Tuesday, January 22, 2008

'In hindsight, James -- Not the best course of action'

One of the things that always made me a bad journalist was my admiration for police officers. I think they're cool. Yes, I realise the football cards they gave me as a child were just a propaganda ploy, but it was a propaganda ploy that worked.

For our friends in the Home Nations, when I was a boy, in both Houston and Bloomington, if you went up and talked to a police officer they would give you baseball cards or (NFL) football cards. I still have a few of those cards stored away, including Kirby Puckett and Nolan Ryan cards that could now probably get me enough cash for a nice dinner.

These days I tend to like police officers for all sorts of reasons: because they are underpaid and deal with all the people that I don't want to have to deal with, and because they have an understated sort of wit that always makes me smile.

The headline to this post comes from a conversation I had today with a police constable from Fairwater station. The quote was his response to my telling him that I had not run away from the woman who was waving a 3-foot katana sword at me.

In journalism, we call that "burying the lede." Not till the fourth paragraph have I gotten around to the fact that a crazy woman came at me with a sword today. See, most people would have started this post with something like: "As I was coming home this afternoon, a woman walking down the road with an axe and a sword started screaming at me. She then took several swipes at me with said sword, before wandering off down the street, complaining about Jews."

I didn't write it that way because members of my family read this blog and I don't want them going into a full-on panic. They are already sceptical of my picking up and relocating to this din of socialism.

Anyway, the crazy lady:

First off, why is it that crazy people always have a hang up about Jews? It's so cliché. Just once, I want to see a crazy person ranting about the Bago-bago people of Papua New Guinea. This woman wasn't, though. She was walking down the middle of the road, waving her Samurai sword in the air, a Lord-of-the-Rings-style double-headed axe slung over her shoulder.

"You Jew boys think you can terrorise children and innocent animals but we'll see how you like it when someone's got a sword in their hand," she was screaming.

Not being Jewish, or having terrorised any children or innocent animals recently, I looked around to see who she was screaming at.

"Wha?" I said.

Now this is where that whole thing of first appearances sometimes being deceptive comes into play. The woman, probably in her early- to mid-40s, didn't look all that threatening to me. Save the sword and axe, of course. She looked to me like someone's mom, and in my head I instantly built a scenario in which a few of the local chavs had bullied her child and she had decided to overreact.

"You need to put those down, love," I said to her. "You're only going to get yourself into trouble."

"Fuck off!" she screamed, walking toward me and waving the sword. "Go on! Go into your house! Go hide!"

"And you backed off, did you?" the police constable asked later as I told the story to him.

"No. I stood my ground," I said.

And that's when he came out with the line about my failing to choose the best course of action.

"I realise you don't have police trainin', and all, but, really... When that sort of thing happens, James, you want to give a person a bit of space," he said.

But, as I told him, I thought the sword was fake. Who just walks down the road with a sword and an axe? At 3 o'clock in the afternoon? In Cardiff?

Then she swung the blade within about a foot of my head and I saw the glint of metal. She swung it back up along my right side and the internal is-it-real-or-fake debate was settled with a second good look at the blade.

"What about that axe?" asked a member of the crisis management team inside my head.

I noted that it was in her left hand and slack at her side, not in a position to strike, so decided to table that question and refocus on the sword. Due to my lack of police trainin' I had allowed her to get within arm's length of me. The internal crisis management team decided at this point that turning and running was no longer a good option. It would have meant taking my eyes off her and opening myself up for unseen attack.

"OK. Establish dominance," I thought.

This is the kind of ridiculous shit that goes through my head. There is a Henry Rollins monologue in which he talks about how Los Angeles police are taught to stand and speak in such a way that subliminally communicates to people the officer is dominant. Rollins spends about 30 minutes taking the piss out of the LAPD for doing this, but I forgot that bit. I straightened up, trying to draw attention to my height/size advantage over the woman.

I stepped in toward her, reasoning that the closer I was, the harder it would be to get a good swing. I positioned my body so that if she did swing at me, I could take the blade in my ribs, step in, grab the handle and kick her away. Brilliant. I've seen shit like that in a thousand action films. No problem. Chuck Norris is ages older than me and he could pull it off easy.

"Put that down and sort yourself out," I said. "I'm calling the police."

Anyone who has ever seen me do anything physical knows that had I been required to act, I would have completely fucked up my planned Chris Mighty Protector of Radyr Way move. But the crazy lady bought it. She backed off, waving the sword at me more as if it were a wet stick than a deadly weapon.

"Call the police! Call the prime minister! Jew boy!" she screamed and started off down the road.

I had never before called the police for anything. The emergency number in the UK is 999 and if you dial it on my mobile phone big red letters flash on the screen: "YOU ARE DIALLING EMERGENCY!"

