Having spent 32 years patrolling our streets, retired policeman Steve Woodward speaks to Will Rimell about his new book, The Long Short Walk, on the life of a traffic police family liaison officer.
It’s St Mary’s Road, Fratton, summer of 2006. PC Steve Woodward is responding to reports of a traffic incident involving a young girl.
He wonders if it’s yet another fatality in what has been a terrible year on south Hampshire’s roads.
‘I’ve never known a period like it in my 30 years,’ recalls Steve. ‘It seemed like everything we went to was someone either dying or suffering potentially life-threatening injuries,’.
‘We got sent to St Mary’s Road where there was a group of teenagers, all of them drunk, playing chicken in the road.
‘Unfortunately, she’d lost and got hit by the car.
‘She had a fractured skull and I was, literally, holding her head together on the floor while the paramedic was sorting her out.
‘I’ve been described as an emotional cripple – I don’t show any emotion most of the time.
‘But I remember looking up at him and he just shook his head, and that was it, tears just started rolling down my face, which had never happened before and that was only because I dealt with so many in such a short period of time.’
Thankfully, the girl involved in the accident somehow pulled through.
It was just one example of how the job of a family liaison officer can not only affect the family of the victim, but also that of the officer.
Steve says the phrase ‘I couldn’t do your job’, was the most common line said to him by members of the public and other police officers during his career.
In his book, The Long Short Walk, Steve recalls 16 cases and the families he worked with, most of them in the Portsmouth area, and the ‘rollercoaster ride’ which they had to embark on. All the families were happy for him to record the tragedies in the book.
‘I know it’s a subject that hasn’t been covered before,’ says Steve, on why he decided to write the book.
‘There are certain aspects of the job that the public just don’t see. They watch films and TV so they get a somewhat twisted view of what police work is about.
‘It is not all about catching burglars and rapists or big car chases and bar fights, it’s about consoling the family.
‘I would sit there for hours, drinking their tea and talking to them about their loved one.
‘Sadly, because of all the cuts that they have going on at the moment, they haven’t got time to do that.’
Steve’s job was to break the news to the family that their loved one had died in a traffic accident.
Their responsibility is to then take the relatives to the hospital or a mortuary to identify the victim, which Steve describes as ‘the worst thing imaginable’.
From there, the role ranges from being the link to the investigation team to guiding the family through the legalities of any resulting court case.
Steve says the job is extremely demanding and is done on top of other duties as a traffic officer.
When an emergency arises, Steve said he responded to it in different capacities either as an officer or as a specialist family liaison officer.
When attending an accident as a traffic officer, Steve says he went on to ‘automatic pilot’, often running on pure adrenaline, making snap decisions and ensuring that everything was done the right way.
But, as a specialist family liaison officer, the approach is different.
By the time Steve arrived, he says most of the immediate decision making had already been done.
He was there to assess the accident scene and then set about tracking down relatives of the victim.
Steve said: ‘I’d always found that there was a distinct difference between how I felt attending a serious incident and dealing with it upon arrival, and being asked to attend as a specialist and coming in to undertake that specific role.’
This is the third book the 55-year-old, from Portsmouth, has written.
As a self-proclaimed petrol head, his love of cars led him to write his first book From T Ford To T5: One Hundred Years of Hampshire Constabulary Transport in 2000, before his second was released in 2010 called Kilo Sierra Five One: Policing Portsmouth in the 1980s. The Long Short Walk costs £13.96 and can be bought on Amazon.
On Tuesday, February 17, 2004, Steve was called out to Quay Street roundabout in Fareham, following an incident involving a cyclist and a bus.
‘My mind started to race with all the usual concerns about what I was about to face,’ says Steve.
‘I looked at the scene and, as ever, there was an eerie silence about it.
‘A pedal cycle lay under the front of the bus.’
The First Bus Company vehicle had emerged from the side road before colliding with the back of the bike.
This knocked the rider to the ground, the bus then running over her before stopping.
‘Although people had done their best for her at the scene, it appeared that she had died almost instantly,’ he added.
His next job was to deliver the news to the family.
Arriving at Bridgette’s house, he called her father to meet him there and, on his arrival, Steve was ushered into the front room.
‘I told him the terrible news. He sat their in complete silence, head bowed.
‘After a few seconds he switched into protective husband and father mode. He needed to get hold of his wife.
‘She was stuck in traffic caused by the accident.’
Steve took Mr Panormo and his son in a car to meet Bridgette’s mother.
The family then embraced by the side of the road.
Having received a distressing call from his eldest daughter Kelly on May 5, 2005, Steve raced to Eastern Road.
The incident involved two motorcyclists, both of them suspected fatalities.
Arriving at the scene Steve was greeted by a large Yamaha bike lying on its side engulfed in a ball of fire.
Further down the road was one of the bikers.
‘As the paramedics got to work on both casualties I have to say it didn’t look good and we called it in as an all-services incident,’ says Steve.
‘Sadly we were right and although the ambulance crews continued working on both men, they were both declared dead upon arrival to QA.
‘Whilst all this was going on I’d noticed a group of bikers standing on the embankment on the other side of the road.’
The group said that when they pulled away from the lights one of the bikes in the outside lane got stuck behind a slow-moving car, swerving to avoid it.
‘The biker hit another motorcycle sending them both into the central barrier.
‘Within the hour I had been appointed as the family liaison officer for Jim Alabaster,’ Steve adds.