Firearms and fatals – Thirty years at the heart of the British Police Force

Ex Police office Harrye Tangye with his book about his time in the force. Copyright Chris Saville

One thing that my work in journalism has taught me, is that some of the most fascinating people you’ll ever meet aren’t the ones on front pages of magazines or on the small screen.

No, they are actually the ones that go out every day and do extraordinary things, that I think it would be fair to say that many of us take for granted. Our police officers fall into this category, hence this week’s interviewee.

Harry Tangye, a recently retired Sergeant from Devon and Cornwall Police, spent 30 years serving between 1990 and 2020, and it is safe to say that he has seen it all. Many of you may already know him, as he, in recent years, has become a bit of a social media hit – amassing over 40,000 followers.

While serving, his daily tweets documented a fascinating insight into the daily life of our officers and the challenges faced. As usual with our interviews, however, we’ll start right at the beginning. I asked Harry about his childhood and family:

“I was born in 1969, the youngest of four children, two brothers and a sister ahead of me. As we grew up, my sister left for Australia, but gravitated back to Newquay where we were brought up but my two brothers grew up and now live in France and Norway. I just about made it over the Tamar for my future career.

“My mother was 26 years younger than my father, it was her first marriage, but my father’s third. Things will make a little more sense when I say he was born in 1909, he and my mother became bards of the Cornish gorsedd. My father died when I was 18, at the age of 79, but as he had suffered a couple of strokes it clearly wasn’t a shock to me. I had grown up knowing I wouldn’t have him for as long as other children had their fathers, but he more than made up for the time we had.

‘He was a writer from a very young age, but a lot more academic than myself, writing many articles for London newspapers on the up and coming war and flying planes which he was considered an expert in, often flying aerobatic displays.”

Following the next anecdote from Harry about his father, it became obvious to me that the need for a thrilling career is probably in his blood.

“He flew spitfires during the second world war and was in Air Reconnaissance flying from Benson and often flying down to Newquay to land in the field of what became the playing fields of Newquay Tretherras School. It’s now houses!

“He’d leave his plane there for the weekend and pop home to Glendorgal at Porth. He would tell me he could fly higher and faster than most other aircraft in his air reconnaissance role and that’s what kept him alive. He married the Hollywood actress Ann Todd whose career went from strength to strength so after one child, my half sister who is alive today at the age of 80, they divorced, losing her to the famous director David Lean, my father’s second cousin! Never a dull moment.

‘Instead of punching him in a pub for wooing his wife away from him, which really wasn’t his style, my father dive-bombed a day’s filming [by David Lean] on a Cornish beach. I liked that, and it’s been a lesson to me ever since. If you need to show your displeasure to someone, be clever!

‘He [then] married a woman called Lady Marguerite, the daughter of the 9th Earl of Darnley, and quite a character; it seems my father was not one to pick the girl next door! After some time, they went their separate ways, and whilst having turned his parents’ second home into a seasonal hotel called The Glendorgal, in Porth, Newquay, he met my mother. We shall carry on with him not going for the girl next door theme, as my mother was working as a secretary for the Belgian foreign ambassador in Paris. She was going home to the UK and met my father, on a train, but typically, it couldn’t be a standard train, it had to be the Orient Express. His quote was something like, ‘In three minutes, I’d offered her a job, after three hours, I knew I’d marry her’.

Ex Police office Harry Tangye with his book about his time in the force, with his dog Arthur. Copyright Chris Saville

‘Having been brought up very happy with plenty of land, a tennis court and absolutely no money what so ever, I can describe it as, quite simply, idyllic. My mother was a housewife with four children under five years old, and my father a pensioner now writing books on the top of a north Cornish cliff in Newquay.

‘A small cottage, but with the land, and a second-hand old-style Bentley car which to this day, my mother is embarrassed that she took us to school in, it very much shaped my upbringing and the person I would become. I think as we wore hand me down clothes, had the old Bentley and the land, people assumed we were so wealthy we didn’t need to show it.

‘The truth of it, however, was my parents knew they had to spend five times less on our weekly shopping than they had been used to, having sold the hotel in a similar financial crisis as today. We were happy. It taught me a valuable lesson, that even though my father had had the highlife, he had had dinner with his first wife and Frank Sinatra, just the three of them, he’d said he’d never been happier than with his family on the Cornish cliff writing books. It affected me so much.”

