David Rathband: 'I'm not a robot. I've been badly affected by what has happened'

The police constable who was shot in the face by Raoul Moat one year ago talks about his struggle to come to terms with his injuries. Jonathan Owen meets David Rathband
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The Independent Online

David Rathband hooks his finger into his left eye and removes it. Just like that. He pulls down his eyelid and gestures me over to take a look at his real eye. I see the tiny remnant of his blue iris, set amid a sunken, milky, bloodstained surround. I move closer to inspect the lumps just below the surface – evidence of the dozens of shotgun pellets that remain in his body. He murmurs, almost apologetically, that it's more difficult to remove his other eye as it's a tight fit.

I slump back, relieved momentarily until I consider that, horrifying as they are, the physical scars left on the former policeman when Raoul Moat shot him in the face are not the worst of his troubles. Mr Rathband is struggling to keep his head above a tide of torment.

He is fighting a losing battle with his demons: Moat looms large. The last thing he saw was the white flash as he was shot at point-blank range. "Every second I see him. I don't see the detail of his face any more, but I can see him coming from the left and pointing the gun at me."

We talk in his room at a London hotel, where he is promoting his book, Tango 190. It charts the year since the shooting. The author, 43, is tanned and wearing blue jeans and a red polo shirt, black boots and a pair of Oakley sunglasses perched on his head. He makes no attempt to hide his shotgun-ravaged face, with the area between his lifeless prosthetic eyes flattened and scarred.

He tells me how he came to be a policeman, how he came into Moat's gunsights. Originally he followed his father's footsteps and became a plumber. But then he decided he wanted a profession, a career structure. He spent years unsuccessfully trying to join the police before he was accepted by Northumbria at the relatively late age of 32.

PC Rathband quickly made a name for himself as an efficient "thief taker"; he got commendations for his performance. Everything was going well. Until last July, that is, when Moat tried to kill him at the wheel of his patrol car in Newcastle upon Tyne. The gunman had already shot and seriously injured his ex-partner and killed her boyfriend.

It was not their first meeting. Mr Rathband had arrested Moat more than a year before, for a driving offence, and had been spooked by him, something he puts down to "copper's instinct".

Perhaps inevitably, Mr Rathband has been hailed a hero, lionised for the courage he showed in the aftermath of the shooting. He rejects this: "I was just a cop and I tried my best at the time."

For him, being shot was like being dropped into an endless water tank with no way out. "You're having to crawl your way up from the bottom with no air. You're constantly grasping for the next thing to keep you alive. It was bloody frightening to be in that car – there was no way it was going to be my tomb."

In the aftermath, which ended with Moat's death a year ago today, there was outrage at the thousands who supported the gunman online.

Mr Rathband sighs, conceding that, for a significant number of people, the police are the enemy, objects of hate. "We have been so target-driven on achieving targets for arrests... we have alienated lots of members of the public. I think that we're taking the consequences for it because we don't do enough to go back and reconnect with those people. There's no respect for the police. I've had nine-year-old kids telling me to eff off."

Despite this, he loved it. "I really enjoyed it. I had the passion, I was one of the best thief-takers. But Raoul Moat took one of the main things that I think allowed me to do that – my bleeding eyesight."

His plan had been to return to work last August. Things haven't worked out that way. Still off work, he is taking legal action against the force he once loved: he feels it has abandoned him. In the aftermath of Moat's shooting spree it emerged that he and his colleagues were given no warning despite the fact that Moat had dialled 999 and said he was "hunting for officers".

"The lowest point for me is now. My phone has stopped ringing; my door has stopped being knocked by very many people. I've worked with lots of people over 12 years, but I've seen a handful of them."

"I put my life and soul into the police, lived and breathed it, and I've been shot in the face and blinded for what? For nothing." As he speaks he strokes his eyes constantly, as if willing them to work again. "That's how I feel. It makes me very upset." He clears his throat. Then we sit for a while in uncomfortable silence.

He claims to understand why Moat shot him: "I had a uniform on and he in his own twisted way hated the police. I hate him for what he's done to my two kids and my wife. I can't mention me being blind in front of my 13-year-old daughter Mia because she shouts, she screams: 'don't talk about it, I don't want to know, I don't want to hear it'."

When will he get closure? "When they put the nails on my coffin," he snaps. He makes no secret of having suicidal thoughts every day: "I'm not a robot, I've been badly affected by what's happened to me... I have to wait and see but as long as I've got the conviction to carry on doing what I'm trying to do, and that's doing the best by my family, then I don't think I can go far wrong."

He is blunt: he needs help. "I've realised I'm not able to do it on my own, so I've referred myself back to my GP and go back this week to find out what therapy they're going to recommend".

As we come to the end, he tries, fails, to put on a brave face. "My strength goes into me telling myself to just keep going on and on. It is what it is: life's shit.

"I have a hope that one day my eyesight will come back, that's what keeps me going."