The Police have always struggled to keep up to date with communications, perhaps because they have not been high on their list of priorities. The Liverpool, City Police were, like every other force in the country, overwhelmed by the proliferation telephones in the 1950s, and they made the mistake of trying to answer calls and then respond to them. If they had failed to do either, or both, then the calls would surely have faded away. Why would anyone ring if no one answered, or nothing happened? The police could have continued to amble about, launch occasional ambushes and roadblocks, and check on licensed premises, activities that were far more enjoyable and a great deal cheaper. Instead they tried to do both. This is when things started going wrong. In order to answer the calls the police bought patrol cars, removed the heaters in the belief that this would keep the drivers awake at night. The drivers, perhaps affected by frostbite, began the long and unbroken tradition of crashing their freezing cars and injuring pedestrians whilst speeding to incidents which had finished some time before. This was bad for police drivers (and, yes, pedestrians) and it was perhaps even worse for the ‘radio operators’ who were supposed to handle the calls. Not for the first time the service failed to switch resources and utilise technology to cope with new demands. These brave and isolated officers were deposited in police stations with a phone, a microphone, some scrap paper and a spike, and took messages, calls, handwritten notes, shouts from the front desk, telexes from headquarters and abuse from patrols who were unwilling to respond to their directions, and sergeants and inspectors, who thought that they were supposed to be in charge.
I was posted as a recruit to the Tuebrook Police Station in G Division in what was supposed to have become the Liverpool and Bootle Constabulary in 1971. (It was now the Liverpool City Police, with Bootle stuck on, the police aren’t good at mergers.) The poor radio operators had to cover a huge slice of Liverpool, stretching from the edge of the City Centre to the borders with the urban wilderness that was Huyton. This demesne included some riotous new estates and some seriously deteriorating old ones. The operators began their afternoon shifts at 3pm in reasonable condition, and were transformed into raging wrecks by 11pm, as the pubs kicked out and things got both busier and nastier. I can only compare the performances of Tom Kavanagh to those of the late, great Otis Redding. Otis started his definitive version of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ in a dignified, stately manner and steadily and dramatically built to an astoundingly histrionic ending. Another radio operator who shall remain nameless but was fabulously tall dark and good looking (no, I fail on all 3 criteria) was so enraged by the commotion in the adjoining charge office that he leaped from his chair, walked into the battle zone, kicked the offending prisoner in the groin and then returned to the microphone. Silence ensued, but the prisoner duly complained, and the incident was investigated. The officers from Complaints and Discipline never thought to question the radio operator, but he would have denied it anyway. The operators clearly needed an extended break halfway through the shift, and so they took their refreshments at the Divisional Headquarters canteen at Eaton Road, a police station several miles away. This involved arranging a lift, making their way into the station yard, travelling to Eaton Road, ordering and eating their meal and playing snooker before again requesting and eventually getting a lift back. They could be away from the microphone for well over two hours, or even longer if they managed to get involved in an incident.. (Refreshment breaks at the time were supposed to be 45 minutes.) This was fine for them, but of course they needed an officer to take their place whilst they were away.
It is fair to say that this was not a cherished post, and grizzled veterans learned to avoid the station at around 6pm each evening, especially at weekends. I was neither grizzled nor a veteran and so it was that one Saturday night I wandered into Tuebrook at around that evil hour, hoping to perhaps get a cup of tea. Tom through off his earphones and headed for Eaton Road, nothing could have stopped him. A replacement was needed, immediately. No one in their right mind would put a raw recruit who has quickly earned a reputation for short term memory loss and a blatant disregard for detail in charge of the radio at such a time. Enter Inspector Arthur ‘Kipper Fillets’ McCrae. ‘110’ he ordered. (he didn’t know my name, and he didn’t want to.) ‘Get on the radio.’ I furtively rotated my head to check my epaulettes, and for the briefest of moments my heart soared. They appeared to read ‘011’ but my hopes were short lived. Although Arthur was famously cross eyed the he was clearly talking to me, and ‘110 was clearly written on both my pay slips and the rejected reports that I was required to retype at the start of each shift.
For the next two hours I frantically despatched clearly unwilling and uncooperative patrols to a wide range of bewildering demands. As things got worse I decided to filter the calls. A woman complained that kids were playing football on the field outside her house. I told her that this wasn’t serious enough to warrant my sending a patrol. She claimed that one of them (it may have been the inside left) had a gun. I sent a panda car, the driver survived. When Tom eventually returned I staggered out of the radio room, deeply traumatised. I donned my tunic and helmet and set of in search of lager. He called me on my radio, and placed us on ‘talk through’ which meant that everyone on the Division’s wavelength could hear what we were saying. He then systematically took me through what I had or hadn’t done with a number of calls. Some of them I hadn’t dealt with at all. Some I had dealt with but I hadn’t thrust a note explaining what had been done onto ‘The Spike.’ Some of them I couldn’t remember at all. (They will come back to me.) This was a Character Building experience. ‘Character Building’ in the police means ‘Best Avoided At All Cost.’
I moved soon after to ‘A’ Division, which covered the Liverpool City Centre, and was actually busier than ‘G’, especially on the Night Shift (11pm – 7am.) Drinkers made their way into the city as the pubs closed, the clubs did a roaring trade and their customers fought first each other and eventually us in the streets. The radio operator on permanent nights was Bill O’Hare. He had chosen to do these duties because his wife had been committed to a mental institution, and he had several kids to take to and from school, and a shop to run in the daytime . No one knew when or where he slept, but I have never met a more laid back man in my life. He smoked a pipe, the contents of which were widely rumoured to contribute to his calmness. When things got tense he had a couple of jokes which he enjoyed telling, and which we enjoyed listening to. Bill’s voice would float across the airwaves. ‘Does anyone know The Lights In Scotland Road Are Out? If not I will sing it, and you can hum along....’ They were a form of comfort, and somehow they made us feel safer.
Foot Patrols were assigned to beats and response vehicles to zones, so that we were spread out across the City Centre. This was highly rational, and should have worked. It didn’t, police officers aren’t rational. We repeatedly maddened our senior managers by all racing to all of the calls, all of the time, to back each other up, and continue the established tradition of crashing cars and running people over. (‘Traditional’ in the Police Service that means a police officer has got away with it twice.) Bill couldn’t see us, but he knew what we doing. As an incident was quelled by the first patrols to get there he would solemnly intone ‘There Are Sufficient Patrols In Attendance. No Further Assistance Is Required.’ Response drivers racing to the incident would ease their foot off the accelerator, turn to the foot patrol who had illicitly leaped into the front passenger seat as the call went out and utter the words that have preceded every disaster in the history of the Police, ‘Shall we just go and have a look?’ Just as they resumed their mission, Bill would sonorously declare, with impeccable timing, ‘This means that you don’t have to go.’
Bill O’Hare was funny, he loved the patrols that he despatched, and he somehow always knew when a job was dangerous. These are difficult things to teach, and even more difficult things to learn. I hope they have survived into the modern control room. When Bill left the job he became a spiritualist, and conducted séances. It cannot have been too different for him. His fellow radio operators were soon to be absorbed into bigger, more expensive, more staff intensive control rooms which did much the same thing, without spikes. Control Rooms were supposed to be transformed by Airwaves, at great cost. The transformation doesn’t seem to have happened, although the cost did.
Assistant Chief Constable
Merseyside Police (Retired)