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No Bulletproof vest

dave sroey

Mental health week and this blog will look at PTSD. Something that affects my personal life deeply.

If you had said to me that one day, I would be friends with a policeman I would have laughed…. choked…and then said “Never”.  But life has a funny way of testing you when you say “Never”. The Gang girl and the police could be a blog all on its own, and maybe that blog will go out one day. But we have had plenty of insight about gangs from gang memebers. Time to take a look from the other side of the sword…or gun in this case…

Let me introduce you to Dave Hart….

No Bulletproof vest

Suddenly he stood up eyes raging and popping out of his head, spitting as he shouted I’m gonna f@*king kill you. Then he levelled the barrel at my face. I could see the saw marks where it had been sawn off. I stared at the end of the shotgun barrel, dark and ominous seemingly growing larger like a train tunnel all consuming dragging me down into its depths. This was the beginning of my journey to the ‘Dark Place’.  

Thursday 18th of July 1991 and at 20 years old I was still young and inexperienced although working in Kilburn at that time had been an education in itself. Nothing I had learned up until then though had prepared me for what happened that day. I was still in my probation as a Police officer when I took the call to a Burglary on the 17th floor of a tower block on the South Kilburn Estate. From the description given over the radio I knew the young man responsible. I made my way to his flat on the same landing, sure enough he was stood outside with some of his mates.  Witnesses confirmed they had seen him climbing back in the landing window (17 floors up) with a video recorder. I arrested him on suspicion of Burglary and told him we needed to search his flat for the video recorder. He was not handcuffed as back then it was deemed unacceptable to cuff a juvenile. As we entered the flat he told me his Pit-bull was in the bedroom, I knew he had one as  I had seen it before. A colleague took hold of him by the shoulders and we walked down the hall into the bedroom. My colleague and the young man went one side of the bed in the room, I the other. The young man bent down  reaching under the bed, I presumed he was reaching for the dog. Then he stood up levelling the sawn off shotgun at my colleague’s face then straight at mine. My initial thoughts were to grab for the gun but I was too far away. He was the other side of the bed, and my colleague was over there with him. Only armed with a wooden truncheon, no tazers or pepper spray or ‘bullet proof’ vest back then, I tried to reason with the young man. This sent him into the stratosphere, screaming madly There was a stand off in the flat until he decided he wanted us out. As I walked back down the hallway I contemplated ducking into the bathroom and then trying to surprise him, I didn’t I was petrified. Outside am sure I shouted at others gathered on the landing he had a gun, I didn’t, no sound came out of my mouth, and as I stood against the wall pressing myself against it, there was confusion on everyone’s faces at my strange behaviour. Then he came to the door now armed with a pistol too, waving both guns around frantically shouting for us to get away. As I ushered people down the stairwell to the floor below I could hear his footsteps descending behind me, I continued descending down the stairwell floor by floor into the darkness. It was dark and dank, the floor and brutalist concrete walls damp with slime smelling of urine, excrement and blood, needles discarded in the corners.  Footsteps following me gathering pace, I dare not look back,  then bang!   My heart pumping, eyes scrunched shut, hairs stood on end, waiting for it, but then relief as I realise its the stairwell door slamming shut on the floor above me, its echo booming down and reverberating through me.  I hadn’t been shot. Outside we all tried to contain him and keep members of the public out of his way, we had called for help, there were only two armed response vehicles in London at that time , the one posted North of the river was already dealing with an armed robbery and the car running from South was at least 20 mins away.

I could go on to explain in detail what happened thereafter but save to say it didn’t end well and what really got to me was that the caretaker of the block, a really nice old man had been hit over the head by this young man with the butt of the shotgun when he encountered him in the foyer on his way out to the street. The young man managed to get into a car and there was a short car chase, and then a further siege when he ran into an empty building.  When the firearms officers arrived he surrendered. Left back at the scene my ruminations began, why didn’t we ignore regulations and cuff him, why didn’t i grab the gun, if I had grabbed the gun would I or my colleague have been shot, what if I had ducked into the bathroom to surprise him. I was back at work the next day and carried on seemingly unaffected by what had happened?

He went to court and got 5 years in youth custody.  Albeit he did escape from Feltham about a year later, arriving in Kilburn with a 9mm pistol looking for me, word got around, and yes when we caught up with him he did have a loaded 9mm pistol.

