Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces
By Ali Hull
John Sutherland joined the Met in 1992, and rose quickly, through the ranks, to become a senior police officer. But in 2013, he suffered a major mental breakdown, and his career was effectively over. Since then, he has written a book on his experiences, Blue: Keeping the peace and falling to pieces, which became a Sunday Times bestseller and was reviewed in the last issue of Sorted. His second book, Crossing The Line will be out in May 2020.
Why did you decide to become a policeman?
I was about 16 when I decided that I wanted to become a police officer. Looking back now, I suppose that I was looking for adventure – wanting to be part of something that matters. If you were to ask most police officers why they joined, they would tell you, simply, they wanted to make a difference. That sounds about right to me.
You were a successful police officer. What made you successful, and why do others struggle?
It would be for others to say whether I was successful, but I certainly loved it. Almost every single passing minute. Based on my 25+ years in policing, I would say that there are probably four qualities that every good police officer shares:
The ability to communicate
(And you should probably add a good sense of humour to that list.)
To what extent do you think the success contributed to your breakdown? Reading the book, it seems there could be many factors: your father had had mental health problems, so there is the question of inheritance; you had had a traumatic time because of your father’s illness, and then there were the pressures of the job, the fact that nothing was done to look at those pressures, and the prevailing culture that said it was weak to do so.
Though I never appreciated it at the time, I have come to understand that it would be impossible to do the job of a police officer for any length of time and to remain completely unaffected – untouched – by the things that you see and the things that you do. Policing is the best job in the world – but it’s a heck of a job. And, in the past, I’m not sure any of us ever paused to think about the consequences for police officers of the repeated exposure to extreme trauma. So, my breakdown undoubtedly had much to do with my job. But there are always circumstances beyond work – some nature, some nurture – that play a part. In my case, it was probably a collision of all those things that conspired to break me.
Most people know about policing – or think they know – because of TV, and police dramas are everywhere. Do you or have you ever watched them, and if so, which ones are anywhere near the truth?
I have never watched a great deal of police TV. Whilst I was still serving, it was important to get away from work and spend time doing other things. These days, I choose not to watch. One of the long-term consequences of my illness is that I find it very difficult to cope with trauma – and that extends to the things I read and the things I watch. I’ve seen enough of the reality to last me a lifetime.
The police have also had their share of scandals – Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence, etc. Do these add to the pressures on the good policemen to act differently?
I’m no blind apologist for the job I used to do. Sometimes policing – both individually and collectively – gets things terribly wrong. So, we should never shy away from holding it up to the light. And no good police officer would ever suggest otherwise. Society has every right to expect higher standards of police officers than of anyone else. That is for four reasons:
The promises we have made (every officer takes an oath on joining)
The powers we are given (to stop, to search, to arrest, to use reasonable force where necessary)
The fact that we are paid professionals
The position that policing occupies in society.
Because, if you can’t trust a police officer, then who can you trust?
What do you think are the key measures that should be taken by the police (and other organisations) to counteract the macho atmosphere that makes it hard to admit to struggling, particularly mentally?
Times have already changed very significantly. The culture is far less macho than it used to be. Two of the three most senior positions in British policing are occupied by women: Cressida Dick is Commissioner of the Met, and Lynne Owens is Director General of the National Crime Agency; both are heroes of mine.
In the past, the macho culture placed a level of expectation that everyone, male and female alike, would be ‘one of the lads’. This had all sorts of implications, not least of which was that officers would tend to keep feelings and emotions bottled up. You didn’t talk about things: you just got on with the job. We didn’t understand back then the inevitable impact of all that you see and do in a policing life. It meant, for example, that officers would frequently self-medicate with alcohol, with all the inevitable consequences that brings.
Those possibilities remain, of course, but policing has changed very significantly in recent years. I genuinely think that the macho culture is a thing of the past.
One other observation about culture here: I often find that whenever police culture gets mentioned – ‘canteen culture’ in particular – it is with a presumption of the negative. Police culture is seen as a bad thing – the thing that encourages sexism and racism and corruption etc. But so much of my experience of police culture, the vast majority in fact, is of completely the opposite. In most cases, police culture is an extraordinary thing. It’s the thing the persuades officers to enter tube tunnels on 7/7. It’s the thing the persuades officers to run on to London Bridge when terrorists are attacking. It’s the thing that persuades officers to step into harm’s way in defence of complete strangers. And that is a beautiful thing to me.
Even though mental health generally, and male mental health in particular, is getting more exposure, do you think the situation is improving?
Without a doubt. There is still a long way to go, but every sign I see is a positive and encouraging one. Prior to my breakdown six years ago, I had never heard anyone talking about mental health in policing. Now there is an open and compassionate conversation taking place, and a genuine recognition of the inevitable demands of a life in blue.
You say, in the book, that in every case of young people getting involved in knife crime, there was domestic violence in their background... so presumably they had been exposed to violence from an early age, and it was, for them, somehow normal?
It was, at the time, the most startling discovery of my policing career. It remains one of the most powerful lessons I have ever learned. Not every child who grows up in a violent home becomes violent themselves; the reality is much more hopeful than that. But if you look at the situation in reverse – starting with young men suspected or convicted of involvement in serious violence – the picture is a stark one. During my career, most of the violent young men I encountered had themselves grown up in violent homes. We must never underestimate the impact and significance of what the professionals call ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’.
Do you think therefore that more children should be removed from such families, or is it the case that children are not removed from situations in which they witness violence, but only – hopefully – from situations where they are the victims of violence? That witnessing such violence is not seen as dangerous to them, so nothing is done?
I am clear in my belief that domestic violence is the single greatest cause of harm in society. And we need a twenty-year plan to deal with it. One of the measures of a society is the regard that it has for its most vulnerable members. And children should be our first consideration. We have an absolute moral responsibility to protect them, not just from violence, but from abuse and neglect of every imaginable kind.
You were a policeman for a long time. How did policing change, depending on who was in power and what their policies were?
In many respects, policing has changed beyond recognition in the last 25 years:
the advance of technology
the mass movement of population
the advent of international terrorism.
But, in all the ways that matter most of all, the heart of policing hasn’t changed in the last 125 years. The job is still:
to save lives
to find the lost
to bind up the broken-boned and broken-hearted
to protect the vulnerable
to defend the weak
to confront the dangerous
sometimes, as in the recent, heart-breaking case of PC Andrew Harper, to risk it all.
Policing remains, for me, the finest thing that anyone could ever choose to do with their working lives.
I would add, having written a lot about politics and policing recently, that the government of the last nine years has done more damage to policing than any other in my lifetime.
Are you going to be writing more books? If so, what on?
My next book is due to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in May 2020. Whilst Blue was very much my story, the new one (Crossing The Line) is a much wider story about policing and what it has to tell us about the world we live in.