P. F. King

A policeman’s lot

A policeman’s lot is really not a happy one. John Sutherland’s 20 years in the Met were followed by severe mental breakdown

A policeman’s lot
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Blue: A Memoir Keeping the Peace and Falling to Pieces

John Sutherland

Weidenfeld, pp. 275, £

Described by the publisher as a ‘moving and personal account of what it is to be a police officer today’, John Sutherland’s memoir is most to be admired for its frank depiction of mental breakdown.

Sutherland has spent more than 20 years in the Met and this memoir, presented in a sequence of short, staccato episodes told in the present tense (which feel like expanded blog entries), covers his entire career to date, including a number of high-profile cases that readers will be familiar with.

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For this reason alone his reportage and analysis will be of interest, although a lack of detail around certain well-known incidents will be disappointing to some — this is not a critical work on the Met, or on British policing’s attitudes and values. On the other hand, Sutherland doesn’t shy away from talking about the target-driven approach to policing where ‘the danger is that we end up doing what’s counted rather than what counts’, or about the ‘squeeze of austerity’ and its impact on policing priorities.

Nicknamed ‘Tarquin’ by his colleagues in the Met in the 1990s, he captures precisely the disquiet of being ‘the geography graduate with a plummy accent and precious little life experience’ in an organisation which has historically recruited more from the school of hard knocks. At times, observing laziness, racism or plain stupidity he is painfully aware of lacking the confidence or experience to deal with such things as he would like.

His feeling that ‘so much of policing can only really be learned by doing’ will raise eyebrows at a time when we are seeing the strategic ‘Tarquinisation’ of modern policing — fast-track entry to senior ranks and the axing of the old requirement that everyone does their stretch as a PC. Robert Peel would not necessarily approve of the Tarquins: he wanted the police to be the public as the public are the police. Arguably, the sheer scale of policing today and the technical demands on modern police officers make these changes inevitable — but they will undoubtedly make it harder for the police to reflect the public with whom they work.

What Sutherland does make clear through numerous vivid, personal vignettes (‘the needle goes straight into the palm of my hand …’) is that there are no ‘no-go areas’ for the UK’s police, despite what some might want to believe. ‘Police officers walk in the places where no one else would be permitted and in the places where no one in their right mind would choose to go.’ There are places — and not only in London — where the state rarely intrudes. Together with priests and paramedics, police officers are often all there is — filling gaps, sometimes well, sometimes badly, sometimes too late:

He hasn’t been dead for that long, but the smell is almost completely overwhelming. The heating’s on full and it has hastened the decaying process. I try to breathe through my mouth rather than my nose but still find myself retching.

As his career progresses, so does Sutherland’s realisation that his emotional resources are being overstretched. It is one thing to have ‘a sense of professional responsibility and determination’ and recognise intellectually that ‘we may not see the full fruits of our labours for ten, 20 or even 30 years’, but quite another to hold on to that perspective when, in the meantime, ‘the same grim narrative plays itself out again and again’.

The exhaustion became relentless … And the anxiety cut deeper. And then the depression came. The depression: a thing of raw horror and blind terror. A water-boarding of the mind.

One couldn’t read this book and fail to respect Sutherland’s frank and open portrayal of debilitating depression. It’s to be hoped his voice can be influential in continuing to challenge the silence that exists — not only in the police force and not only in the workplace — about all forms of mental illness. This is not a many-layered memoir but it is admirably honest and movingly human — not a word associated often enough with the police. Telling his own, very personal story, is Sutherland’s characteristically front-line response to a genuine concern about ‘the contemporary public narrative about policing’, and ‘the relentless hostility and uninformed agendas that characterise so much of the public conversation’ about it.

I take off my prized black leather jacket and hang it on the corner of my locker door. And I see a large mouthful of gob dripping like treacle down the back of it — a gift from a hostile stranger who knows what I do. But not who I am.

Sutherland asks us to look behind the faceless blue and see the individual people — ‘humble and humane … the everyday heroes and heroines who police our streets’.