When success and failure are in the eye of the beholder
Abby asked me to talk about success and failure for her blog. How do you define success and when is it achieved? In terms of the writing game, I’m a fairly new author – I don’t have a yardstick to measure either of those things by as yet. So, I will use an incident from my early police days to illustrate what success and failure mean to me.
It was a Friday morning, some years ago, in a well-known, busy, inner London police station.
‘Well, what are you waiting for? I’ve told you what I think,’ said the DCI, dismissively, without looking up from his computer screen.
A layer of smoke hovered above his head in the small office which stank of cigars. He wasn’t allowed to smoke them inside, but that didn’t stop him; rules were for lesser mortals.
I didn’t like him much, and he’d made it clear on several occasions that he didn’t like me. I was difficult to manage because I ‘kicked back’, often refusing to do as I was told. Not that I cared that much what this man thought. He was an overpaid, over promoted bully.
He was, however, the overall Crime Manager for the police station in which I worked, and during that particularly sweltering August week, my immediate boss – whom I valued and respected – was away on holiday.
Most of the time I hardly ever had to deal with any of the senior ranks, my boss acted as the middleman and kept the peace; but on this occasion I had to rub along with this DCI for just a few more days.
‘It’s just wrong that we should seek a charge for possession with intent on this girl…’ I said, trying to impress upon the DCI that enforcing the law to the letter, didn’t feel right in this case.
Downstairs in the cells were a boyfriend and girlfriend. The pair had been arrested at a well-known local nightclub. Police had been called by the door staff after the girlfriend had been searched on the way in and found in possession of several wraps of cocaine. The boyfriend had said they were his and she was just holding them for him, as he always got searched, but girls didn’t. The local guys in uniform had brought them both in, then promptly thrown the report onto the desk of one of my CID team, saying, ‘Two in for drugs, one in possession with intent to supply’.
The girlfriend was eighteen. She was at university studying to be a doctor. Never been in trouble with the police before; came from a nice family down in Devon. The boyfriend was trouble personified. Had a history of drugs possession offences and was unemployed. Side by side, they looked like beauty and the beast.
We tested them both for drugs. He tested positive. Hers came back negative, in line with what she’d told us as about not being a drug user.
Their police station interviews were completely consistent with the story they had given at the time of arrest – that he had given the wraps for her to carry just moments before they were searched at the door of the club.
The interview guys were positive that both the boyfriend and the girlfriend were telling the truth, but they felt that their hands were tied by the charges. They explained their concerns to me. The law says, when holding drugs for someone else, even momentarily, you’re guilty of possession with intent to supply.
I’d already been down to the cells to check out beauty and the beast. As police officers we meet thousands of suspects who pass through our custody suites, most of them on an onward journey into the criminal justice system eventually resulting in a conviction and often jail.
Most of those we meet are well known to the system and are indifferent to its outcome, much as the boyfriend was. He’d taken being locked up for the night well within his stride and had snoozed the hours away.
The girlfriend was different. Sitting alone in her cell, with just a built-in bed, a plastic mattress and a small stainless steel toilet in the corner for company, red eyed and distraught, she clearly hadn’t slept a wink. I could see her crying through the inspection window.
We spoke for a while. She was pale with fear. She explained how she’d met the boyfriend in Starbucks just a week earlier and he’d taken an overly effusive interest in her. At the time she’d welcomed the attention. Only now she realised why he’d been so attentive. He’d had a particular purpose in mind for her.
The interview team’s initial impression of her was right. Almost straight away I could tell that she was sincere, honest and straightforward. She’d made a stupid mistake whilst standing in the nightclub queue. Her ‘boyfriend’ of just one week had convinced her to hold a few wraps of drugs for him, just until they got into the club.
Yet back upstairs in the office, the DCI was having none of it, ‘Look, if she’s admitted possession, and admitted that they are the boyfriend’s drugs, and she was simply going to pass them back to him in the club, that’s it – it’s game over, that’s all we need to prove. Charge her!’ he bellowed across the desk at me.
‘But she’s eighteen. Never been in trouble before. Tested negative for drugs ,’ I replied, a note of annoyance creeping into my voice, ‘This naïve decision to hold onto a few wraps for a few minutes for some career drug dealer she hardly knows is going to ruin the rest of her life. That can’t be right…’
‘That’s her stupid fault, not mine. Charge her!’ He turned and looked back at his computer, expecting me to leave the room, and do as I was told.
I’d made the mistake of asking for his permission to take no further action against her. I should have just done it off my own back. Permission was much harder to gain than forgiveness in these circumstances. But here I was, with a lazy DCI who wouldn’t listen to reason or pragmatism.
I know many will think that I should have just done as I was told. That the law is the law, and a successful prosecution is all that I should have been concerned about. I wasn’t there to judge her or the situation. But the law really is an ass sometimes. And the best officers are those who apply the law in a practical and balanced way. Sending this girl to court wasn’t going to help her. She’d been conned.
I had two choices – do as I was told, or go and see the station commander, who was the DCI’s boss, to try and get him to overrule the decision.
Fifteen minutes later the girl was walking out of the police station. The commander had agreed that it was a perverse use of the law and that it served no public good, nor purpose, to charge her. I’d succeeded, I felt good.
An hour later I was called into the DCI’s office for a screaming match behind closed doors which could be heard all the way through to the other side of the police station. I’d failed, he said, and I’d done irreparable damage to my career and reputation, he said. I left feeling utterly deflated.
From then on, that DCI ensured that I received only the most miserable and insignificant of cases that he could possibly dole out.
Was it success or failure?
That was some years ago. The DCI in question has long since left the police. How much has that day affected either me or him? We clashed more often after that, but in the end it was all water under the bridge. I moved on to do some amazing work in Specialist Operations. He retired. In the greater scheme of things that day affected neither of us.
The girlfriend went on to have a successful career in medicine and saved many lives. The boyfriend remained trouble. The last I heard, he was in prison.
Many of us would never admit it, but we all want our lives to be indelible, and our existence remembered. Success isn’t something that can be defined as a single moment in time. It is something lasting, something good, and something to be built. In short, we want to matter to this world and make a difference.
David Videcette is a former Scotland Yard investigator with twenty years’ policing experience, including counter-terror operations and organised crime. David is the author of detective thrillers The Theseus Paradox and The Detriment. Based on true events from an insider’s perspective, they will change the way you look at the world.