I think we all remember the first job we coveted. Whether that be an actor, singer, doctor, fireman or astronaut. For me, it was a pathologist of all things! As for Harry, the pull of becoming a police officer started from a very early age. But he didn’t just think about it.

“After an upbringing of making pipe bombs with weed killer and sugar and scaffolding tubes, hunting rabbits and unsuccessfully attempting to make pencil cases out of them, I applied for the police at the age of ten. Yes, ten years old having attended Newquay Police Station open day and sitting in a Ford panda car and playing with the two switches inside. One for the single rotating blue light, and the other for the two-tone horn.

‘To be honest I did have my career aspects set on being a dustman. I was fascinated with the hanging on the backs of the lorries. You can imagine how distraught I was when health and safety spoilt my aspirations. Having unsuccessfully applied for the police at aged ten, I re-applied when I was 19 years old. My education, shall I say, was not my best point. My motto in life, tongue in cheek I have to admit, is that ‘I strive for adequate.’ I certainly did that with six equivalent O’Levels with poor grades which was just enough to get me into the police.

‘I managed to get to the three-day interview and fell at the last hurdle. I became a special constable for a couple of years instead, to gain experience which was invaluable, firstly in Newquay and then in Launceston where my job working in a leisure centre took me.

‘I decided to go to London for a year to ‘cut the apron strings’ and work with the physically disabled in Hornsey, north London for a year as a community service volunteer. My next attempt for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary was successful, and I couldn’t believe my luck. I was 21 years old, and I was on my way.”

Even at still the relatively tender age of just 21, Harry had achieved a dream of 11 years, dating back to the 10-year-old sat in a police car at Newquay Police Station. If there is any kind of life lesson to take away, it’s most certainly about not giving up in the face of adversity.

“I had entered into a new modern way of training. I attended the Police College at Charntmarle Manor, in Dorset, shared by several neighbouring forces. The summer of 1990 was hot, and it was the World Cup.

‘Running the cross country every week in the 85 degrees
was a challenge, and I found my limited talent, as I never lost a race whilst there. I can say I thoroughly enjoyed training. It was a challenge, however, as the average age of my intake was 35 years old. There were about 20 of us with several older former Royal Marines and an RAF police officer now as recruits. I was a baby in comparison, and with that, my acne had returned so that became a real psychological challenge for me in my early policing years.

‘We’d all go away for several modules of being tutored on the street. Surprisingly I couldn’t remember my first arrest. Perhaps as I had previously been a special constable, but I don’t even remember my first arrest with that. It clearly hadn’t been exciting. I remember my first phone call in the report room at Torquay where I had to introduce myself as PC Tangye from Torquay Police Station. How much did I feel a fake?!

‘We’d return to Charntmarle and share our stories in front of the instructors so we could learn from each other. Mine would be on my public order arrests no doubt, and then a very good friend of mine of similar age, who’d been posted to Penzance said, ‘Well, no arrests, but after our foot patrol on late shift, we pop into a local pub and have a swift pint behind the bar.’

‘The jaws dropped, and the instructors didn’t quite know where to look. I believe they possibly pretended they hadn’t heard. The depths of Cornwall clearly hadn’t caught up with the politically correct world which was rushing in from the East.

‘I clearly remember coming to the end of my probation. I had had a good experience of many offences. I was very nervous of dealing with fraud, I remember, as I didn’t really understand it. My tutor was called Mike Webb, who was a saint. I never feared dealing with fraud after that. It was a lesson in simplifying things to understand them.

‘I knew I was progressing well and learning fast. I remember searching a squalid flat with my tutor and came across some syringes still in their packets, clearly as a ‘swap your old needles for new’ process. Trying to look intelligent and having read the packets to show they were for insulin, I asked, ‘Oh, who’s the diabetic then?’. After several seconds of disbelief, the hardened drug addicted female sitting opposite me said, ‘Oh bless him.’ Yes, I could have died several times over, and still full of acne, I felt even more out of place. What was I doing pretending I could be a police officer?”

