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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.