Friday, 5 October 2012

Dale gets arrested

‘We’ve got to process you along with the other criminals,’ the officer explained as she led me into the police station, suppressing a yawn. ‘Then we’ll see what happens.’
          Other criminals? I bristled at the inference. "Processed?"
          Life is an astonishing journey of discovery, I’ve always said, and one of the most astonishing discoveries of all is that the police can take your fingerprints, biometric and DNA data and sling you in a cell, simply because – as in my case – you obviously look a bit like a criminal. Who needs ‘evidence’ in these times of institutional efficiency? All you have to do is sit in Starbucks until one of the staff mistakes you for the bloke who stole her iPhone – they’ll be delighted to throw you in a cell for the evening until they get round to watching the CCTV tapes. Protect and serve...
          The interior of a central London police station is a lot less exciting than I’d imagined it to be. I’d grown up on films where every police headquarters was a heaving pit of thieves and hookers and pushers. Holborn Central felt less a buzzing hub of crime-fighting activity and more like the place you go to sign for a parcel: a few uniforms standing around, a bored sergeant, silent figures melting into plastic chairs. For a moment I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was being arrested or coming in to make an inquiry about my tax status.
          ‘Sarge,’ my office said, as he led me toward the desk where a silver-haired bloke of about fifty stood behind a computer. The sarge glanced at me.
          ‘Charge?’ he asked bureaucratically, in a voice smeared in the east end.
           He looked me up and down. Then he clicked a button on his mouse and glanced at me with an astonishingly profound boredom.
          ‘Can you step forward to the desk, please.'
All the questions you’d expect: name, age, and so on. ‘Are you on any drugs?’ he asked me at the end of the interview. Don’t I wish... How did I feel? Scared, apprehensive... What if they did something to me? What defence did I have in here? They removed my handcuffs and I was led by a burly bloke to another area for the photo shoot and finger scans, which took place in a bare looking little booth with a lens and a computer screen: Snappy Snaps run by a creaking dictatorship. We did a few headshots of me, as I amused myself by providing imaginary replacement dialog in my head (‘Perfect, darling – now just one more to bring out my eyes’) and then he took hold of my hand and placed it down on a pressure pad.
          It wasn’t working properly.
          He swore under his breath as it buzzed an Error message, like we’d got the question wrong in a gameshow.
‘Do you want a solicitor?’
I blinked. I was back at the desk with the sarge, who was processing me with deep indifference, like a prompter reading lines of dialogue from a play.
          ‘But I haven’t done anything,’ I pointed out.
          ‘That’s not what I asked you. You just have to decide whether you want legal aid.’
          Legal aid?
          He sighed. ‘Don’t worry about the bloody films,’ he added, wearily. ‘It isn’t an admission of guilt.’
          More questions followed. It was like we were polite strangers trapped in some awful, surreal role-play, where they were compelled by convention to exchange a few pleasantries, chat to me for a while, then lock me in a windowless room and ruin my future visa applications. And then slip a glove on and force their fingers down my throat.
The smile on the sergeant’s face suddenly vanished.
          ‘At this stage,’ he said, ‘I’m obliged to inform you that we have the legal right to take your DNA.’
One of the cops was slipping on a pair of disposable rubber gloves,
They wanted me on disc. They had my face and my fingers. They wanted my soul.  
          ‘... Really?’ I said. I felt a bit sick.
‘Uh huh.’
          The guy picked a cotton swab from a pack, and slipped it out of its cellophane.
          ‘Step forward, please.’
          ‘Open wide,’ he said, as if he was going to make aeroplane noises while he flew a spoon into my mouth.
Half wanting to throw up, and half wanting to cry, I opened up and the other cop inserted the cotton swab into my mouth. He scraped the swab around my tonsils for a few moments, took it out, and slipped off the gloves. I gazed into space. I felt, in some way, like I’d been assaulted. 
          It took them another three hours to get around to watching the CCTV tape.
          ‘I can’t believe they would do that,’ my student said later, when they got around to watching the CCTV and decided, in a relaxed kind of way, that they should probably let me go free immediately. ‘In my country that could just not happen.’
          ‘Really?’ I asked, with raised eyebrows.
          ‘In Colombia, the police cannot just lock you up just because you look like a criminal. We have rights.’
          After they'd watched the tape and realised that the iPhone thief in it looked nothing like me, to their credit, the police - without a hint of an apology - let me go. But not before I'd spent several hours in a cell with nothing but my own gloomy thoughts for company. Not without keeping my DNA on record. My student may have been right: perhaps it's not fair to lock people up on an idle suspicion, to enact invasive procedures on their bodies. But while I was having a cotton wool swab shoved into my mouth, I wasn’t thinking about rights or wrongs. I was thinking about the taste of it: bland, sceptic, laced by the plastic of his glove. Whatever liberals like me might say, it’s hard not to be at least a little bit impressed by authority when it’s got its fingers down your throat.