When you and I think of diving, most of us think of pristine azure waters and tropical fish, not the murky waters of rivers and canals which police divers encounter on major investigations looking for evidence. For the UK police divers, patrolling our seas, rivers and canals is a daily challenge. They’re often searching through the night in the coldest and darkest conditions through the weeds, mud and refuse , because somewhere amongst the murkiness is a knife, a gun or a body, vital to the investigation.
The underwater search teams methodically sweep the search area to ensure that no stone is left unturned. They have to contend with the tides and severe weather conditions as well as constantly maintaining their concentration. 39-year-old Sergeant Steve Howe who has served eight years with the Northumbria Police’s Marine Unit is one of the many officers who meets these challenges daily. Mr Howe admits that even the eight-week training programme he had to undertake before he could join the unit and the regular mandatory follow up refresher courses couldn’t have prepared him for the hidden depths of Tyneside and Wearside. He says “ If you suffer from claustrophobia, then it’s definitely not for you.” “ About 90% of the dives have absolutely no visibility and you’re always in danger of being entangled.” “ And let’s be honest, it’s not that pleasant when you’re called out in February at 3:00 in the morning.”
However, Sgt. Howe loves his job and takes great satisfaction in a discovery that can make the difference between a murder investigation foundering or progressing. “ It may sound strange, but I always feel proudest when I find a deceased. Otherwise the family wouldn’t have a body and they wouldn’t be able to draw a line under it,” he says. As well as searches carried out in the sea, canals and rivers, the officers in the unit perform counter-terror security sweeps and searches in confined spaces like drains and culverts. The divers are submerged with a full face mask and a lifeline – this is a cable which ensures that the officers on the surface know exactly where the divers are. For safety, there are always more divers on the surface than there are submerged. The Northumbria force always have four officers above ground for each diver underwater. Whatever the search involves, the job is always going to be a dangerous and intricate one with the diver constantly having to be wary of entanglement.
One officer, Sgt. Stewart Kennedy, 43 of the Metropolitan Police Marine Policing Unit who has been with the unit for eleven years of the seventeen that he has been with the force explains what it’s like in his area. The Underwater and Confined Spaces Search Team for the unit undertakes about 250 searches a year, spending roughly 55% of the time diving. 25% wading and 20% in confined spaces. “I’d describe London’s canal system like a skip that anyone can throw rubbish into, and then fill it up with water,” Kennedy explains. “Everything you can imagine is down there, needles, traffic cones, builders rubble. Because you can’t see, you have to do fingertip searches and you learn to recognise everything by touch. Still, the underwater officers can rely on some pretty sophisticated kit, from dinghies and fast response boats, to two-way communications equipment which enables them to talk to colleagues on the surface. That’s not how it used to be though, as retired officer of Devon and Cornwall, Dave Peake recalls. There never used to be an underwater unit, so you would serve as an ordinary constable, walking the beat, but could be sent at any time to do a dive search of the area. “It’s amazing what the units have access to today, the equipment they get to use has really come on,” Peake explains. “We didn’t even have safety lines back then, you had to make your way through the water in no visibility without them.” “All the same, it’s such a rewarding job and I’m extremely proud of what we did, I still go diving now at 66,” he added. Although the job description has transformed over the years, the demand for police divers isn’t likely to disappear. Below the surface, the search continues.