I remember the date well. It was 10.15 pm on the 3rd November, and it was my 36th birthday. To celebrate this annual milestone I had been enjoying a restaurant meal with my family in Nottingham. I was looking forward to spending what was left of my birthday quietly at home relaxing. On the way back in the car I got the dreaded pager message, ‘Inspector Harper could you please urgently contact the Force Control Room. There is a firearms incident taking place and you are required to attend as the Bronze Commander.’ I was a firearms commander with Nottinghamshire Police and there were only two of us qualified to perform that role; unfortunately for me it was my turn to be on call.
In spite of the obvious dangers, I normally looked forward to firearms incidents. They were exciting, I had been well trained and I trusted I my staff. We were all members of a specially trained elite squad of police officers. Once home I made a telephone call to the force control room and was told that a known, wanted criminal was ‘holed up’ in a cabin at a scrap yard in Hucknall. I knew the area well, as this was the town where I grew up. I thought about the land on which the scrap yard stood. Part of it used to be common land and I remembered how I used to catch stickleback and bully head fish in the stream, and play hide and seek with my friends among the landfill bushes. Here once stood the public swimming baths where I learned to swim, next to the dismantled Hucknall Colliery where my dad and grandad used to work.
The criminal had been on the run from the local police and been chased into the scrap yard, where he broke into the cabin. He was discovered to be holding a young woman as a hostage, and was seen to point what looked like a shotgun at the woman’s head. He had then aimed it out of the window at the unarmed police officers. The local police superintendent was called and he immediately withdrew the officers out of the line of fire. They contained the scene and kept the area 'sterile' awaiting my team.
I quickly drove to my base at Force Headquarters and assembled my team - one Sergeant and ten constables. I put another team on standby to provide a relief if the incident was prolonged into the following day, and we were issued with our weapons from the force armoury. I collected my Smith and Wesson hand gun and twelve rounds of bullets contained in two plastic speed loaders. This part always made me nervous, and I kept my bullets away from the gun until it was absolutely necessary to load it. I was briefed by the control room Inspector and passed the information on to my staff. We sped to the scene in two specially adapted police Transit vans. I loved the excitement of travelling in a police vehicle with the blue lights flashing and the two-tone horns sounding.
Once we arrived I was told that the man had threatened to shoot the woman and fire on the police if anyone approached him. This was now a siege situation and was getting more serious by the minute. As was usually the case in these types of situations, it was mayhem. There were unarmed officers still in the line of fire, police uniform scattered about the floor, and no one seemed to know what they were doing!
I immediately ordered the unarmed officers to fall back and deployed my team into carefully considered vantage points; high ground, behind cover, and to the rear of the premises. As I was doing this I was visited by a very nervous local Superintendent. ‘Barry, I am so glad you are here, can I leave it with you?’
He may have been the senior officer but I was the specialist in this field and he knew it, I replied, ‘Yes with pleasure. Now get out of the line of fire and keep your head down.’ I was intentionally abrupt because I needed him to understand the seriousness of the situation. I passed a radio message to my officers instructing them to stand by with their guns aimed at the cabin. I told them that they should fire if they thought they could get a clean shot at the man without endangering the woman. If not we were going to have to sit this one out for as long as it took. I was told that trained negotiators were also on their way to the scene.
We stood in the same position for about eight hours and I was relieved to see the first signs of dawn. It was always easier to see in daylight rather than using night vision glasses. As the light improved the man appeared at the window. I realised this could be a chance to conclude the operation. I was a good marksman and regularly hit 100% of the targets in training. Taking aim with my hand gun I had the man clearly in my sights. I could not see the woman so I knew this would be an opportunity to safely take him out. Removing the safety catch from my hand gun I slowly started to squeeze the trigger in the way I had been trained. Police marksmen are trained to kill and not to wound; a wounded gunman could wreak havoc. The bullets we used were semi-copper metal jacketed, semi-wadcutters, commonly known as "dum-dum" bullets. They could cause fatal injuries even if they were fired into a limb; the soft nosed bullets would remain within the body, ricocheting around destroying any bone and vital organs in their path.
