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On patrol with the Met police

Traffic police; possibly the most feared and misunderstood creatures on the roads of Britain. Visordown went on patrol with the Metropolitan division to find out what it really means to be a traffic cop

I used to hate traffic cops. When I was an angry young test-rider 10 years ago, I rode everything flatout. That was my job, after all. Unfortunately for me it was also the job of the traffic police to stop me – quite rightly, as it happened – and we really didn’t get along too well. After several high-speed pursuits, endless court summons and 36 points (most of which were side-stepped elsewhere) I was still an habitual speeder, but I had learned a cagey respect for my determined adversaries.

Fast forward a decade and many things have changed. I can’t be bothered with excessive speeding any more and the advent of the Gatso camera seems to have changed the role of the traffic officer. It’s a fact that we just don’t see as many of them on the road as we used to. Since 1999 the number of traffic officers in the London area has decreased from over 1,000 to just 690 today.

There are five garages serving the entire London area, the capital being sliced up into quarters with the M25 as the boundary and a central garage bullseye in the middle. Alperton station in northwest London has been a traffic station for 50 years now and serves as a base for 85 officers. At any one time they’ll have a maximum of four cars out on the road. At night, that’s more like two. The Met traffic officer is a disappearing breed. Why?

“It’s a cut-back across all departments,” says Inspector Paul Cleevely, a London traffic cop with 24 years’ experience. “More resources are being put into knife and gun crime. They are now seen as the priority areas of Met policing. We can still do our job, but if we put three cars out on a night shift we’ve done well.” Less police cars on the road surely means it’s easier for people to get away with naughty behaviour now than it was? “I can’t comment on that,” says Paul. His tone implies that he could, but he won’t. “I did my first Met driving course in an Austin Allegro,” he continues, laughing. “Back then the job was pure traffic work, issuing tickets and so forth. But now the job is far more crime-orientated. All criminals use roads, so we’re denying them the free use of the roads, making arrests, hauling in drug seizures, that kind of thing.”

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'Hunting' on the streets

We’re headed northbound on the A40, London, in a fully-marked BMW 530d response car. Fat jam sandwich, looking for bikers with no insurance. 32 year-old PC Simon Marrocco calls it “hunting” – and he’s very good at it. Up ahead is a Yamaha R6 on a 56 reg, small numberplate, race pipe and sat in the fast lane of a 40mph limit. “Look at this guy,” says Simon. “I can’t see his numberplate because it’s small, but he’s dressed properly, he’s not riding stupidly, he’s obviously an enthusiast and I’m not going to give him a tug. I don’t see the point of turning hard-working, tax-paying blokes against us for no good reason.”

I ask him if other traffic cops would pull the biker up ahead for the plate and pipe. “Sure, there are guys we work with that would pull him over for that. But to me these aren’t the people we need to be pulling; it’s the guys who’ve gone out in shorts and a t-shirt who are out in 30s and 40mph zones pulling wheelies on scooters – I’ll stop them in a flash. But not the kind that are generally out at the Ace Café or Boxhill or wherever. 90% of those enthusiasts are as good as gold. But then I’m not the stereotypical traffic officer.”

Simon’s an ex-riot cop who’s just bought a brand new ZX-6R. To some, he represents the ‘new breed’ of Met traffic officer, with a high arrest rate and as interested in catching regular criminals as he is in drivers cranking 80mph in a 30 zone. Suddenly something catches his eye and we’re off up a side street, lights on. I haven’t even seen what we’re after but Simon’s locked-on. “Scooter on L-plates up ahead, prime territory for no insurance,” he says. The scooter ducks through some fresh roadworks and the workmen dash to get a load of wet cement out of the way, but the chase is over – the rider is long gone.

“I’m pretty lenient with motorcycles,” continues Simon over his shoulder. “Because I think they get a hard enough time as it is. But if you look like trouble, I’m coming for you.” His partner, 31 year-old PC Dave Atkins interjects. “Thing is, if you stop a scooter, and it actually stops, it’s legal. It’s the ones that don’t stop that aren’t. And we then have to consider if we give chase or not. Because if they come off and injure someone or themselves, then maybe it’s our fault.”

Are you saying that the modern traffic cop may not give chase if a bike fails to stop? “It’s possible,” admits Simon. “We have to make an immediate risk assessment in a situation like that. If I’m chasing someone and he has an off and kills himself or someone else, and the coroner says it’s the police’s fault, then I’m in the box holding the rail for a manslaughter charge. Is that worth it? A Yamaha R1, Fireblade, even an R6: am I going to catch them in a 5-series BMW? No way. Years ago I used to get really hacked off about it, and I’d say maybe the job wrecked my first marriage because of it. But not now. Sometimes you’ve got to let it go.”