It's as if it is saying: "You are so fucked if this isn't serious."

I felt nervous and terrified when I heard the dispatcher answer. Speaking to an actual police-type person -- making an actual 999 call -- made me more jumpy than the sword-and-axe wielding nutjob I was now following through my neighbourhood.

"Hi, there's a woman walking down the middle of the road screaming and waving a sword. She also has an axe. But I don't know if the axe is real," I said.

"A sword?" the dispatcher said, a little more calmly than I was expecting.

"Yeah. Like a ninja sword."

"A real sword?"

"Yeah, she swung at me. I got a good look at it. I'm pretty sure it's real. Like I say, I'm not sure about the axe, though."

"Do you know this woman?"


"Why was she swingin' a sword at you?"

"I forgot to ask."

I followed the crazy lady to her house, then stepped out of sight and ended my call with the dispatcher. I walked to my house and then back, not really knowing the correct procedure for dealing with mêlée-weapon-laden neighbours. Standing again at the intersection to the close ("cul-de-sac," for those of you playing along at home) where the woman lives, a police car came tearing up and I pointed out the house.

In the United States police would have come with sirens a-blarin' and probably shoved me out of the way. In this case it was two affable blokes in an SUV ("jeep" for our friends in the Home Nations).

"Which house is it, mate?"

"That one there, with the dog in front."

"Right. From the States are you?"


"What part?"


"Hmm, never been there. She's got a sword, has she? A real sword?"

"Yeah she swung it at me. She's got an axe, too. Not sure if that's real."

"Do you know her?"


"Why's she swingin' a sword at you?"

The officers stepped out and suddenly seemed a little less approachable. They were the type of solid blokes they build in these parts -- not huge, but clearly not the sort whose mother you'd want to insult.

Police officers in this country have to deal with a lot of shit without the benefit of the tools U.S. officers would use, so they learn to carry themselves with an admirable confidence. It's all they've got in some cases. These two chaps had it, but they also had side arms. I instinctively decided to move across the road from them.

"I'll just head home, shall I?" I asked.

"Na, mate. Hang on there a bit. We'll probably need to talk to you."

From the back of the SUV, one of the officers produced an MP5 and dropped in a clip. The other officer loaded an MP7, strapped it to his side and then picked up what appeared to be a tear gas launcher or baton round gun.

"Jesus Joseph and Mary," I thought. "This poor woman is fucked."

Another SUV came tearing up and out popped two more dudes, geared up and wearing helmets. They tossed a helmet to the bloke with the tear gas launcher thing. I love that he hadn't been all that arsed about the helmet. Something about that action stood out and drew attention to how differently things were being handled than they would be in the United States. Still no one was yelling at me to get away. They weren't acting in a military manner. Even though they were armed to the teeth, you got a real sense that they had absolutely no interest in actually using the weapons.

Then another police car, and then another -- this with a dog in the back that sounded to have been one of Cerbrus' litter. Thankfully it was never produced. Then another police car and another and another. And soon the police constable that would eventually speak to me had set up an "inner cordon" and an "outer cordon."

"It's the police, love," I heard an armed officer shout. He was standing directly in front of the house, in the street, the MP5 held steady. Next to him, three other armed officers and, strangely, the dog handler who had no weapon but one of those dog-catcher lasso-on-a-pole things.

"Come on out. We don't want to hurt you" the MP5 officer shouted. Hearing him say it, you really felt he meant it.

"Is it an American thing, not getting out of the way of swords?" the PC was asking. "Do you know her? Why was she swingin' a sword at you?"

"She's crazy is my guess."

The PC looked at me with a slight frown, suggesting he didn't approve of my judgmental tone. Who was I to be calling people crazy?

"Yeah, well. Might have in infection. That happens sometimes. They go toxic. It unsettles them somehow. Not 'them' women,' you know, but 'them,' people. What's this sword look like?"

"Well... it looks like that sword, actually," I said, pointing to the tear gas officer, who was now carrying to his SUV the sword and the axe. The axe was real.

"Ah, that's good. Probably means we've sorted things out," the PC said. "Or at least got them stable."

"I didn't hear any shots fired. That's a good thing," I said.

"Yeah. We generally try to avoid that in this country."

As it turned out, the woman is crazy. Her neighbours have phoned the police on her before. She is receiving mental help, but it is on a voluntary basis. After threatening an officer with the sword she was Tasered and arrested under the Mental Health Act.

That information was provided to me by the PC, who called me an hour or so after the incident. It's another positive about the way things are done here. He didn't give names or unnecessary specifics, but showed the courtesy of letting me know what was going on in my neighbourhood. He told me that if I wanted, I could see the woman brought up on charges of assault, but suggested that it might not go far "'cause she's unfit, you see."

