John Sutherland’s reaction to what happened at London Bridge was complicated. When terrorists attacked the part of the city whose policing he used to run, he says part of what he felt was “survivor’s guilt”.
Before depression forced him to leave work, Sutherland was Southwark borough commander. But after it, in his words, “smashed me to the ground” and led to a seven-month absence from 2013, he couldn’t face trauma anymore. He was working a desk job at Scotland Yard when his old beat came under attack.
“You get a bit of survivor’s guilt and you think about your colleagues who are there and the fact you’re not,” the 47-year-old chief superintendent says. But he also feels relief he didn’t have to rush to the scene and be exposed to the sort of things that made him ill in the first place.
Because of the mental damage done by 20 years of policing, he avoids the trauma that’s “in places like London Bridge and the Grenfell Tower and Manchester Arena and all the places in between”, he says.
When a colleague and close friend told stories about rushing to the scene of London Bridge, Sutherland says he could only listen to “those I can cope with hearing”.
John Sutherland today
Sutherland has been a Metropolitan Police officer for 25 years. His analysis of policing is complex and his answers to questions are never simple. More than once in his interview with HuffPost UK, he answers questions about how policing needs to change by saying what we “as a society” must do.
When I ask how many colleagues he thinks are suffering the way he did, he answers by quoting author Matt Haig: “Depression is 90% mystery”.
“There’s so much about it, looking back on it, and occasionally wrestling with it, that I don’t fully understand,” he says. “What I do know though is, at the moment, I have more colleagues and friends working under significantly more strain than at any point in the last 25 years.”
He adds that now is the “most challenging time for policing since the end of the Second World War”. These are strong words for a man who qualifies his comments to avoid being simplistic or giving easy soundbites. “I just think that’s a simple statement of fact,” he says.
John Sutherland in his days as a PC
The reasons for this, Sutherland says, are complex. Demand on policing is changing and growing. Cuts to other services have shifted the burden to police and there are fewer of them after years of austerity.
He adds the terror attacks can only worsen the strain on officers. “Each police officer now is an explicit terrorist target. That’s got to have an impact on you in some way, even if it’s just stored away in the back of your mind.”
Sutherland was the negotiator at the Markham Square siege in 2008 that ended with someone being shot dead by police. He was the operational commander in Tottenham Court Road in 2012 when a man threatened to blow up a building (attached to HuffPost UK’s offices in fact), and a chunk of central London had to be evacuated.
But his book focuses more on lower-profile stories of saving lives and witnessing death. He calls this the “painful privilege” of the job.
By 2013, he was one of the Met’s most senior officers and was feeling what he dismissed at first as exhaustion. This feeling was joined by anxiety but still he did not seek help, feeling pressure to look strong as “supposedly the one that people looked up to”.
He eventually began having panic attacks at night. “I would have to wake my wife up and just get her to hold on to me so I knew everything was ok,” he says.
A polaroid taken of Sutherland in 2001, showing injuries he suffered after he was punched in the face on duty
When he broke down, he went off work for seven months. Cressida Dick, now the commissioner, sat with him in his kitchen, talking things through. Sutherland started writing initially as part of his recovery, trying to get his brain moving again. It helped him feel things “in a way and at a depth that I hadn’t experienced before” and after he returned to work, he started writing a blog.
This was how he came to write ‘Blue’, which came out in May. Unlike many accounts of British policing, it is not an expose, a polemic or a score-settling, post-retirement memoir. It is about how routine exposure to the worst moments in strangers’ lives wore one man down.
He tells me: “The wider world has not even begun to understand the consequences for police officers of the things we expect them to do… I don’t think we understand the build-up of that repeated exposure to extreme trauma.”
Police officers lay flowers at the scene of the London Bridge attack. Sutherland said he felt survivor’s guilt at not being able rush to the scene
On the day we meet, new figures reveal rises in robberies and sex crimes. The Police Federation blames the Government for letting officer numbers fall to their lowest in three decades.
Sutherland is reluctant be drawn on whether he thinks the figures reflect what’s happening on the streets. He stresses that sometimes rising reports of crime can be a good thing, showing that more victims are coming forward, rather more crime is happening.
But he says he’s alarmed that violent offenders are getting younger. “I’ve dealt with murder cases where the suspect is 11 years old. The level of violence used is growing. I think we see extraordinary extremes of violence we’ve not seen before,” he says.
“The speed at which that violence can escalate… Situations can go from nought to catastrophic incredibly quickly. That’s where social media has an influence.
“In my childhood, if a rumour started in the playground in the morning, by going home time, it had usually run out of steam. There was that period of time where parents could step in and defuse things or kids could have a moment to pause.
″[But with social media] that rumour that used to take a day to run out of steam is now everywhere within a matter of seconds and there isn’t that pause for thought.”
Compared to other police forces, the Met has lost a smaller proportion of its officers to the cuts. But Sutherland says other cuts have hit officers’ work and routines in subtler ways that could be damaging. Officers are expected to patrol alone a lot more now, he says. Many stations have closed their canteens. New officers can’t afford to live in the city. Both these things minimise officers’ ability to socialise and blow off steam, he says.
Pall bearers carry the coffin of PC Keith Palmer, the Met officer murdered in the Westminster attack, after his funeral at Southwark Cathedral
“Almost invisibly and I think almost certainly unintentionally, we’ve removed a number of the informal support structures that exist within policing,” he adds.
When asked what needs to change in policing, he again talks in broader terms.
People need to appreciate police officers much more, he says, adding journalists should find more positive stories to compliment the negative ones. “All of us have to be a whole lot more grateful for what they do… Not just on the days when attacks remind us of the risks they face.”
He adds the public must accept the Met is at a “tipping point” with its resources and will need to prioritise certain crimes over others. “We’ve got to recognise that, with 20% taken out of policing budgets, there’s less we’re going to be able to do,” he says. “Domestic violence has got to matter more than the theft of a pushbike, it’s just got to.”
The wider world has not even begun to understand the consequences for police officers of the things we expect them to do
But Sutherland has accepted that he will never return to making operational decisions like that. His current at role Scotland Yard gives him a massively reduced workload and slower pace. It was tough for a man, who always defined himself as a man of action, to adapt.
“It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with that. For years, I defined myself in terms of the operational contribution I was able to make. I was the borough commander. I was the hostage negotiator. I was the Champions’ League match commander at the Emirates for Arsenal v Barcelona…
“I loved that with every fibre of my being but I’ve made my peace now with the fact those times are done.”
John Sutherland (left) pictured with DJ Tim Westwood in 2008, as a former Metropolitan Police riot van was revamped by the show Pimp My Ride
The task now, he says, is to figure out how he can make a difference in other ways. He wants to write and speak publicly more. He is thinking about doing another book but isn’t yet sure of a topic.
He calls the reaction to this one overwhelming. People inside and outside policing have been in touch to say they will never look at the profession the same way again.
But Sutherland is most touched that some got in touch to say it has made them realise they need to get help with their mental health.
He says: “That’s been the greatest privilege of all. I may, in some way, have played some small part in somebody, who’s hurting, getting a bit of help.”
Sutherland bottled up his feelings before but now says: “There’s no shame in feeling and there is absolutely no shame in feeling so much that it hurts.
“I suffer from mental illness. One of the first things I did when I got up was take an anti-depressant… I am absolutely not going to be ashamed.”
Sutherland calls his depression a “life-changer” and says he has learned a lot since his collapse.
But he adds: “You could offer me the contents of the Bank of England and I wouldn’t volunteer to go back and repeat it. It was as horrifying and terrifying as it’s possible for an experience to be.”
Blue: A Memoir, published by Orion, is out now