FEATURE: Longest-serving volunteer at Suffolk Police sheds light on career
Special constable David Overton and his sergeant couldn’t believe their eyes when a sports car sped past their marked police car in a 40mph limit.
Their Ford Escort Panda car was not built for hot pursuit but, blue lights on, they followed the car until it pulled over.
“David,” said the sergeant, “hop out and give him a ticking-off,”... although he put it rather more forcefully.
David obliged, but as he approached the passenger got out and showed him a warrant card. He was a royal protection officer and the driver was Prince Charles.
The officer explained the heir to the throne – who was at Cambridge University at the time – was on his way to Sandringham and late for a meeting.
“I didn’t get to speak to him in person, but I passed on the warning via the protection officer,” said David who joined West Suffolk Special Constabulary in 1965.
The county’s forces combined to form Suffolk Police in 1967 and now, at 81, he is their longest-serving volunteer.
He retired as a serving Special in 1996. These days he helps with recruitment, attending events and talking to those thinking of signing up.
This year his dedicated service earned him the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s birthday honours.
David grew up on a fenland farm near Soham. He and his wife Barbara – who married in 1962 and have a son Shaun and daughter Miranda – both come from farming families. “Agriculture is in our blood,” he says.
Shaun and his wife Gill now run the pig farm his parents set up more than 50 years ago on what David describes as “40 acres of barren heath” near Mildenhall. Miranda is a matron at Hinchingbrooke Hospital.
David’s policing potential was spotted when he helped out officers at two incidents.
First he jumped over a fence to support his local bobby who was being confronted by three men. Later he helped save possessions from a house that caught fire after a lightning strike.
Both times police at the scene suggested he should join the Specials. “So I did,” he recalls, “but purely for selfish reasons because it gave me something totally different to do from running the farm.
“I soon found you become part of the team, and as such I had the opportunity to work with incredible people.
“The majority of calls we got were when people couldn’t handle situations themselves. You never know what you are going to deal with.
“I look back at my time and laugh at some of the things. I had some incredible experiences completely out of the blue.”
As well as his near brush with Prince Charles, there was the time the Home Secretary made him a cup of coffee.
“We went up to the Elveden Estate because there was a protection team there and we wanted to make sure everything was alright.
“While we were chatting a man came up with a tray of coffees, and asked if we’d like some too. It was William Whitelaw, who was at the estate on a private visit.
“Another time a regular officer and myself were asked to put on a presentation for a VIP in Newmarket. It turned out to be John Major, who was then the Prime Minister.
“He spent nearly an hour with us wanting to know all about the Specials and how we worked.”
But of course there was also a very different side to the job, and plenty of incidents he would rather forget including horrific road accidents.
“I have come home here at times and sat down and had a cup of tea and got a book to read for an hour, to clear my mind of things we’ve done and seen.
“But you are always acting as part of the team. They talk about the police family and once you are integrated into it they are always there for you. I worked with some amazing people who became great friends, and still are today.
“One Friday night we were on the way back from taking a prisoner to Bury and had stopped to buy fish and chips for our supper.
“We got a call asking us to look in at a village where a man had reported an ‘incident’. We pulled up outside the house. I got out, and realised I was standing on broken glass.
“I shone my torch at the upstairs window and there was a man standing there with a 12 bore shotgun shouting ‘I’ll shoot you bastards’.
“I dived back to the car and got behind the door, grabbed the handset and called headquarters. We reversed back down the road and I got out to stop the traffic.
“I stood in the road with my arm up, but this Mini drove straight past me. Next thing, there was a very loud bang and the driver came backwards at a rate of knots and said ‘my car’s been shot’.
“In the end the man with the gun was subdued and we went back to the police station. When I went to pick up a cup of coffee I realised my hands were shaking.
“The senior officers talked us all through what had happened to bring us down from the high.
“Later we saw the funny side because there were fish and chips all over the car. You do need a black sense of humour, it’s a pressure release valve.”
He joined the force at a time when many people did not even have telephones. “Today’s policing is so totally different. We had radios, but they weren’t very good.
“When I started – especially in rural areas – we had to make appointments with the control room to be at a particular phone box at a certain time so they could call us.”
He was also involved for many years in policing the airshow at RAF Mildenhall.
When he was approaching retirement USAF officers made him an honorary member of their squadron, and took him on a refuelling sortie in one of their aircraft.
David finished up as an Specials inspector. “In my role one of the hardest jobs was to make sure people had a personal life too. You get so involved as part of the team I often had to persuade them to take time off.”
David, who is also a member of Forest Heath Crime Prevention Panel, says he was stunned to get a letter from the Cabinet Office telling him about his BEM.
“I feel humbled to get this honour, and it’s nice to have the little bit I have done recognised,” he said. He was also Highly Commended for the Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the Suffolk High Sheriff awards in 2017.
“I gained so much from being in the Specials. It’s a really good thing if you want to contribute in a positive way to the community.
“There is such a range of people from all walks of life, and because of that they can contribute so much.
“A lot of people also use the Specials as a route into the regulars. It’s a fantastic way to find out if you like the job and a chance to get hands-on experience.
“You are a warranted officer and can do the same tasks as regulars except for a few things like firearms and dog handling.”