Later in the evening I also received a phone call from a superintendent, who asked if I had any questions about what had happened and thanked me for calling the police.

"You did the right thing calling us," he said. "That is exactly what you should have done. We really appreciate when members of the community cooperate with us like this."

I felt a little sad that he had to make that phone call. People in Britain seem to dislike the police force to such an extent that they often won't call to report things, simply because they themselves don't want to have to deal with police.

After the whole thing was done, I happened to be checking the internet to make sure that a katana was indeed the kind of blade I was threatened with. It turns out the swords have been used in some 80 attacks and five killings in recent years; they will be banned this April. Anyone breaching the ban will face six months in jail and a £5,000 fine.


Nic said...


I love the fact that you've tagged this under "Why Britain is Better". I expect getting attacked with a sword is kind of run-of-the-mill in the Twin Cities, yes?

Chris Cope said...

It demonstrates how the police are better, I think. If that same thing had happened in the United States it's a very good bet that woman would now be dead.

Anonymous said...

Glad you're ok.
The mentally ill lady who used to live opposite us (who was lovely and intelligent and a really nice person when she was on her meds, but went off them for a while) threatened us and slashed our car and bike tyres with a large carving knife - the police were good then too. I was kinda surprised that they tasered your one, but, well, it makes sense I guess, and it's better than shot. Also, well, she did attack you with a sword, so fair enough.

Owen Hansen said...

I of course, having grown up in the states and residing here without prospect of eventual release and not minding so much, find this hilarious. It doesn't make me think of MN though, puts me in mind of my childhood in Washington, D.C., where, while the police were known to deal in drugs, they were always kind to a mad old woman. Even when they'd stopped dealing there were still much more likely to berate you for being stupid enough to park your car within city limits and thereby ensuring its eventual theft, than they were to give a greying schizophrenic a hard time. I never got any cards from the police.

"I forgot to ask," see now that's funny.

David T. Macknet said...

Personally I think it's the influence of watching the Dog Whisperer more than that other thing you watched. ;)

I found it particularly interesting that they assumed you'd done something to cause the woman to wave a sword at you. That attitude is possibly why people don't want to deal with the police.

Other madness aside: is the rule on swords going to be a UK law, or a Welsh law?

In Scotland the knife rules are such that carrying a knife is intent to knife someone - carrying "for defense" means that you're planning to stab someone, so it's illegal. Which is odd, but the way it is here, particularly in Glasgow - the knife-wound capital of Europe, to which medical professionals come to get practice dealing with knife wounds. Joy, joy.

tanita✿davis said...

Geez, Chris. In the assessment of "fight or flight," please try leaning toward FLIGHT, perhaps?

You're right -- I think in SOME U.S. cities the woman would be dead. In California - at least near Berkeley where we lived -- there were so many homeless and mentally challenged people that it just didn't work to use that sort of Rambo approach, so I can really appreciate the gentleness (despite the Taser) of these guys.

It's so weird that swords are so big in the UK, but I guess that's no more odd than brass knuckles or something.

Glad you're okay.

Tom Parsons said...

There was a case here in Minneapolis two years ago where someone defended themselves with a sword from guys who broke into their apartment, one with a gun. Here's the story: http://www.startribune.com/local/11555636.html

Anonymous said...

That whole episode is dreadful.

I hope you will run away from swords in future; imagine how foolish this whole Welsh escapade will seem if you get your face sliced off in the process. "I can speak excellent Welsh ... through this gaping wound in my skull."

ONLY JOKING. Glad you didn't die horribly.

heatherfeather said...

Your day was significantly more interesting than mine. I just took 14 phone calls and walked to the cafeteria for lunch.

But I'm quite pleased that your head is still seated on your shoulders.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Crazy. Glad she didn't apply that sword and axe. Love your blog.

Rob said...

strange women lyin' about jews and brandishing swords is no basis for a system of government.
glad you're okay.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes think that the American police could learn a few things from British police, including that a knock on the door and a quiet word can solve most problems.

Huw said...

A superintendent calling a member of the public is a very big deal. It may be policy whenever there's Taser deployment for Heddlu De Cymru - rest assured that there will have been calls also made to ACPO and the IPCC..!

The professionalism of the officers involved is a reflection of the standards set for firearms officers in Britain: they train constantly (not just in firearms, negotiation and entry methods, but also first-aid: that jeep was probably better equipped with medical equipment than your average ambulance) and it's very hard to get onto the firearms teams, with only about 2% of officers who apply being successful.

To my mind, giving 100% of officers guns would be madness and, with no disrespect to our officers, I'm glad we don't.

Anonymous said...

"Who just walks down the road with a sword and an axe? At 3 o'clock in the afternoon? In Cardiff?"

I bet Torchwood does. On their way to a roof.