Longest serving Special reflects on 43 years of service

Monday, 02 June, 2014

When Roy Tongue was growing up he always dreamt of becoming a police officer but in 1971, with a passion for newspapers, the 19-year-old was enjoying his job at the Birmingham Post and Mail.

Despite weighing up the pros and cons of both career paths and sticking with the media, the teenager managed to get the best of both worlds by joining the Special Constabulary.

He’s now served for 43 years and − to mark the force’s 40th anniversary and national Volunteers’ Week − has been reflecting on his life and the evolution of the Specials over the last five decades.

"I had a well-paid job at the paper," he said, "but I knew I wanted to experience the life of a policeman, so I joined the Specials. There was always a plan to become a regular officer but my love of the media took over and the Specials meant I could do both.

"I think I’m probably the only one still here who was in Birmingham City Police before it changed to West Midlands Police and when I started you were thrown onto to the streets with hardly any training and they just expected you to get on with it!

"We’ve come a long way since then and things have changed massively. The induction programme wasn’t half as good as it is now − Specials are better trained, attitudes have shifted and we are treated a lot more equally alongside the regulars.

"Back in the day, Specials just used to go along for the ride but now they’re very much a part of the team and there’s no real difference − even the uniform is the same. We used to wear really distinctive clothes, a flat cap instead of a custodian helmet and a big flash on our shoulders which said ‘Special Constabulary’ − so people knew we were volunteers."

Roy spent many of his early years based at Steelhouse Lane and Digbeth police stations. He would patrol the streets of Birmingham city centre every Friday night.

One evening he remembers well was when he came across a fire at St Chad’s Cathedral, where homeless people regularly used to take shelter in the building’s crypt.

He said: "The firemen were on strike and the army had the Green Goddesses out. Me and my colleague Brian Perkins must have gone against all the health and safety advice when we went inside, but we just did it. We were overcome by the smell and taste of the acrid smoke.

"We couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces and we tripped over this man’s body, so between us we tried to pick him up but in the end we had to drag him out. When we got outside we saw that he only had one leg, so it was no wonder we couldn’t get him to stand up when we were in there.

"Three people died that night and I remember seeing them lying on the grass at the front of the cathedral. That’s the dark side to the job and something you never forget.

"There was another man who had a heart attack on New Street who we gave CPR to and we were so happy we’d got his heart going again. But then the hospital staff came out and said he’d gone. That really knocks the stuffing out of you."

Roy has balanced his life in the Specials with a 25 year career working in the circulation department of local and national newspapers and more recently as a Business Development Manager with a local food manufacturer.

But despite clocking up thousands of hours of service, Roy, who lives in Sutton Coldfield, has only found himself at the centre of a handful of hair-raising situations.

"When it was the Handsworth Riots in the 80s I turned up at work and they passed me a riot helmet and just said ‘here, have one of these’.  I wasn’t trained in dealing with public order but as I say, they just saw you as extra boots − ‘every man counts’ sort of thing − and you just got on with it.

"Thankfully I didn’t get into any trouble during the riots but there was one occasion when I was assaulted and that was one night when I was just around the corner from a fight between two women and I went over to break them up. She turned around and head-butted me on the chin!"

For Roy, the thrill of policing comes from helping people from all walks of life. He said: "What you really want is to be able to talk and use your mouth to resolve situations and it’s great when you can look back knowing you’ve helped people in that way.

"The last thing you want to do is arrest someone and yes there are times when it has to be done but locking people up should always be a last resort."

After 43 years in the Specials, Roy is now thinking about retiring to spend more time with his wife Gill and to focus on one of his other favourite pastimes − flying.

"The thing is you’ve got to do as much as much with your life as you can, because the time soon passes by − and I know people always say that, but it’s true.

And on making the decision all those years ago join the Specials over the regular force, he said: "If I could do it all again, I’d do exactly the same thing. I’ve loved every minute."

Special Constable Roy Tongue is still a serving officer and is based on the Community Action and Priority Team at Erdington police station.

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