I knew that if I shot this man his chances of survival would be slightly less than nil. I stared at him through my gun sight but for some reason could not bring myself to pull the trigger, I could not understand why. I had never previously encountered this problem, but then again I had never killed anyone before. Something on this occasion just did not seem right. As I watched him I expected to hear other gunshots ringing out, particularly from one of the officers with sniper rifles. Surely, I considered, I couldn’t have been the only one with a clear shot? There were no other noises and the radio was deathly silent. I watched as the man disappeared back from view into the dark cabin. I had missed my chance and was berating myself. I had ‘volunteered’ for this much sought after post, and the expectation was that at some point I would have to shoot someone. But now I had the chance to do what I had been trained to do and had not pulled the trigger. I was distraught and very disappointed with my inaction. I didn’t know if I could ever live with myself if he were then to shoot the woman.
My concentration was broken by the crackle of the radio. ‘Inspector Harper, could you return to the mobile control room. We are going to try a different tactic.’ This allowed me to escape from the shackles of my negative thoughts. I returned, shaken, to the mobile control room where I saw a local senior officer, a different one from the one I had spoken to earlier. The local officers had been relieved, and they were probably at home tucked up warm in bed, but we were to remain in place for at least another three hours. It was alright for some! The Superintendent said, ‘I have had a good idea,’ a massive smile beamed across his chubby face. ‘That man must be getting really tired, and I tell you what, he will now be getting really hungry as well. I have asked the force catering to set up a mobile gas cooker; we are going to cook bacon. That will flush him out for sure!’
I thought that would be an interesting tactic to watch, I had never heard of that being tried before, I said, ‘Is there any chance of my team being fed at some stage?’
He replied, ‘I will ask them to sort this out first and then we will get some food over to your team. Oh and by the way you are all doing a magnificent job!’ I walked back to my position shaking my head in abject disbelief.
The new tactic was duly tried and two cooks from the force catering section set up the cooker out of the line of fire, but visible to me. I saw them begin to cook the bacon, and watched dismayed as they frantically wafted the air with pieces of card. Sure enough the wind had changed direction and me and my officers were being forced to endure the delicious smell of cooking bacon! We were sick with hunger, we had been on duty for more than nine hours without having anything to eat or drink, and now we were being subjected to this crackpot idea! My stomach rumbled and I was desperate for food. I felt like putting my hands up in the air and giving myself up! I told my officers to ignore the smell, but the radio channel was blocked with moaning voices. To my knowledge that was the last time I heard of that particular tactic being tried!
About an hour later the trained negotiators eventually managed to talk the man into coming out of the cabin. He said he was tired and knew he was not going to be able to escape. One of the officers shouted, 'I want you to slowly leave the cabin, I want you to come out empty handed with your arms held high in the air. If you do as you are told you will not be harmed.' He was then arrested by my team at gunpoint and told to lie on the floor on his front with his hands behind his head. As this tense situation was unfolding the woman suddenly ran out of the cabin screaming, ‘leave my boyfriend alone you bastards!’ That came as a big surprise to me, so I immediately ordered that she also be arrested at gunpoint. They were taken away by local CID officers for questioning, while we searched the cabin for forensic evidence and the firearm. One of my searching officers shouted on the radio, 'Boss, you need to come and see this!' I went into the cabin and one of the officers pointed to a large wooden broom handle, he said, 'this is what he was 'armed' with he didn't have a shotgun!'
My team and I wearily returned to Force Headquarters, where I conducted a ‘hot’ debrief. I was still fighting my conscience and readily admitted that I had a clear shot on the man; it took a lot of courage to admit this in front of my colleagues. To my surprise three others of my team made a similar admission, and they all stated that the situation just did not feel right. These were thoughts very similar to my own. It became very emotional in the room and I saw tears in one of the officers eyes.
On arriving home I went straight to bed. I was shattered, hungry and fatigued but couldn’t sleep. I couldn't clear my mind, and I kept considering what had happened and what might have been. Thinking about it I thought that If I had shot and killed that man, I would have been suspended from duty, and interviewed for causing death by manslaughter. The Police Complaints Agency would also have ordered a thorough investigation, and I would have been placed under an inordinate amount of stress. I might have been able to justify my actions but then again I might not. I thought about what the newspaper headlines might have been. ‘Police Officer shoots an unarmed man dead in front of his grief stricken girlfriend’
I didn’t sleep very well for several months after that.