A couple of years later I had another encounter with a young man armed with a gun that also had a profound affect on me. I had been called to a couple of young men dealing drugs in the park on the Church End Estate in Harlesden. As I walked up to them I produced my warrant card as I was in plain clothes, (they already knew I was old bill). What then followed was like a bizarre game of Rock , paper , scissors! I had thrown out my warrant card, he threw out a Webley 45 service revolver. He had won the hand but I wasn’t having that. We struggled fumbling for control of the gun and it fell to the floor, I had disarmed him, but as we struggled he wriggled out of his jacket and managed to slip free and bolted into the estate, I gave chase initially but remembered the gun on the floor. I went back and recovered it, we caught up with the young man later too.

Now it wasn’t until after this second incident did I start to experience symptoms of my PTSD , the rumination took over and that question, why didn’t I grab the gun back in that flat a couple of years earlier, I had done it this time and no one got hurt.  It wasn’t like switching on a light, the feelings of uneasiness built to anxiety over time, hypervigilance and avoidance. I still can’t use stairwells in Tower blocks without a feeling of dread consuming me.  Then the flashbacks, floods of tears for no apparent reason, then the nightmares and waking dreams so vivid I could feel the gunshot blasts pound into my body. I used to get a recurring dream, it would start in an innocuous fashion different every time to start with I still recall one of them, dreams of days out at a stately home I had visited with friends and family walking through the corridors looking at the beautiful paintings and antiques, then into a big room, with tables and chairs piled so high, suddenly they come crashing down impaling family and friends, blood everywhere, I am running down the corridors, descending stairs, the smell of urine, excrement, blood return as I descend back down into the dark dank place, footsteps behind me……..THE NIGHTMARES ALWAYS END IN THE DARK PLACE.

Now I had initially thought about writing a blog about how PTSD anxiety and depression can affect young people caught up in exploitation, however Kendra beat me to it and I would urge you all to read her blog about the young man named Deon. A much better read than what I had planned.

So I had a rethink and  saw that on the 7th of February it is TAKE TIME TO TALK DAY!  So in support of this important event, I decided to write a personal piece  sharing my story of how PTSD has affected me , and to raise awareness that professionals  who experience traumatic events or in dealing with traumas of others can also at times suffer from a deteriation of their mental health, particularly over time with repeated exposure to trauma and grief.  I thought it important to describe how I arrived in a place where symptoms of my PTSD took me to the Dark place!

Now back then in the 90s there was very little in the way of support for people like me, certainly it is only very recently that support networks and services have been established in Police services across the UK.  I was a rufty tufty police officer , so you just manned up and carried on,  developed coping mechanisms, mine as  for many other was drink, not  every day but when I was in a rough patch I would binge drink myself into oblivion. I went on like this for years and actually the effects of my PTSD were not with me all the time but in times of added stress at work or in my personal life they would return to haunt me just when I really didn’t need them to and on a couple of occasions ended with deep depression and a complete breakdown.

Dealing with bereavement has been particularly challenging for me, later in my career I worked on the TRIDENT Murder investigation team and was personally involved in the investigation of 46 fatal shootings of young men. I went to their post mortems, saw the damage caused to their bodies, examined the crime scenes, questioned witnesses, and walked into the homes of distraught families only hours after their loved one had been taken from them, supporting them as a family liaison officer. I take pride in the fact our team had a 96% conviction rate, however there were the ones where there was insufficient evidence to go to trial , or we could not break the wall of silence, no justice for those families.  Those cases still trouble me. My experience’s on Trident undoubtedly topped up my PTSD.  For those of you who may not know people can suffer from PTSD as a result of a single traumatic event or experience, but you may also develop what is known as cumulative PTSD when exposed to repeated trauma over a prolonged period of time.  So I guess  I got a double dose and this has gone on to affect me in later life, especially when I lost my mother.

So to finish off yes PTSD took me to a very dark place, that’s probably another blog,  but save to say although I am no longer the person I used to be, it broke up my family and very nearly destroyed me. But my children and a few good friends along the way (you know who you are), gave me the inspiration and support I needed to make it through. And actually today I am in a good place. With help I have learned to manage my symptoms (EMDR THERAPY really helped me), and I have turned my life around in a positive way, and I use my experiences to help the young people I work with.

I have no doubt there will be people reading this who think this is a bit of a self indulgent blog, and granted it was not the one I intended to write, but I also know that there will be those of you out there who may be struggling with their mental health as I was, not through any fault of your own but just because you see it as a duty or calling to help others in need, I hope that if you recognise or identify that is you, take time out for yourself, talk to someone, please look after yourselves, and please everyone take time to talk about mental health tomorrow on  Feb 7th.


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