A POLICEMAN’S LOT, part 11. Of heads and other bits and You can’t win a trick.

WARNING, for the squeamish amongst you, read no further. I’m not writing this post to sensationalise traffic accidents but to show what a police officer can go through in an ordinary day. Yes it’s about dead people and I always respected them but there are times when black humour raised its therapeutic head. Therapeutic I hear you cry? Yes it was because you can’t mentally survive the carnage without some release. The next time you are pulled up by a police officer and he/she is a tad grumpy or not as nice as you’d like them to be. It’s probably because they’ve had a day somewhat like this:-

HEADS. If I remember rightly it was the morning that Challenger crashed to earth. I’d started my shift at eight a.m to work in the radio room. The night car had come in after attending a fatal motorcycle accident, where the rider had collided with the rear of a flatbed truck, decapitating himself. Another day another job, they had left the body at the morgue and came back in to write-up the details on the job card. I returned to my duties and the crew knocked off, they hadn’t left the station when the call came from the morgue, “Where’s the head? We haven’t got his head.” Well I certainly didn’t have it. The crew was called back and sent out to the highway. An hour later a tired and disgruntled officer came into the room carrying a hessian sandbag with an obviously large, kind of round object in it. The bottom of the bag was a dark colour, oozing blood. He plonked it on the counter with a thud and a, “Here you go Smithy, you always wanted to get ahead in the job.”

The duty sergeant came in and told me to get the bloody thing over to the hospital. I looked inside and there it was, a severed human head still in a motorbike helmet. The hospital was across the road and I walked slowly over feeling like some latter-day head hunter. People stared but you couldn’t tell what was in it from the outside. I still dream about that.

OTHER BITS. My posting was at the district police station and every now and then you were seconded to an outlying country station to relieve staff there. The first time I worked at this particular station it was a month of near bliss, except for the collision. (The second time a few months later will be the subject of a future post.) I had taken the sergeant, Cedric into town so he could pick up his private car. He drove back to the station and I nipped home for a quick visit. I was there ten minutes when I received a phone call, “Get your bum back to work, Cedric has come across a fatal.”

Being first on the scene he couldn’t wriggle out of it and hand it over to me. The amount of paperwork is horrendous when it comes to fatal accidents. I arrived in the late afternoon and took in the scene. A V8 Holden sedan sat in the middle of the two lane highway with a Ducati motorbike embedded in the engine compartment. It had hit the car between the passenger side headlight and the radiator, coming to a stop at the firewall. The car’s engine had been pushed out and hung over the driver’s side fender. The bonnet was gone it had landed in a paddock next to the road. The biker’s head had hit the roof of the car, on the edge of the windscreen pushing it down onto the front passenger side headrest. There was actually an eyewitness, he had parked on the roadside and heard what he thought was a low flying aircraft coming. He looked up and saw the bike going incredibly fast and the rider drinking from a bottle of beer. It veered into the path of the car, collided and both vehicles completed a 360 deg turn.

The bike rider lay under a sheet on the roadside and the car driver had been taken to hospital. He ended up with a cut tongue; he’d bitten the end of it off. Naturally the road was closed and traffic had backed up for miles. While Cedric conducted the investigation I had the job of picking up body parts around the scene. I found the bike’s speedometer on the back shelf of the car, stuck on 275 kilometres an hour. Worse still I found the rider’s heart, covered in windscreen glass, sitting in the centre console. We didn’t have latex gloves and I had to pick it up and place it with the remains.
“While you’re at it,” smiled Cedric, “see if you can find his liver.” I trudged up the road a little to where I’d spotted something dark earlier. A crowd had gathered, drivers and some locals who’d come to stare. (This was a country area with very few houses) A woman driver approached me and wanted to chat about the accident. I wasn’t in the mood,
Her, “Oh dear this is terrible, will the bike rider be okay?”
I looked back at the scene, a macabre setting standing out under the spotlights. The undertaker’s van, mangled vehicles, blood stained sheet covering the biker’s body.
Me, “Well, we’ve got his heart and I reckon if I can find the rest of his liver I’m sure we’ll have him up and running in no time.”
We estimated that the car had travelled at 120 klm an hour and going by the jammed bike speedo the combined speed on impact would’ve been 395 klm an hour. The only good outcome was that the rider wouldn’t have felt a thing. When someone falls out of the sky, gravity keeps them at about 220 klm an hour. This was the equivalent of someone flying a plane into the ground nose-first.

