policy and legislation. If we, the Police, were allowed to simply trace the phone this information could be used to narrow down the search area by up to 85% or more and give a good chance of discovering the owner before it is too late.


Unfortunately, however we are not allowed to take this common sense step until absolutely everything else has been done. We invariably spend hours chasing our tails around the local beauty-spots, shopping centres, and everywhere else that can be thought of (down to the pub he went to last week for a meal) before we are allowed to even approach the Inspector for authority for a “ping”.

This was no exception and had a frustrating development at the eleventh hour. Just as it seemed we were getting to the end of the list, we got information back that the car had been picked up by one of the fixed number plate reading cameras on an A-road that went towards a small area of woodland he used to go when walking his dogs. The troops were diverted and the car was located in a car park.

Ping request denied until the woodland has been searched

A dog was called for but there was only one on duty that night and that dog and its handler were dealing with another missing person on the other side of the county. Our local dog handler had been varied to days as he was in need of training on “Community Impactive Incidents” (of which, perversely this was one!) and so it was down to the five of us and the Sergeant to complete the search, in the dark, in the woods. We now hire a helicopter from a neighbouring force who have a little more money that us but that was not able to assist as the pilot had used all his hours up and the trees were probably too thick to have allowed any good penetration by the thermal imaging camera anyway.

Anyone who has searched a wooded area at night will understand that its impossible to do with any degree of certainty that nothing has been missed or that we weren’t looking down when we should have been looking up. Two more hours passed and there was still no sign. The mobile phone had now stopped ringing and, presumably had run out of battery.

Eventually the search was concluded, the car was opened and checked (spare keys were collected and brought to us by family as we had no one free to do it) and the skipper went back to the boss to request a ping yet again.

Thankfully the request was now approved – to the relief of those that were making virtual wagers on it being denied again until a daylight search had been completed.

Frank was subsequently, within 40 minutes of the ping, located in a field 30 miles away. He had parked the car five hours before we arrived, and called a taxi to take him to the town where he grew up before walking out into the fields and taking most of the tablets he had with him. Amazingly, when he was found he was still alive, if only just, and was swiftly transferred to the local A&E where he made steady improvements through the next 24 hours.

This could, so easily, have been a story about the death of a family man who needed our help, but was strangled to death by the red tape put in place to protect the human rights of the innocent. The delays weren’t the fault of the Inspector who made the decision. His hands were tied by the same tape that nearly killed Frank.

Technology is a powerful tool, and sometimes it should be available as part of the initial response rather than the being the last resort. Frank had been in that field, with his phone ringing in his pocket for nearly four hours.
I can’t help but think that if he had died it would have been as a result of the restrictions placed upon us. Would the people who created the restrictions have been called to account if that had been the case, as I am sure it has been many times in the past, or would it have been reported as yet another failure of the Police to save the life of someone who needed their help? I think we all know the answer to that one! 

It’s time to change the rules before the next ”Frank” goes for one final walk in the countryside.

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