Interviewing Harry, I found the whole aspect of the insecurity of his skin condition fascinating. We are so used to depicting our police as almost robotic, and emotionless. They must be ‘above’ everything as we ask them to do extraordinary things to protect us from harm. But in small anecdotes such as this, the point that should be so, so obvious hits you: they are only human.

‘Having been to the dermatologist and being cured with a wonder drug after about three months, my life changed. I couldn’t have been happier … there I was in my second year of policing, and suddenly feeling confident by going clubbing in Torquay and impressing the girls with my warrant card!

‘I remember the day my probation ended, and I was a fully-fledged PC. I expected some sort of fanfare, and I was astonished to be given my own call sign with my own set of panda car keys. Well, can you imagine? The first job going I jumped at so I could do for real, what I had always dreamt of as a 10-year-old. Blue lights and two-tones and driving through Torquay as if I’d stolen it! Things have changed a little since then.”

Like his father before him, Harry would evidently have a way with the ladies and definitely not settle for the girl next door!

“I met my future wife soon after clearing up my skin. Rebecca, and have been married now for the past 27 years. My father would have approved with a wry grin because he may have married a Hollywood actress, but I married Miss Torbay! She gets so embarrassed every time I mention this, so I try to mention it as often as possible!”

In the following months and years, the experience would begin to mount up for Harry as he covered all types of crime from burglaries, to assaults and domestic disputes in many places across Devon, including Dawlish and Torquay. He would soon find his calling in the police, however.

‘I went back to Paignton on the incident car and got onto the Firearms Unit. Our weapons were stored in an external armoury in Torquay police station and we had pagers for a call out. We did get plenty of jobs but to be honest, most of them had fizzled out by the time officers had met up, collected their weapons and attended the rendezvous point. So, a new system was brought in, a much more available unit called the Armed Response Vehicle and so I joined traffic in Exeter to be a part of that.

‘The role was dual-roled as it is today, with armed units attending everything traffic, specialising in fatal and serious road traffic collisions, attending and dealing with armed incidents which were far more than people thought, and anything else when the communications room ran out of units, so I was still attending domestics and missing persons in my final few weeks.

‘Because we were on the traffic department, we had to be Class 1 drivers so I got my advanced ticket for driving, and then tactical pursuit and containment (TPAC), which is where we use various options for taking subject vehicles off the road with our own vehicles. It certainly concentrates the mind as often it’s at speeds of 90mph.

‘The teamwork was incredible, and I think this is what drew me to the unit. The training was relentless as it is still, all these years later. Just the most basic armed response course is a 13-week intensive course, with four days refresher training every six weeks. It’s exhausting mentally and physically as everyone is being constantly assessed, and the pressure is on because you can so easily lose your ticket, ie: be taken off the department. Add to that the refresher courses for VIP protection driving, the pursuit tactics advice and many others, it seemed I spent most of my time training and being assessed.”

I imagine, in ways like the armed forces, police officers are bonded in the common understanding of the pressures of the job and shared experiences. I found the next line of Harry’s interview to be the most honest explanation of what it means to do this job day in and day out for 30 years.

“Once you have attended suicides, fatal road traffic collisions and firearms incidents where some extremely nasty people have been located and arrested, the bond between officers is real, and very strong. Being on Response is like being in a police family, but being part of a specialist department is something even more unique and special. There is no other more responsible job in the force, than where the public, the Government and the police service have trusted you to decide whether to pull the trigger and shoot someone dead or not.”

There may be some readers wondering why, after 30 years of experience in the police force, Harry had not reached a much higher rank. His answer spoke to his obvious sense of doing the best job he could do:

“Going back to my father and how he was the happiest when all the wealth and trimmings had gone, but he had his young family in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, it helped me decide early on, that I wanted to be happy being better at what I was doing, rather than choose to go up the ranks.

‘It was a conscious decision to stop at the rank of Sergeant, just one above Constable, but it meant not only could I play with the fast cars and the guns for longer, I could remain doing what I thought I was best at, and that was working a team at the front line, getting the best out of them, dealing with the most serious of jobs and trying to make people’s lives just that little bit better.