The following morning Cedric was off duty, I made myself useful and went to the holding yard at the local garage. Both vehicles had been towed there the previous evening. The driver’s belongings had to be secured and I needed the engine number of the vehicle. The car was still on the flat-bed so I climbed up notebook in hand. A large ginger tom cat sat on the roof of the car, feasting on something. I shooed it away and looked closer, half a brain had lodged in the dent. There was a sad post script to this collision. The driver had returned home to northern New South Wales, a fortnight later we received a call from the police there. He’d been involved in another car/bike collision, this time he was a pillion passenger on the bike. A car had hit the bike cutting it in half killing him, it was like something out of the Twilight Zone.

YOU CAN’T WIN A TRICK. A quiet Sunday evening and I was working as a plain clothes officer with a Detective Senior constable. Let’s call him Mick. We were heading down the highway when we came across a collision. It had happened seconds before and the air still hung with dust from the impact. Before we pulled up Mick called for assistance, ambos, fire, more police.

Any collision scene is fraught with danger, add a dark major highway and one vehicle on fire and you have your worst nightmare. The vehicle at fault, a Ford sedan driven by a young man had crossed the centre line and collided with the front of the other vehicle on a 45 degree angle and bounced away. The Ford driver sat stunned behind the wheel, we left him and went to the other one. It contained a family of five; mum was driving, dad a front seat passenger and three young children in the back. The front passenger door had flown open, dad staggered out and wandered away, dazed. Amazingly the children weren’t severely hurt, a passer-by stopped and took them to safety and rounded up dad.
This left a conscious, screaming mum to get out. Her door had jammed on impact and the glass had shattered. Flames licked out from under the bonnet and below the car, and the fire brigade was five minutes away. I switched off the ignition and leaned in through the driver’s window. Her ankle was wrapped around the brake pedal. Mick crawled in from the passenger side, cut through the seat belt and supported her by the shoulders.

I managed to pull her door open, leaned back in and undid her ankle from the pedal. As I’m writing this it’s all coming back, I can feel the fear. Fear of getting caught up in an explosion, or being badly burnt, a fear that has haunted me since childhood. The acrid smell of burning plastic has come back with a vengeance. Her ankle bone is snapped right through and a thick strip of flesh is the only thing holding it all together. There’s no time for being gentle, I can hear Mick coughing, she’s screaming louder now. I can’t even take a deep breath, grabbing her shin with one hand I hold it steady and unwind her foot off the pedal with the other.

Mick scrambles backwards, dragging her with him and I hang onto her foot. Thankfully she fainted and we lay her down on the grass. The flames have entered the inside of the car dancing and flicking over the driver’s seat. Backup arrives and we leave the victims to the ambos. Our next task, the driver of the Ford, he’s sitting on the boot of his car taking it all in. We breath test him, negative then go through the routine questioning at the scene. Because of the seriousness of the accident we are tasked with the whole investigation. Now let’s cut through to the main interview back at the station.

Our man had been checked over by the ambulance officers, all he’d sustained was a small cut to the top lip. Mick set up the typewriter for the record of interview; I made coffee for the three of us then attended to the driver’s cut lip with antiseptic. The questioning began, he was read his rights and willingly went into the interview. A little background now, the driver had left far western Queensland early that morning, had driven over 800 klm and only stopped once for fuel and a feed. He’d been to a party on the previous night and hadn’t slept at all. By the time of the collision he’d fallen asleep at the wheel. I charged him with dangerous driving and arrested him.

The trial was set for several months away and I went on leave. Unknown to me in the interim the trial was brought forward and I wasn’t available to attend. When I returned to work Mick filled me in on what had happened. Now the driver was a big man in his late twenties, very Caucasian looking and strong enough to hold a bull out to pee. It turned out that he had an aboriginal grandmother and it gave him access to free legal aid. He turned up on the day of the trial with a thousand dollar a day Barrister. Standing in the dock this man mountain broke down and sobbed. Testifying that the only reason he admitted to driving dangerously was, that the copper who arrested him had beaten him up because he was an aboriginal. And during the beating had inflicted the split lip and other facial injuries.

At that time if a person was an aboriginal or of aboriginal descent they couldn’t be interviewed unless a lawyer was present. Irrespective of their wishes. His barrister showed the court a photo that had been taken a few days after the event. It looked like Mike Tyson had hit him. He’d obviously had a good night’s sleep then taken some barrack room lawyers advice and had a friend punch him in the face. Our photograph, the record of interview and all the evidence from the scene was ignored by the jury and they acquitted him. No justice for mum with a severe injury, or for the emotional and financial trauma of the collision.

