Getting on the Streets
My first assignment was the number two in a Patrol Sub Unit. A local inspector commanded the team. We had 40-odd officers, patrolling for an 8 1/2 hour shift, responding to anything that came up. I was to shadow him, learning the job of a supervising inspector in the process.
On introduction, he was affable enough, polite and businesslike. But, it was soon apparent he didn't want me around. The reasons became clear later. After a few days of introduction to the beats and administration files, I was on my own. Patrolling as I saw fit, when I didn't have some report to clear.
My random patrolling and evident keenness caused some apprehension. I was disrupting the usual order of things. A few of the NCOs engaged me each day.
"Will Sir be going out today? At what time? Will I arrange a constable to go with you? How about a mobile patrol?"
I soon wised to these antics. By going out at unannounced times or spending the whole shift on patrol, I'd see what was going on. I'd call the constables to meet me as and when I wanted. I declined offers of a driver and vehicle. This was only a good option on busy Saturday nights, as the calls came in thick and fast.
My frequent presence on the streets was not only causing consternation to some of my men. As I patrolled Bowling Street, a stampede of hawkers would set-off down the road. Startled customers left holding their wares. The first time this happened, I turned around looking for the cause. Some fifty hawkers took off.
Their carts are crashing into each other, driving the pedestrians before them. In those days the presence of an inspector usually heralded a raid on the illegal hawkers. Thus panic spread each time I appeared. No one tells you this stuff during training. I'm sure many people benefited, as they were holding items before payment could take place.
To me, the hawkers were no big issue. Yes, they did cause an obstruction. But, as part of the colourful street life, they added something to the local scene. Also, these people were in gainful employment. I could never get worked up about dealing with hawkers. The demands that came from many quarters for us to move them on did not impress me.
The Courts also took a relaxed view. Handing down small fines in a rote manner, the Magistrates indicated their attitude. The hawkers took the penalties as a necessary cost of doing business.
Of more concern was the open sale of hard porn in Temple Street. This activity was triad controlled and blatant. The fact that the triads ran the business was enough motivation to disrupt it. They had to be held in check by a constant war of attrition.
Operating from an orange box, the porn seller would have a stack of books ready. Meantime, his lookout scouted the area, to raise the alarm if the police approached. Our frequent patrols managed to keep them on their toes and to move. Sometimes I'd approach through one of the alleyways unobserved, to scare them off.
One time I managed to get right behind a porn seller, without him noticing. He swung around in surprise, taking a startled punch at me. After a short chase, I had him down on the ground, with one hand handcuffed.
He continued to struggle refusing to give up his other side, so I dragged him to a railing and handcuffed him to it. I went back to collect his stash and summoned help. As he was lifted into the Police Van, I got a round of applause from the crowd enjoying the show.
The Sub-Unit Commander was not impressed. He was of the opinion that inspectors need to lead, with my actions unbecoming of the rank. Constables made arrests, not inspectors. Our relationship had been businesslike until then, but this marked a change. I saw it as setting an example by taking arrest action.
We rarely communicated after that. This went on for about a month. Then the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) swept in and arrested him. No one explained to me why he was gone. I assumed command of the unit.
I sensed the unit relaxed after his departure. He had held a negative grip on the men. With him out of the way, the officers exhibited a relief they could get on with enforcing the law. No more second-guessing the consequences of their actions.
My daily routine now settled. Getting in an hour before our shift started, reading up on the crime reports and any intelligence. Nothing much useful came our way because other units took any actionable stuff. The intelligence that reached the uniform branch was generally poor. Low-level drug information would land with us, when other groups declined to act.
Into uniform, brief and inspect the troops, before clearing any paperwork. Next, head out onto the streets. I had to attend dead body cases, to find out if any suspicious circumstances existed. Such calls could take up a lot of time.
My first was a young American tourist found in his hotel room. The door locked. With no signs of any theft or a struggle, the death was odd. His body, contorted in a heap on the floor, with injuries to the rear of his head.
At the autopsy, a half-chewed bun removed from his windpipe told a story. His blood readings indicated he had a lot of alcohol in his system. The poor guy had consumed too much beer. Getting the munchies, he grabbed a large bun, then failed to chew before swallowing. As it lodged in his throat, he'd choked.
Throwing himself around the room, later smashing his head on the table edge. He must have known what was happening. The US Consulate people contacted the family and made arrangements to take back the body. All I had to do was write it up for the Coroner recommending no inquest.
Hardly a day went by without encountering death in some form. Over time I grew used to it, although the sight of dead kids always hit home. One instance took me by surprise with its suddenness and unpredictability.
It was Saturday afternoon, with the shift end approaching. I'm called to the Nam Wah Building next to the Yaumati Typhoon shelter. Nam Wah at that time was on the waterfront, since then reclamation has taken it well inland.
Perched on the rooftop was an 18-year old girl threatening to jump. The Fire Services had their air-mattress in position. The usual media pack was on the scene, accompanied by a casual crowd of gawpers. Negotiators were on the way, but until then it was up to my team and me.
As I arrived on the rooftop, it was evident that things were going well with a sergeant chatting away to the girl. She was calm, willing to talk and somewhat engaging. She even greeted me in English with a hearty “Hello Inspector.”
I moved to sit beside the sergeant about ten feet from her. She was holding forth about how she’d failed her exams. Her parents were angry. She was suffering as a consequence. We chatted. Encouraged by the connection we'd, I explained how I'd had exam problems in the past. I thought this is going to plan. I even managed to get her to accept a bottle of water.
Although she was still reluctant to come off the ledge, I felt success was possible. I was remembering the training. We could get her down safe and sound. Wait, be calm, keep talking.
"Well thank you for talking to me" she announced. Then she leant back and was gone.
The air was punched out of me. I dashed forward, hoping she'd be hanging on the ledge or at least would hit the air mattress. As I looked down her body bounced off an air conditioner. She spun, smashed through a drying rack, before plummeting sideways to the ground. She missed the mattress.
The ambient noise swallowed the thud of the impact. But I felt it. A chill ran through me, as I stood in shock at what had occurred. My mind was racing. What had we done wrong? All the signs were right, she was talking, engaged with us, accepting of the water ... What the hell!
A wave of fatigue washed over me. I wanted to sleep. The sergeant and I sat for a while, sharing a can of warm coke, trying to get our heads around what had happened. In the end, there is no reason.
Except, next time I intended to intervene earlier if the opportunity presented itself. You never know what's in people's minds. To this day that incident baffles me because of its random unpredictability.