‘It also meant I could not only get better at what I was doing, I could specialise sideways, so I became a Firearms Tactics Advisor, which mean I would often rub shoulders with the most senior of officers advising them of their tactical options available. I became an operational firearms commander, or team leader if you like, to lead incidents with containments, building entries, and vehicle interceptions.

‘I specialised in VIP protection, not only in Devon and Cornwall, but in London too. I was organising the security of the VIP with the Lord Lieutenants for the Royal family, David Cameron on his annual holidays here, and I would attend London a few times a year for their conferences with world leaders. I have personally been armed protection for all the Royals numerous times, including Her Majesty the Queen on five separate occasions. When you are dressed in a suit, have a Glock 9mm pistol under your suit jacket, 30 rounds of ammunition and the Queen is standing next to you, it’s a sobering feeling. It was the same when I was just 3ft from Obama at the NATO Conference in Wales.”

A 30-year policing career is difficult to fit into a book, let alone an interview of a few thousand words. Especially as, undoubtedly, every day is an event in itself. So I asked Harry what events from a life spent in the police, really stick in his mind:

“The main incidents which tend to stick in my mind were with investigating the serious and fatal road traffic collisions. I would attend when the 999 call came in and myself and my section would manage the scene, inform relatives and carry out a full investigation. I stopped counting the number of corpses I looked into the eyes of at collision sites when I reached 150. I counted 11 in a two-week period on one occasion.

“I took up the slack on my trigger on two occasions and pointed a firearm on numerous others. The rules were simple, we would try to avoid getting that person into a standoff situation, but only if it didn’t risk anyone else. I remember the red dot in my scope dancing around the chest of this young man who had committed a carjacking at gunpoint. I had the helicopter above me and we had scrambled up from his abandoned vehicle on the main A38, up on to a field. He had the pistol down by his side, and he looked like a statue, his mind seemed to be elsewhere, and he didn’t speak. I knew that if that pistol, he was holding in his right hand, raised slightly towards me, my decision will have already been made. It would have ended in years of stress for me, a court case where the best barristers ripped apart my evidence, and analysed every second, spending weeks arguing the points on what I could have done differently, making their client to be the perfect father of two, and that I had been there to execute him. I’ve seen it for real too many times. Fortunately, the pistol slipped from his grasp, and he let if fall to the ground, and after a statement, I attended a domestic. Life went on and the media didn’t get to hear of it like so many similar incidents. It was as if I’d attended a minor dispute.”

Like so many other people, I discovered Harry through his work on social media, particularly Twitter, where he’d document his day-to-day job. I found the best part of this would be the dispelling of myths about what police officers actually do, as well as the scale of their job.

“My Twitter account I ran to highlight police work, which attracted so many followers, enabled me to talk directly with MPs, to be able to tell them the issues with the law as it was, and be a small influence on those who have a lot of influence. I could talk with some credibility as I had done my job for so long and being Sergeant did help. That was immensely rewarding and something I needed after pretty much 25 years of being on frontline and full shifts. It certainly filled that gap but often ended up with news headlines both locally and nationally some positive, and several not so.

‘The Chief Constable Sean Sawyer was incredibly supportive with me having the account, as he could see it was a valuable source to put the information out there and have a direct effect on local issues, and he was big enough to know it didn’t come without risks. I am now fortunate enough to speak on Twitter in private rooms of just five or six people including great police supporters such as Nick Knowles, so we can get the message out there on various subjects to a lot more followers than could happen by individual people alone. It’s basically free advertising for local and national issues. Twitter is news.

‘My dog Arthur, a Border Terrier, Jack Russell cross, has been a big part of my Twitter account which account name I’ve had to change to @Ex_arv_Sgt since leaving the force in April this year. Arthur, would often appear in my campaigns, such as drink drive and seatbelts. He was well used to being put into the driver’s seat with a seatbelt on him and a bottle of vodka, with a road safety caption underneath the photo. He became an internet sensation and certainly helped me grow my account.