I came away from it all with a niggling sense that no matter what kindness you show some people, in the end you can’t win a trick.


11 thoughts on “A POLICEMAN’S LOT, part 11. Of heads and other bits and You can’t win a trick.

  1. kelihasablog

    An excellent post written with respect for the situations and individuals involved. It had to have been horrible to see all that, but you’re right… it’s only been in the last few years here in the states that they started realizing these guys need to decompress and talk things through… Good post..


    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Not a nice thing to see. People expect much more of police officers than they do of themselves. In many cases I think that the male ego gets in the way of self help and or counselling. A normal human being can’t be expected to encounter horror on a regular basis.


      1. kelihasablog

        True, but your blogs remind me of watching “Longmire” (Not sure of the spelling) I’ve only watched it for one season and it’s off now for a while. I miss it, so reading this is great… and probably good therapy for you as well.


      2. laurie27wsmith Post author

        Why thanks Keli, I just looked up Longmire. It looks like a good series. Writing this blog is theraputic and I have to say doing some police work on your own was a lot like being the town sheriff.


  2. patgarcia

    Five years ago, I was on the way back to my office. It was a very sunny afternoon, not typical for the part of Germany where I live. It was the beginning of September and I felt that Autumn was on its way. I was driving in my car and was looking forward to arriving to my office, so I could call it a day, when all of a sudden something overtook me. At first I thought it was a helicopter, but thought surely a heli doesn’t fly this low. I looked ahead and it was a man on a motorcyle. I thought to myself, he’s going to kill himself if he doesn’t slow down. There was a bridge up ahead that went up and suddenly dropped down low. People who do not come from this area don’t know that when you go over the bridge the sun blinds you and you really have to slow down, even if you are driving a car. I don’t have to tell you the motorcyclist did not slow down. I did and I am glad I did. He tried to brake and went into a spin. His motorcycle went up, broke into half as it came down on the front window of a car on the opposite side of the road, and the driver of the motorcycle flew through the air and landed over the guardrail, a foot away from my car. Ask me, if I was not shaken. It took me a year to get over what I saw. Even now, when I see a motorcyle approaching from my rearview mirror, I take caution.
    Thus, I can really understand policemen taking some things with a sense of black humour. If you didn’t, you would become alcoholics or have nervous breakdowns. My own experience with this motorcyclist has given me more understanding for people in law enforcement and for medical personnel, who have to treat or handle such matters in the case of death.
    I have never seem a head severed from the body, and the policemen and the men who had stopped during the accident that I witness, told me to stay in the car and not get out. One man was kind enough to keep me posted, because I saw everything, and he did not know if the police wanted me as a witness. I did not have to give a statement, and I am glad I did not have to.
    So, I admire you tremendously, Laurie. It is a pleasure knowing you because you are an example for many law enforcement officers who have to face a tough day, everyday. We, citizens, all over the world, in our respective countries can sleep safely because of people like you. Thank you.


    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Hi Pat, thanks so much for dropping by. Without doubt motorcycle accidents are amongst the worst and I feel for you having to experience that event. Things like that leave an indelible mark on our psyches, we are human and feel the pain and suffering.It’s good to know that you understand the black humour, a useful tool that stops one going crazy. The burnout rate is always high amongst emergency services, There is a finite level as to the amount of pyschological punishment the mind can take. I have so much to write about regarding police work but I must keep a balance and not inundate people with the horror. Oh well, back to the deep recesses and look for something funny, for a while.


  3. Raani York

    Dear Laurie,
    When I was reading your blog post my vivid fantasy drank in your words and I could imagine the entire sceneries you described. You are such an excellent writer!!
    You ARE right though – this blog post does vary from your former “Policeman’s Lot” posts, but still: there is your personal trace of humor wihtin!
    Did I enjoy reading your blog post? In a certain kind of way no… because of the serious subject you’re writing. – But then again: Yes.. I did because it’s one of your series and it’s great! In many many ways!!
    You’ve done a GREAT job Laurie. It’s not easy to describe scenes like this in such a vivid but still respectful kind of way AND to combine it with just the right amount of humor to not destroy the respect. It’s a small path to walk – and you did great!!


    1. laurie27wsmith Post author

      Thanks so much for your honesty Raani. It was different to my usual ramblings, only to get people thinking though. I feel we take life for granted but I know it can be taken in a flash, sometimes horribly. I feel that I may be able to dredge up a few more cheekier moments though. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.



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