BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 14:45 GMT, Monday, 14 June 2010 15:45 UK

The hidden world of police divers

Police diver searches for a missing car in connection with the 2002 disappearance of schoolgirl Milly Dowler

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

Underwater search teams are a familiar sight during major police investigations. But what is it like to make a living probing the country's murkiest recesses?

Submerged in darkness, chilled in near-frozen water, you grope your way through the silt and debris.

Somewhere, amid the sludge and the discarded rubbish, is your quarry: a knife, a gun or a body.

With colleagues on dry land depending on you, how on earth do you find what you are looking for?

For the UK's army of police divers, patrolling rivers, canals and seas is a daily challenge.

Worn by police divers
Unlike a wet suit, prevents water reaching the skin
Needed due to risk of poisonous liquid and polluted water

The sight of officers in dry suits and breathing apparatus has been a familiar sight on TV news bulletins during the recent triple murder inquiry in Bradford, the search for missing chef Claudia Lawrence and the Milly Dowler probe.

Often searching at night and in cold weather, officers invariably have to contend with nil-visibility conditions, weeds, mud and refuse.

Methodically sweeping the search area to ensure no inch is missed, they have to contend with tides, frequently inclement weather and the challenge of constantly maintaining concentration.

One officer who has to contend with these challenges on a daily basis is Sgt Steve Howe, 39, who has served with Northumbria Police's Marine Unit for eight years.

Sgt Steve Howe
If you're claustrophobic, it's definitely not for you
Sgt Steve Howe

Although he had to undergo a rigorous eight-week training programme before he could join the unit, followed by regular mandatory refresher courses, Sgt Howe admits that nothing could have prepared him for the murky reality of Tyneside and Wearside's hidden depths.

"If you're claustrophobic, it's definitely not for you," he says.

"About 90% of the time you have absolutely no visibility. You've always got the danger of entanglement.

"And let's face it, it isn't very pleasant when you're called out at 3am in February."

Nonetheless, Sgt Howe loves his job, taking great satisfaction from the fact that a breakthrough discovery can make the difference between a murder investigation foundering or progressing.

How police search underwater

Several divers swim together in formation, joined by a line held by an officer on the bank
Diver swims in arc - on reaching bank, 1m of line is released, diver swims in arc further out
Diver searches to end of line, then moves a weight forward 1m and searches back diagonally
BACK {current} of {total} NEXT

"It sounds strange, but I always feel most proud when I find a deceased," he says. "Otherwise, the family wouldn't have a body - they can draw a line under it."

As well as searches of rivers, canals and the sea, officers in the unit perform counter-terror security sweeps and searches of confined spaces such as culverts and drains.

When they are submerged, each diver has a full face mask with a lifeline - a cable which means the officers on the surface know exactly where the divers are.

For safety reasons, there are always fewer divers in the water than on the surface. For the Northumbria force, four officers from the diving unit will be above ground for each one underwater.

Nonetheless, the job is always going to be an intricate and dangerous one, with the diver constantly having to be wary of the danger of entanglement.

Swim in a skip

One officer who manages to take it in his stride is Sgt Stewart Kennedy, 43, who has served with the Metropolitan Police's Marine Policing Unit for 11 of his 17 years with the force.

The unit's Underwater and Confined Spaces Search Team carries out about 250 searches each year, spending on average 55% of their time diving, 25% wading and 20% in confined spaces.

Police diver patrols the Thames ahead of the G20 summit in London
Officers must serve two years before specialising
Some are recreational divers before joining, many are not
Must complete eight-week intensive course and regular refreshers

"I actually find it very relaxing - when you're under water, all the weight is taken off you," Sgt Kennedy laughs.

But as one of nine divers with the unit, the conditions he can be called in to endure 24 hours a day are a long way from what most people would consider soothing.

"The way I'd describe London's canal system - which is our bread and butter - is imagine a very large skip that anybody can throw rubbish into, and then fill it up with water," Sgt Kennedy adds.

"Hypodermic needles, builders' rubble, traffic cones - everything you can imagine is down there. Because you can't see, you're doing fingertip searches, and you learn to recognise everything by touch."

Still, the Met's underwater officers can at least rely on an arsenal of sophisticated kit, from two-way communications equipment which allows them to talk to colleagues on the surface, to dinghies and fast response boats.

It is all a long way from the not-too-distant past, as retired Devon and Cornwall officer Dave Peake recalls.

Divers in the Grand Union Canal in London  searching for a body in 1953
In the 1950s, divers - then called frogmen - used primitive equipment

He spent 15 of his 31 years in the force from 1968 as a police diver - or, as he was initially described, a "frogman".

At first there was no standing underwater unit, as today - so Mr Peake would serve as an ordinary Pc working the beat out of his local station, but could be dispatched at any time along the 600 miles of coastline that surrounded the constabulary.

"It's amazing what they have access to today - the equipment has really come on," he says. "We didn't even have safety lines back then - you had to make your way through the water in nil visibility without them.

"All the same, it's a hugely rewarding task - I'm very proud of what we did and I still go diving at 66."

The job description may have been transformed, but demand for underwater officers is not likely to go away any time soon. Beneath the surface, the search goes on.

Below is a selection of your comments.

These officers are indeed doing a splendid job in terrible conditions, they deserve all the credit they receive.
John Grundy, Barnard Castle, County Durham, England

Nil visibility? They don't give the divers water-proof lights for searches?
Craig Newman, Cardiff

Craig - there is a huge difference to having nil visibility and no light. Silt, debris and even rain fall can stir the particles in the water meaning you cannot even see your hand in front of your face. Imagine looking through a muddy puddle and trying to see the bottom - no amount of light will make any difference.
Kate, Berkshire

Nil visibility means exactly that - not just dark. Try comparing it to a very thick fog, then you're only half way there. What good are torches? During my diver training one police diver told me his team had to search a cess pit.
Hilary, Manchester

They do have waterproof lights, but when the water is extremely murky it's like turning your car's main beam on in thick fog. The light can't penetrate the water and just blinds you.
Peter Wright, Brent Knoll, UK

On my Army divers aptitude test we were taught to feel your way around because as soon as you hit the silt visibility is zero. A lot of engineer tasks carried out underwater are carried out in limited or zero visibility including setting explosives and using compressed air tools.
Neville George, Frodsham, Cheshire

I'm a recreational diver, so I'm not in anywhere near the same class as the brave people mentioned in this article. But, from my own experiences of diving in some of the UK's lakes and rivers, I can tell you that having a torch won't make the slightest bit of difference to the visibility down there. It is not a question of light, but simply that the shear amount of silt and soil that is churned-up by the currents literally form a thick cloud that you cannot see beyond... At some points, I couldn't even see my hand when I held it up in front of my facemask - this was midday in July, when it was very sunny. I can appreciate the immensely difficult task that these guys have to deal with everyday. As for me, I will be keeping my UK dives to a minimum.
Ben, Leicester, UK

Great story. A job I'd half love and half hate. I'm thinking there's the potential for a short documentary/reality series on police divers instead of more about police traffic police, helicopter medics etc. How about it?
Steve, Lymington

Steve, there has been such a documentary. It was called River Police (I think). Not sure I'd ever want to go into a London canal, even with all the safety equipment.
Chris, London

This is a very dangerous and difficult job for anyone to do. I have a friend who was a police diver in the 1980s and he told some awful stories so I think they all deserve more reward for their services to the communities in which they work.
Robin Bailey, Kendal, United Kingdom

Having been on event where junk was pulled out the canal with grapnels, all I can say is that anyone who goes in that water deserves a lot of respect.
Martyn, Pendle, UK

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