“My thirty years’ service on the front line ended on April 28th. Colleagues were a little surprised, as I ‘lived the job.’ But I felt you could have too much of a good thing. Yes, driving at 140mph on blue lights daily and pursuing London gangsters in cars, walking with the Queen on a Royal Visit, jogging on the beach with Prime Ministers was always a privilege and great fun, but there was an immense responsibility which went with it. The bit I got most satisfaction from though, was probably attending an incident, be it a violent domestic, a simple road traffic collision, or even a broken down vehicle, and on seeing the person in tatters, watching their tears where they see no simple solution to their current trauma, but soon seeing their whole manner change, to a beaming smile. The fact you’ve made someone feel so much better, know things aren’t as bad as first thought and there is way out of this, and I was able to help them find that. Helping human beings was the best bit. Simply put, improving lives, even with just an encouraging few words.”

After such a long-time serving his community, the place where he grew up, it was undoubtedly a massive decision to step away from something he wanted to be since he was 10. I asked Harry what drove that decision:

“What also helped my retirement decision, and I’ll be frank, is I had remained married which helped financially and my wife and I had run a small company importing containers of garden planters and artificial topiary balls from Vietnam and China, selling them on our website, but Twitter had got my attention and I was keen to expand the social media side of things by opening Youtube channels where I can give my opinions on policing a bit more freely now, and on current events going on.

‘When the COVID threat subsides, I would like to carry on doing conferences which I used to do whilst in the police. I guess I’m in a fortunate situation where I can do what I want to do, without having to be somewhere at nine o’clock on a Monday morning. It’s an incredible feeling, and if it works out, then great, if it doesn’t, then I’ll probably get a job like everyone else does!”

The police are undoubtedly facing tremendous challenges at the moment, especially following recent protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in the United States. I therefore asked Harry what he thought were the greatest challenges for the police going forward:

“The biggest challenges of policing going forward is public opinion. The Met in particular have to be very careful as what has changed is that everyone is now a mobile television production team but lacking the integrity and Ofcom checks.

‘If a member of public sees an incident they can manipulate, such as showing part of a stop check or search on a person, that can soon go viral. Police have historically not got involved in defending their position, sometimes because of legal sub judice issues, but mainly as they feel they need to be impartial, and not take sides, leaving the officer to be hung out to dry unjustly on social media.

‘Forces really need to be more like the Devon and Cornwall Police. Realise it has to work differently and encourage a well-managed social media strategy so the community can find out exactly what is going on, get to know their local officers better, just by following a well-run account. I think times have changed, so now because false information gets out so quickly and soon is national news, it’s important to put that fire out if possible, and if it means showing the officer body camera footage publicly to quash the misinformation and damned right lies, then so be it.”

Returning to the point about what to expect the police to be, emotionally, I think Harry’s next point regarding mental strain on officers is particularly prescient:

“A larger problem I think is mental health. I’m not talking about a little bit of anxiety, I’m talking about an officer who attends their place of work, doesn’t meet anyone as they are the only ones on duty for that day in a rural patch, they attend a cot death, a fatal road collision, or any other particularly nasty incident such as a hanging. There are no police bars to relax in and to share the stress, there are no canteens to chat in, share a breakfast whilst talking to others from other departments and sharing information, there is little force sport, no Christmas pantomimes to unload the year’s stresses or feel that policing community around them.

‘That person now goes home to their own troubled marriage, their child playing up in school, being the bully or being bullied. They look at the TV and watch how racist he/she is supposed to be, how she needs to be reformed, how she’s lost touch with certain communities and how hated she is by some. That’s what I worry about, and it can often take some time to surface.”

Taking a moment to look back on such an expansive career, I asked Harry if there was anything that he regretted and what his greatest accomplishments were:

“There is honestly no change I would make with my career. There is nothing I regret. If I failed something and I wanted it bad enough, I would do it again, work harder and eventually achieve it. I realised it wasn’t if things went wrong, it was when they go wrong, and what I used to say to my officers, ‘it’s not what happens, it’s how you deal with it’. I firmly believe that. Getting into the police was my biggest accomplishment, followed by being promoted to Sergeant as it involved a lot of work, and realising I would be far better at the job if I remained at that rank. At that rank, you had the main influence on the officers with you on the front line. You had the opportunity to ease the stresses in their life and help get the best out of them for the public.

