Putting the pieces together: the world beyond the cones?

Prior to joining Sintons, Jami Blythe spent her career with Northumbria Police, working in its traffic unit and dealing with the most serious and often fatal road collisions. Here, she explains the meticulous nature of police investigations and what lies behind the ‘inconvenience’ of road closures and diversion signs.

As a motorist, seeing a sign along your chosen route saying ‘road closed’ can be disruptive. As a police officer, it means something entirely different.

The recent furore following Jeremy Clarkson’s tweet, questioning why roads need to be closed for so long, has thrown a spotlight on what lurks behind the row of signs and cones. I had hoped, given my experience, to illuminate some answers.

I joined the police in 1998 and moved to the traffic section after spending six years as a beat bobby. Having worked in both rural and urban areas, I was deployed on several occasions to road closures for various reasons. I found there was always a mixture of response to the road closures by drivers. Some would be frustrated that they couldn’t get to their destination, perhaps to pick up kids from school or take an elderly relative to a hospital appointment. Some would live ‘just down there’ and want to be allowed through to drive a short distance to their home where their dog was waiting to be fed. Some would react with empathy and ask after the welfare of those involved. I often thought that how they would react would depend on what was going on in their own lives. Being wrapped up in our own problems very easily gives us tunnel vision.

I moved to the traffic section in 2005 where I would be allowed access to the world that lay behind the cones. I remember the first time I crossed the line to ‘the other side’. Before this it had been a world surrounded in mystery, suspense and often unimaginable carnage. My first experience was a collision where a young man had died near the city centre. He had driven through an abandoned warehouse and lay very peacefully with broken building and car around him. I was working with a tutor whose outlook and calm manner I much admired. I watched and took in every action that was meticulously carried out at the scene. The traffic unit was mostly made up of men at that time, so I can refer to the gentlemanly attitude of them all as they painstakingly considered every possibility and scenario. The man’s body was carried away with dignity and in silence. None of us wanted to be there, none of us wanted to cause the disruption we did on a busy Saturday night, and none of us wanted this to have happened.

I have written previously in my research about the importance of having an open mind, as an investigator. The minute hands that tick in the immediate aftermath of a collision like this do so more loudly than at any other time of the investigation. Looking for, gathering, considering clues. Any marks, scrapes, miniscule drops of evidence, have to be found and considered. They all then form the start of a large, sometimes very complex jigsaw, with no picture on the box to follow.

I remember going home that morning wondering what the reaction of the young lad’s parents had been. I had heard snippets in radio transmissions from the officers who had informed his family and then been taken to the hospital to identify him. I also remember imagining what it might feel like, as a police officer, to carry out that role. It seemed at the time that it was meant for officers far older, more experienced than me. But it wasn’t to be long before I was one of those officers who knocked on a family’s door to deliver the message we all dread.

The Inspector on our unit was also someone I much admired. He was a very tenacious and straight talking man who kept a close eye on his staff and their daily incidents. He also played a very practical and level headed part in investigations. I had always known him to visit the scene of every fatality and remember working closely with him on one of my own very complex cases. His want to ‘do the right thing’ for the bereaved families meant that he took the time to talk to his officers about their cases, helping them make decisions about what to do next. This type of experiential learning in the police is critical to its overall professionalism. One this particular case, I remember standing in the middle of the road next to the body of another young lad who had died. The circumstances were forensically complicated and it was clear very early on that there were lots of pieces of a jigsaw to put together. I remember hearing that the Inspector was coming to the scene and watched as he was allowed through the road closure signs and cones into the sterile area that must be kept so close as possible to the moment the chain of events that had led to that point, started. By that point I had moved on from being tutored, walking behind another officer and listening to their discussions, to effectively leading my own investigations under the supervision of a Senior Investigating Officer, or SIO. The enormity of the task at hand is disguised by the comings and goings of emergency service staff at the scene, knowing that the time you have to gather evidence is limited, due to pressures to open roads, impending weather and darkness. The forensic collision investigators arrived soon afterwards and together with the Inspector we walked through the scene again. This simple task of looking, smelling, listening and generally getting a feel for every square inch of a collision scene can’t be overestimated. On that particular day, we recovered some vital evidence from the undergrowth nearby – evidence that wouldn’t have been found if we had been rushed or put under pressure to clear everything away. Later in that investigation, we transported the two cars involved down to the laboratory in Wetherby so further forensic work could be carried out. We pulled into the storage yard and saw the laboratory staff come to the windows to see what had arrived. Like many things in my career, there are things you will never forget. On this occasion, the shock on their faces at the catastrophic impact that had been caused will never leave me, and I don’t suppose it will some of them. We entered the lab to brief the staff and their will to help justice to be served was clear.

