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Black Rats and The Fatal Four – March 2022

“I have worked in a lot of organisations over the years, and it is rare to see an objective so clearly drive the vast majority of activity and time.”

I grew up knowing that a motorbike with a picture of a black rat on it belonged to a police officer, but I don’t remember my ex-police Dad telling me that it meant that the owner was specifically a Traffic Officer. I have learned this since joining Metfriendly.

I have since heard a couple of theories about where the name came from, but no one seems to know for sure. Whatever the origin, I have the Black Rats to thank as my education in front line policing continued recently with a ride-along with the A4 Traffic team out of Merton garage, following an invitation from King Rat himself, Chief Superintendent Simon Ovens. Merton is the smallest of the 4 Traffic garages across the Met, with 80 officers of Traffic Road Policing Team’s near 450 Traffic officers, staff and Specials stationed at Merton. Roads Transport Policing Command is huge, with close to 3000 people (officers, PCSOs and a significant number of volunteer Special Constables).

I didn’t really know what to expect; a few people had told me that Traffic would feel different to TSG, but that was the extent of my advance advice.

The first questions asked of me by my host – Sgt. Aleece Crowley-Mattar – gave me a little more of an insight into what I might expect (“Do you get travel sick?” “We could see anything – is there anything you would not want to?” “How do you think you might feel about seeing a bad accident or fatality?” “Would you be happy to wear a vest?”) although it was clear that a willingness to expect anything and nothing would be needed.

I am not sure what Constables Pete Angell and Dave Sutton did to deserve having me tag along with them, but they didn’t seem to mind too much. These self-confessed Petrol Heads have been in Traffic for 2 and 5 years respectively, and both clearly enjoy it. They also enjoyed the car we were in (an unmarked BMW X2 M35i), and the ability it gave them to keep up with high-end sporty cars in a pursuit, which they were not able to do in the larger 5 Series X drive as a result of its size and usually being weighed down with cones, barriers and other equipment. The X2 is clearly a source of pride for more than just Pete and Dave, if the careful way Dave drove through any width restrictions is anything to go by (“I can’t be the first to scratch the alloys!”). His mother would be proud.

Pete and Dave dealt with the constant stream of questions from the back seat with good humour, and I was struck by how much “The Fatal Four” was clearly a mantra for the unit. Chief Super. Ovens had told me about The Fatal Four after the shift briefing, describing the key objective of Traffic as being reducing road fatalities, which would be best achieved by focussing on these Four: speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, drink (or drugs) driving and using mobile phones. I have worked in a lot of organisations over the years, and it is rare to see an objective so clearly drive the vast majority of activity and time. Throughout the 7.5 hours I was with A4, I heard The Fatal Four mentioned individually and collectively over and over, and most of the vehicle stops were triggered by one of them.

I learned the officers I was with were able to pick up traits in a vehicle – age, condition, cleanliness – which would pique their interest, as much as driver behaviour would. (They also thought my car had probably been looked up a few times, and I am hoping they put that down to my description of the car rather than assumptions around my driving style.)

I saw the “sniff test” my father used to talk about very much in action – the easy assessment of the genuine “wide-boy” who was able to prove his insurance existed despite MIB saying otherwise vs. the overly-friendly, desperate-to-please professional whose (very expensive) borrowed-perhaps-hired-from-a-friend-of-a-friend car was seized.

I saw – again – the skilled use of firm diplomacy with a wide range of people.

And, disappointingly, I saw – also again – aggression towards an officer from a member of the public, although I am glad to be able to say that this was the first time I had been on a ride-along where an officer wasn’t actually assaulted.

I learned the affable, cheerful banter between two people comfortable with each other’s company and skills is immediately replaced with intense concentration when driving at speed.

And I learned that, while I don’t usually suffer from motion sickness, a high-speed response immediately after Refs is another matter. I didn’t admit to this at the time.

I really enjoyed getting to know some of the people at Merton Garage, and am looking forward to going back sometime. Given the Chief Super’s unequivocal response to my request to sit on the back of a bike, I am not expecting a change of heart any time soon. I haven’t given up on persuading him to fit a sidecar yet, though – I think it could catch on.

Annette Petchey, CEO Metfriendly 

If you would like to help Annette find out more about the Police Family, please contact her at [email protected]

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