‘Another accomplishment may be the judge’s commendation for shooting a man with my baton gun. Those things with rubber bullets. He was running at me with two kitchen knives in his hands and had been amusing himself on a cocktail of drugs during the evening. I knew my colleagues were beside me to taser him and if my efforts had failed, I knew he would have been shot with a conventional firearm if taser had failed, and indeed, having bent him double with my baton gun, it took two tasers to drop him, as he had stuffed newspapers down his shirt to dull the effect. He could so easily have been shot dead by us and it would have been legitimately done, but we knew with our training, if we could use a less lethal option first, without causing unnecessary risk to ourselves or others, then we had to try that. He went to prison for a long time, and that was only in 2019.”

In my line of work, I get to meet some fascinating people. Politicians, artists, sportspeople, war veterans – all with some amazing stories to tell. However, I can honestly say Harry has one of the most captivating stories of the lot. It isn’t any wonder, then, that he has decided to put pen to paper and document his life on the Thin Blue Line, in his book, Firearms and Fatals.

“My father wrote an autobiography called Facing the Sea. Even though he died when I was 18, it meant I had all the information I needed. It was a historical record of what his life was like, what he did, even though I couldn’t ask him personally.

‘Me, as a 51-year-old would have asked him very different questions than as an 18-year-old. So, I thought I would put a book together just for my kids who are now 21, Rowan and Savannah. Yes, twins! They certainly aren’t interested in reading it yet, but they may be one day, or even their children in the future. Well, I had no intention of publishing it, but someone who I respect and is not shy about giving their opinion read it and said I’d be crazy not to.

“I’ll be honest again and say if I hadn’t had as many followers on Twitter, then I wouldn’t have sold so many books, but it has sold incredibly well all the same. I have been particularly proud of the 4.7 out of 5.0-star reviews on Amazon with over 400 reviews and I don’t think they can all be lying! It’s available on Amazon, is in paperback and ebook, or Kindle if you like. I have also got an audible version which seems to be going just as well, again available on Amazon.

‘The book contains all the best bits of my 30 years. Those favourite anecdotes which kept cropping up, the funniest bits, the saddest bits, all those emotions which I experienced during policing in the 90s and ever since. The private messages I receive are heart-warming, from those who said it gave them such a better idea of what policing was and is like, to those who are joining the police who can now expect to fail as I did, and to not fear it, but be ready to deal with it. I’m particularly proud of those who are either still in the police or have long since retired, who have said, ‘you got it bang on, and I remember so many things I’d forgotten’. Praise from colleagues is always the best.

‘I wrote the book in the summer of 2019. I would sit outside with my laptop in the sun and an ice cream or a beer and tap away, or at my desk when it was cloudy. I rattled it out in a few months, writing when I wanted to. I didn’t want it to become a task, I wanted to enjoy recounting all those incidents and events in my life, and I did just that. It, quite simply, couldn’t have gone better.”

The Government is now driving one of the biggest recruitment campaigns for police officers in recent memory, meaning that there are now going to be thousands of newly qualified police on our streets, just like Harry 30 years before them. I, therefore, asked him what his advice would be for all those just starting out:

“I am often asked for my advice on the next generation of law enforcement. It would be this.

  • Use your strengths to be the best officer you can, don’t try to imitate someone else’s as their strong points may be differentfrom yours.
  • Give your absolute best in everything you do, be it guarding ascene, to undertaking a complicated investigation. Both are just as important as each other and that way you will maintain a standard.
  • People said ‘The job’s fed’ 30 years ago. It’s not, it’s just different. You can dip your paddle in as you float down the rapids, to guide the way things are moving, but don’t try to paddle upstream to how things were, you’ll grow bitter and twisted trying.
  • When things get tough, and police are out of favour again, keep your head down, look after yourself and your colleagues around you and they will look after you. Do the best you can for those who deserve it and f the rest!”

My dad was a police officer, so I suppose I have a more personal understanding of the life of a police officer than some – and interviewing Harry was like reading my dad’s own story.

I hope that this interview goes someway to highlighting the trials and tribulations that each and every one of our officers face, as they go to work each day to keep us safe and are never sure if they will return home in the evening.

At the very least, I hope it adds some humanity to a job that few of us really understand.

‘Firearms and Fatals’ by Harry Tangye is available on Amazon.

Ben Fox

Author: Ben Fox

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