Above The Law by Adrian Bleese

The Blurb On The Back:

Adrian Bleese spent twelve years flying on police helicopters, and attended almost 3,000 incidents, as one of only a handful of civilian air observers working anywhere in the world.

In Above The Law he recounts the most intriguing, challenging, amusing and downright baffling episodes in his career working for Suffolk Constabulary and the National Police Air Service.  Rescuing lost walkers, chasing cars down narrow country lanes, searching for a rural cannabis factory and disrupting an illegal forest rave … they’re all in a day’s work.

It’s a side of policing that most of us never see, and he describes it with real compassion as he lives his dream job, indulging his love of flying, the English landscape and helping people.  Perhaps more than anything, it’s a story about hope. 

You can pre-order ABOVE THE LAW by Adrian Bleese (published in the United Kingdom on 19th July 2021) from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Adrian Bleese is a former RAF electronics operator turned police civilian control room operator and then police helicopter service civilian observer.  This jovial memoir offers a good operational overview of what police helicopters do and how they operate and, depressingly, how they have been squandered due to poor management and cuts. However it does sometimes get bogged down in digression and if you want salacious cases, then it’s not for you.

Bleese’s memoir focuses on the 12 years he spent with the Suffolk police helicopter service and the National Air Police Service that subsumed it.  He writes with an easy, jovial style that’s almost conversational but this is still a fairly structured read that goes through his career in a methodical manner.  What impressed me about this memoir is that Bleese is open about how this is coming from his memory and notes from the time (which mainly seem to consist of location logs as he later mentions having flown to places but not recalling what the nature of the call-out was) and that these recollections may differ from others who were also present.  You’d think that this would be a given given the inherent fallibility of memory, but it’s surprising how many memoirists think they’re speaking God’s own truth.  

I also admired the fact that with the notable exception of the Ipswich murders (where the helicopter crews provided operational support in trying to locate the missing women) he doesn’t name criminals or victims in this book (and even then, he keeps sparse details taken from the public record).  If you read police memoirs because you want juicy stories of murder and misery and keen to come away with the sense that as a society we’re all doomed, then this isn’t the book for you.  At heart, this memoir is about how the police helicopter service worked as an operational source – how crew were trained and how they added value and support to on-the-ground police officers in Suffolk and then how this was completely and utterly messed up by the creation of a clueless, wasteful National Air Police Service that appears to be governed by people with zero clue of what the helicopter crews did or were capable of.  While Bleese is more diplomatic in his criticism than I am, his sense of frustration about the shambles of the reorganisation is palpable and he is open about how the changes saw him decide to resign and join the Civil Aviation Authority instead.

The other thing that comes through the book is how the police forces themselves seem to view with suspicion (at worst) and condescension (at best) their civilian workers.  Bleese was one of only a handful of air observers who did not start as police officers and what comes through the book is how this was viewed as his being somehow under-qualified or not up to the job.  Having worked with public sector organisations, I understand why public sector employees are so protective of their status but it does seem strange that someone with Bleese’s CV (including several years having worked for Suffolk as a 999 operator) was not better valued.

The main reason to read the book is to get a sense of what the police helicopter service does and what it is capable of when properly resourced and staffed.  Clearly a lot of Bleese’s call outs were for missing persons and car chases and he provides detail on how these work and where the helicopter can help and where they have to withdraw.  What comes through loud and clear is that to get the best out of the service, the helicopter needs to be about 20 minutes away from the call out in order to get there in time and that part of the reason why the National service was such a shower is because call operatives had no idea where helicopters could be usefully deployed, plus the whole ‘death of a thousand cuts’ that came with austerity and which saw the number of helicopters reduce while at the same time as being forced to cover larger areas.  Bleese is also good on operational details such as the training he went through to become an observer, the checks they do and the skills it takes to be an observer and on what kit the helicopters carry and how that can assist – e.g. the infrared camera helped uncover cannabis factories and also missing persons.

Bleese does share some stories of cases he recalls from his time in the crew, the saddest ones being where there are missing persons who are feeling suicidal.  However, as he says in the opening chapter, as helicopter crew you only see one part of the case and never really find out what happens to the drunk drivers he helps locate and get arrested or the suicidal people he helps serve.  That’s just part of the job and I was fine with that but, again, if you’re looking for complete anecdotes that give chapter and verse then this may not be for you.  

The two other things I’d say about this book is that Bleese is a bit of an aviation and airfield geek so there’s a fair amount of digression as he gives you a bit of history about particular air sites (and, to be fair, certain locations in Suffolk).  Having grown up with a military historian father, I found this to be very interesting but if that’s not your jam then you may find that it slows down your reading.  The final thing I would point out is that there are no photographs in this memoir and so while Bleese does a meticulous job of describing the people he flew with, for me they were pretty much names on a page and at a couple of points in the book I was confused as to who was who (notably when he talks about some pilots who he started out with and who later left).  I know that good quality photographs can be difficult to source, expensive to get releases on and push up the costs of a book (and I also acknowledge that with the police there are security implications to consider) but a couple of illustrations would have helped me to keep track of what was happening and there.

My criticisms aside, I did find this a genuinely absorbing read that showed me a side of the police service that I didn’t really know anything about (other than the occasional whir of helicopter blades in my own town when they’re out chasing offenders).  On that basis, I think that if you’re into occupational memoirs or interested in the police at all, then this has a lot to offer you and is worth a few hours of your time. 

ABOVE THE LAW will be released in the United Kingdom on 19th July 2021.   Thanks to Eye Books for the review copy of this book.

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