Emily Prescott

My day with the Met police

Anyone can sign up to ride along with officers

  • From Spectator Life

As we are reaching 100mph, I can hear the muted sirens and see blue lights reflecting on gawping onlookers. I’m neither an officer, nor a criminal but I’m in the back of a police car on my way to an incident that apparently involves two men fighting in the middle of a road.

I am a celebrity gossip columnist by trade so the only abusive men I deal with are usually the likes of Jeremy Clarkson (via Twitter) and lecherous millionaires (at 5 Hertford Street). I feel scared of what I’ll see when we arrive at the scene, but I have long been curious about the Met – whose misconduct I feel as though I read about on a near daily basis – and curious too about the people who work there. So, a few months ago, I signed up for a ride-along.

The call I keep thinking about came from a girl who was considering jumping off a bridge

Ride-alongs are not just for over-privileged media types. Anyone can do it. Well, you must be over the age of 18, write a couple of sentences about why you want to join for the day, and pass a criminal record check: though even having a previous conviction won’t necessarily exclude you.

The ride-along schemes form part of the ‘New Met for London’ plan which is focused on increasing public trust. Between the murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard by a Met officer and reports exposing racist stop and search conduct, trust has been somewhat strained. When I so much as mentioned that I’d be spending a day with the police to my more leftie friends, they scoffed.

Superintendent Matt Cox, who oversees the scheme, tells me they’re so easy to get onto because they play a vital part in enhancing public trust. It is, he says, ‘a genuine experience which is very different to what people’s perceptions are through watching Luther or what they see in the media.’

When we finally arrive at that road incident, it is indeed nothing like a scene from Luther. There’s no violence, no Idris Elba: just two angry men arguing about the highway code. I watch in my silly neon orange tabard as the two officers I’ve been placed with for the nine-hour shift, one male and one female, attempt to calm down the road ragers.

Not all the incidents we attend are quite so trivial and I am surprised I’m just allowed to tag-along with the police as they walk into the flats of crack addicts (some of whom point and laugh at my neon orange attire) or talk suicidal teenagers down from bridges.

There have been 367 completed ride-alongs in the Met since the scheme re-opened post-Covid in October 2023. They’ve tracked feedback since February and had 61 responses. Only one of those said it had worsened their opinion of the police because there was more paperwork than they expected. Most said their opinion of the Met had improved.

Upon my approach to the station, I felt anxious. Not about the traumatising things I might witness but about potential awkwardness with the officers. Would they find my presence an annoying extra burden on top of their already exhausting workloads? Would they be mean and power-driven?

I needn’t have worried. When I arrived, an officer greeted me kindly and asked whether there was anything I wanted to avoid seeing during the day which he should flag. I said I didn’t mind dead bodies but couldn’t cope with sick. He said he understood and feels the same about poo. Throughout the day, the officers continued to be welcoming and quick to banter.

Matt Cox explains that in a world of trial-by-social media, officers are grateful for the opportunity to show a more nuanced picture of policing. ‘I think they want to be known as the humans behind the uniform not the robots which sometimes people perceive police to be,’ he says.

We’ve all seen the horror show videos on social media. In the early 2000s Cox was amused to appear on the front cover of Heat magazine alongside socialite and aristocrat Jodie Kidd, who had just injured someone’s foot with her Maserati. But now his policing is incessantly documented by camera phones and posted on social media. These clips often end up on Mail Online, some alongside favourable commentary, some less favourable.

‘Now everybody’s a journalist,’ Cox says. ‘Everybody has a commentary on it. I think that puts a huge amount of pressure on police officers in terms of decision making and accountability.’ During my ride-along I watched the officers discuss their powers and decide whether they could knock down a door to find a missing person. Cox says ride-alongs have a vital role in understanding. ‘You can actually see people having to think, showing a bit of empathy, having to deal with really difficult situations with the most minuscule amount of information.’

Although there were a few pointless calls – from a boy complaining that his dad was telling him he had to go to school, to neighbour’s bickering about lighting – the majority were serious and stressful. The call I keep thinking about came from a girl who was considering jumping off a bridge. Mental health calls are by far the most common, the officers tell me.

This 16-year-old really wanted to live but wasn’t sure how to keep going. When we got to the bridge, another police car had already arrived. Fortunately for the girl, one of the officers was a dog-handler, in the middle of training up a police puppy. They let the girl pet this dog and it lifted her spirits.

We sat with her for a while until eventually an ambulance turned up. In the ambulance the officers and paramedics assessed the risk. She was grateful to be given care and attention and eventually laughed at the banter the police officers gave the paramedics about their driving skills.

Cox has big ambitions for the scheme. He wants to reach people who don’t necessarily trust the police. ‘We’re trying to increase trust and confidence in underrepresented communities,’ he says, explaining, ‘we’re very much committed to the black community and young black males specifically. We probably don’t see as many applications from those groups as we would like.’

Currently, the public can join various units depending on their local station. I was given the option of responding to emergency calls from the station, which I chose, or working with the Neighbourhood or Violent Suppression Teams. Cox wants to extend the offerings and increase the scope. ‘If you look at child abuse, sexual exploitation, all those really difficult areas [and I know they have challenges in bringing members of the public in for them] but if we could open the door into some of those areas as well it would really help,’ he says.

In the ‘New Met for London’ report, commissioner Sir Mark Rowley conceded: ‘Confidence has fallen sharply… Our failures over recent years have dented trust in the Met and we must repair that.’ The ride-alongs provide transparency and in turn, trust. They won’t fix everything but bringing policing out of the shadows will make for more accountability and give the public the opportunity to provide feedback. So sign up, it may be the only hope.