Not long after this incident, I was asked by the Inspector if I would consider becoming a family liaison officer, or FLO – the officers I referred-to earlier who deliver the news no family wants to hear. I suppose I had proven myself to be an effective communicator and had the skills to carry out all it entailed. I agreed and not long after that passed my course and found myself on my first deployment. I would guess that those reading expect to hear about the progression of cases and what happened in the end, but there are always quirks of incidents and deployments you remember more than the process. My first deployment was to a lady whose husband had died. They were travelling together in the car when a lorry hit the driver’s side of the car and I could probably tell you every inch of their driveway after I visited it for the first time.

Throughout the various family liaison deployments there was always one thing in common – questions. Questions on each and every occasion I visited. Questions that had been answered but forgotten due to state of shock and grief. Questions that could be answered, questions that couldn’t ever be answered, and questions that may be answered in time. The need to understand how, why, where and when someone died becomes the rhythm of the investigation. The questions are what pushes it on, to a conclusion, some at a faster pace than others but always with one objective. Each and every answer becomes a small part of the jigsaw, without which the police will never come closer to seeing the whole picture, the whole jigsaw. Sometimes the questions from a family come slowly, sometimes they come in the first few days, but they always need to be answered. At that point, it becomes not just a professional incentive to answer them, but a moral one too. The pain, anguish, shock and grief when you enter someone’s house at any point of a deployment is always there. You want, as a compassionate human and a professional police officer, to be able to answer each and every one of them. Not doing so would be unjust, unprofessional and immoral.

On every occasion, I have delivered the news to a family, be it a mum, dad, brother, sister, whole family, they had always been expecting their loved one to come home. Instead, when the police knock at their door their world stops. For a second, you can hear them stop breathing, as they pause to take the news in, but I don’t actually think that’s the hard part. The hard part is unravelling the truth so they can start to try and rebuild their lives with a complete jigsaw on the table.

I have been privileged to work with some absolutely amazing family liaison officers in my career and we all shared the same passion for finding and delivering answers to those who mattered the most – those who thankfully weren’t there to see for themselves, but were left to deal with the emptiness of a bed, a room, possessions, their laundry, their unwashed breakfast dishes at the sink. I remember one mum telling me that she replayed a voicemail left on her phone by her son before he died, just so she could hear his voice. We tried our very hardest, sometimes faced with impossibilities, always problem solving our way through the process, to provide answers. These were sometimes not the answers they wished for, sometimes partly answered, but never found in haste or laziness. We would always try our level best to find them under the carnage of a collision scene, the burn of a tyre, the tiny droplet of misplaced blood, behind the undergrowth, in a broken wing mirror, or scrape of a door frame, but we would always do this with an acute awareness of the disruption it caused at the other side of the cones.

Our road networks are busy with each and every vehicle, bicycle, pedestrian having their own reasons for travelling from a to b. The cost to the economy when a major UK road is closed for 4 hours is thought to be near £1.5 million. You can take my word for it that an SIO of a collision in such circumstances is all too aware of this. There are constant questions being asked in his ear piece from a control room around what actions are being carried out at a scene, how long the road will be closed for and what measures are taken to ensure diversions are working aimed at improving the management of incidents and congestion. The SIO also has to consider a multitude of questions – how the collision happened, where did the chain of events start, who is the deceased, how can we identify them, what staff do we have, who is best to perform which role, have any mobile phones been recovered, where will the diversions go to, will they work, which hospital have the injured been taken to, have they been drinking or taking drugs – the list is endless.

The Highways Agency and emergency services signed up to the ‘CLEAR’ principle in 2012: collision, lead, evaluate, act, reopen initiative was aimed at improving the management of incidents, collisions and congestions caused by them. I would argue that it was something we all did anyway but it was good to formalise this into a process that the officers on the ground, control room, and five ranks of officers upwards who would be made aware of the incident and oversee that everything was being done correctly and efficiently. The inconvenience caused to the public is of course temporary but on the odd occasion when I was allowed to disclose that there had been a fatality beyond a road closure, I was never met with anything other than genuine sympathy and understanding by the drivers.

I hope that this has provided a small insight into what goes on behind the line of cones, behind the doors of a bereaved family home, and behind the eyes of a police officer who deals with a multitude of roles when collisions happen. The unfortunate thing about collisions is that they are almost always preventable. They are also always different to the next and to the one before. However, the one thing they have in common is that they are at the mercy of the frailty of consequence. The seconds that lead to the chain of events which ultimately lead to someone’s death can’t be replayed. All that can be done, with the compassion and professionalism of those charged with investigating, comforting and piecing the puzzle back together, is finding the answers – and as the minute hand ticks loudly amongst the silence, smell of spilled fuel and destruction, there is only one chance to find them.

Jami Blythe is as a Client Support Executive in the Neurotrauma team at Sintons. She can be contacted on 0191 226 3809 or at jami.blythe@sintons.co.uk.

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