And with that, I’m pinned back in my seat as we’re in hot pursuit of another bike. That I haven’t seen. Traffic cops have got eyes in the back of their head and can spot a likely target from three blocks away. This chap disappears as well, but then a Pink Express courier on a beat-up XR125 hoves into view. “Wrong place, wrong time…” says Dave, and the courier gets tugged. He’s a Brazilian lad, over here working on a Portuguese passport. He doesn’t have insurance and ends up taking the bus. I feel rather sorry for him – he was minding his own business and now he’s looking at a £200 fine and £150 to recover his bike.

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Flashing lights in the mirror

Getting tugged (or not) is very often a matter of chance. Assuming you’re not doing something outlandishly stupid, it can all depend on the time of day, the traffic density, whether there’s a specific operation in your area and, most crucially, how the traffic cop’s feeling. “If someone comes through at 45mph in a 30 zone, if the road conditions are appropriate and he’s being apologetic, I might give him a warning,” says Simon. “I’m not going to say, ‘My limit is 45, you’re having a ticket’. But if someone comes over at 55, it’s not going to matter how nice they are, he’s getting one. And sometimes it does come down to us being humans and what kind of mood we’re in on the day. I know that’s wrong, it’s not the way it should be, but you can’t possibly say that every police officer should act without any emotion or personal attitude. We’re just people; we can’t do that.”

Things you need to know if there’s a traffic car sat behind you. As you ride along, sticking voraciously to the speed limit, right now he’s punching your registration plate into his Mobile Data Terminal. This tells him where you live, whether you’ve got insurance – everything. It actually flashes up in red with an audible alarm if you don’t have insurance. So he’s sat there, and you’re sweating, and he punches you in and within 10 seconds already knows far too much about you. There’s absolutely no point lying if he does pull you over, because he already knows the answer. His Provida front video system and rearward infra-red cameras are recording your every move. Not every car has even got a tape in the recorder – the Met still use clunky old VHS as hard drives can be tampered with as evidence – but how will you know?

34 year-old PC Andy Swales is a more traditional traffic policeman. With five years’ service in the department Andy, along with his partner Phil Mason, is more into vehicle faults and rules of the road. Like all the cops in Alperton, the pair are well into their bikes. Andy rides a Thunderace with over 100,000 miles on the clock while Phil’s just traded in his SV1000 for a Triumph Tiger. “Predominantly, we only deal with people that need to be dealt with,” says Phil. “Your typical middle England bloke we rarely stop because they’ve done nothing wrong. We are slightly biased against sportsbikes because they’re usually in the wrong.” I recall my last journey home on a GSX-R1000 and consider that yes, that was wrong. In so many ways. “On our patch, the biker gangs really picked up when Kawasaki started doing 0% finance. So they’d sign up, miss the payments and the bikes aren’t seen again. We can’t catch them for love nor money, and off they go.”

We’re attending a head-on collision on a small lane near Harrow. Two cars have butchered each other in fine style and, while there’s nothing more serious than a broken leg, the driver of one vehicle is claiming his steering went wonky just before the crash. On closer inspection, Andy deducts this explanation is questionable at best. How do they deal with being called to scenes of carnage every day? “Well you sort of get complacent with it,” he says. “You have to, otherwise you’d go mad or something. You turn up at some of them and there’s blood everywhere, like rain, and you have to detach yourself from it, like a movie set.”

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Getting away with it

We pull over a Ford Ka with about a dozen teenagers inside and dope scattered about the footwells. There’s all sorts of commotion inside and Andy and Phil expect them to de-camp and do a runner. I’m stood there, taking pictures in a fluorescent jacket with POLICE written across the back. The kids are hating it, and just then I realise I’m loving it. They think I’m a copper, and for a second I get this guilty little power trip thing going on. The blues and twos, the rush of excitement when a call comes in over the radio, the power to stop whomever you please; these are strong impulses that are impossible to ignore. In a flash the moment passes and I get on with the job in hand, slightly embarrassed.

Being a traffic cop in 2009 is a bizarre mix of old-fashioned values and brand new, cutting-edge technology. They can’t buy a sandwich without having to fill in a form in triplicate, and the paperwork is only getting worse as the need for detail increases in an ever-more lunatic suing culture. The one thing that kept cropping up was the slight negativity of the job – nearly all the traffic officer’s contact with the public is of the finger-wagging variety. To this end, riding schemes like the BikeSafe project are close to the London officer’s hearts as it’s a chance to give something positive and touchy-feely directly back to riders on their patch of city.

But I couldn’t find one copper at Alperton who didn’t enjoy the job. Or at least claims to. They’re paid well (£35k after a few years’ service) they get to barrel around in fast cars and bikes, stopping anyone they like and generally having the run of the road. Some of them are rather odd, others are a bit loud, but they have a dark, slightly skewed sense of humour which I found very appealing. “We’re not overly supervised, we’ve got a lot of freedom within reason and we can go wherever we want,” says Andy Swales as he clocks off his shift. “I’ve tried 9-5 jobs and they drive me mad. If I got bored I’d think about leaving, but all of this…” he sweeps his arm. “The cars, the bikes, dealing with the public, not quite knowing what’s going to happen next: it’d have to be a damn good offer.”

The Met do things a bit differently...

Unlike the other divisions around the country, the Metropolitan Police have sheer numbers stacked against them. With over 12 million potential wrong-doers living on their doorstep, there’s just too much going on to sweat the really small stuff. Laid-back is the wrong word, but they’re definitely more realistic about certain things. “Yeah, Met tend to do things a little differently to county divisions,” says PC Phil Mason. “We have our own way of doing police work. And our way is better - of course.”

How to escape a nicking

If you’re 22 years-old, on a GSX-R with a noisy pipe, small plate and giving it 10 large outside a school and a traffic car pulls you over, you’re screwed. For the rest of us, here’s how it rolls. Pull over in an intelligent place, helmet off, and ‘fess up. When the officer asks why he pulled you over, don’t say something retarded like, “I have no idea.” Be honest. If you were speeding, admit it. If he asks how fast you were going (he knows anyway) give him a realistic figure. If you play dumb, a traffic cop will treat you as such and just write you a ticket anyway. If your paperwork’s not in order, it’s best to be honest. If you try lying your way out of no insurance (etc) you’re just digging yourself a deeper hole.

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Crash C.S.I

The crash detectives

The road’s closed and the traffic’s backed up for miles. There’s been a fatal accident up ahead, and the Collision Investigation Unit are at work. PC Stuart Mitchell is one of the best “It wasn’t long ago a fatal crash was swept aside and put down as being a tragic accident. Now it is very much: what happened, who was at fault? The scene of a fatal crash is now treated more as a crime scene. When I get there I wander around for 10 minutes, looking at the whole picture, and try and fit together the series of events. Looking at marks in the road, tyre skids, body slide marks, that stuff. Sometimes drivers will come up with a sequence of events that isn’t necessarily the truth, because nobody wants to admit they’re wrong – it even says it on your insurance form, “never admit liability”.

“We spend a lot of time pulling apart and investigating collision-damaged cars and bikes, but realistically over 99% of accidents are just plain driver error. We gather all the required information and are acutely aware that if we close a main road, we are effectively bringing that part of London to a grinding halt. But we have one chance to get everything right.

“The hardest scenes to work out are collisions with little or no physical evidence, such as a bike in a ditch with a dead person on it, or a failing to stop. Sometimes we get a case that’s never been figured out. We had a fatal where the two cars involved were sat on opposite grass verges, virtually undamaged, a country lane with one person dead and the other unconscious. No witnesses, no marks on the road, nothing at all. No idea.

“According to some statistics, avoid riding on Thursday afternoons in November. Apparently that’s the most prevalent time for fatal collisions to occur. Male drivers between 17 and 25 are most at risk, full of testosterone, Lewis Hamiltons in the making. And if you get into a car and don’t use the seatbelt, then you’re just daft. Technology is only as good as your use of it. Without seatbelts, the rest is merely electronics. You can be wearing a £500 Arai helmet but if the strap’s not done up, it’s worth nothing.

“A few years ago on the M1, a truck driver fell asleep and clipped a crash barrier. He woke up, over-compensated and went through the central reservation, collecting a Mondeo containing a family of three coming the other direction. The Mondeo was vaporised on impact. It’s hard to conceive what that sort of collision must have been like. There wasn’t a lot left of the family.

“At the time, it didn’t bother me too much. It never does. But some months later when the case went to court, a colleague came across with a newspaper. The front cover story was about the family who had been killed, with all their pictures. It wasn’t until then that I’d thought of this job as actually involving people. It really brought it all home to me. When you’re on the scene, it’s adult male, adult female and adolescent female rear passenger, casualty one, two and three. That’s how it has to be, that’s how you protect yourself when you deal with this day in, day out. But when they have names and faces? That’s a lot tougher to cope with.”

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...are bikers who hate Gatso cameras too

Traffic cops hate Gatso cameras too

“For all the un-insured, illegally driven speed-racers out there in stolen cars doing 100mph past schools, they’re no use whatsoever,” says one officer. Point being that cameras are great at nicking people who keep their paperwork in order, but less useful at pulling in proper law-breakers. Another officer pointed out that none of the estimated £160 million earned from cameras each year goes back into policing or community services. “Nobody is against having cameras in appropriate places geared for appropriate speeds,” says another cop. “But you have to question where you see some of the cameras placed out on the open road.” 90% of London cameras are at accident black-spots. That’s not necessarily the case in other counties.

All Met traffic cops are bikers

They have to posses a bike licence to be a Met traffic officer, and we didn’t meet one officer who didn’t have a bike at home. They regularly go on rides in the UK and abroad, and have been known to open it up now and again. “The only reason any of us get into traffic is because we’re petrolheads,” says PC Stuart Mitchell. “The first thing you do in traffic is a bike course, because in London, that’s your best weapon. And it makes it a lot easier to get days off for trackdays when the sergeant is coming along.”