The Man Who Cried
I joined the police when I was 19. I had no life experience and I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t prepared for the things I was about to see. I was a boy.
22 years later, when I look back on that time, it feels very much like viewing someone else’s life. That boy who was about as green as they come is now so hardened, so exposed to horror and trauma and so used to dealing with crisis that he has become a man who is pretty much unshockable.
That isn’t to say that something couldn’t happen which would make my jaw drop or upset me but – right now – I can’t think of what that might be.
In many ways this is a good thing. That experience has made the “awful” seem normal. It allows me to more calmly consider a scene of utter chaos and devastation and see beyond what others are seeing. It allows me to make decisions when other people might freeze. It allows me to walk towards things that others would naturally walk away from.
In other ways it is a very bad thing. It has made me hard, cold and cynical. It can make you almost emotionless and it can make you forget that, actually, the vast majority of the world never see such things and most will never be in a situation like that. It can make you forget there is good in the world and it can be exceptionally annoying when you become so conditioned that upon entering any room or busy place your first reaction is to clock all the possible escape routes and insist on sitting where you can see the door.
Two recent blogs have caused me to reflect on that journey from boy to man and the events and emotions which have caused that transformation. The first from @suptalunmorgan is called The Public Don’t Know.
This is Alun’s first blog and it’s a cracker. It details a night when he was on duty as senior officer and during the course of this particular shifts he documents the conversations with his team as various serious events unfold. What struck me about this was the complete trust Alun had in his colleagues but also their own self-confidence in handling whatever scene of individual Hell was developing in front of them. “Don’t worry – I’ve got this” are words I will try to use more frequently.
The second blog is from the ever wonderful @policecommander, John Sutherland. John writes very many fantastic blogs and they are always about other people. His latest one Brave lists officers and staff who have performed some incredible acts of courage. John’s attention to detail and the knowledge he has of his colleagues’ actions is the mark of a true leader. That he recognises what they do and shows such public admiration for them is humbling.
I could list many examples of times where I have been stunned by the bravery and resilience of others. Alas my anonymity makes this a little complicated so I will stick, on this occasion, to some personal examples.
This isn’t about documenting any actions of bravery on my part. Far from it.
Both of these blogs caused me to be thankful to the named and unnamed officers for their courage, strength and perseverance. Alun is right when he says that the public simply do not know the kind of things police officers, and indeed other emergency service workers, face on a daily basis.
And it is this aspect – the “daily basis” – which both of these blogs have focused my mind.
What are the personal effects of dealing with this level of trauma on individual officers? What happens when these events accumulate to the point they become normal?
The answer is simple – they become like me.
There are officers who have seen far worse than I have. There are many officers who have been far braver than I have or will ever be. My admiration and pride in them cannot be adequately expressed.
However, all officers see trauma and horror. There isn’t a single police officer in the world who hasn’t gone home at the end of a shift either wondering how they have managed to escape something or being thankful that their own circumstances do not reflect whatever they have just dealt with.
What follows are examples. I will say now that this is a TRIGGER WARNING and that whilst I will spare detail the events themselves are all real, they all happened to me or colleagues and they are the incidents which have left the deepest marks.
If you feel able and wish to – read on:
I can genuinely say that I have only ever been scared, truly scared, whilst on duty on about three occasions. Yes, there have been times when my heart has been in my mouth and my adrenalin pumping but actually frightened just a few.
Going back about twelve years I was a sergeant working in an inner city area. We received a call that two teenagers had been walking along the road when a maroon coloured car had pulled up alongside them. A man had got out of the car and started talking to them before suddenly demanding money from them. When they refused they said he had pulled a handgun from his waist and pointed it at them. They chose to run and called us in panic from a phonebox nearby. They said that the car had driven into an industrial estate.
I wasn’t far away when the call came in and was expecting to be told that armed officers were going to be deployed. They weren’t. The firearms commander on duty that day didn’t feel that the criteria was met. I called him directly and asked him to reconsider but he was unmoved. Instead he asked me to go and look for the vehicle. I don’t think he believed the call.
Taking a deep breath I drove into the industrial estate realising that there was only one way in and only one way out. The boys had pointed out a couple of distinctive features about the vehicle over and above its colour. Having driven in and committed myself to the road, I rounded a bend and there it was. Parked on the roadside with two occupants in it.
I had several options. Reverse at speed, stop and speak to them or just drive by and try to find somewhere to call it in. I was on my own so chose the latter option. Except it was a dead end road and when I reached the end of it I had nowhere to go.
I curse myself to this day but when I first saw the car I was so focused on watching the occupants’ movements that I didn’t get the registration number. It didn’t even cross my mind.
Now I was trapped. I could see the car in my rear view mirror but wasn’t happy with this so I turned the car around so I could properly see it. I was probably no more than 50 metres away from it.
Then the occupants got out.
Running alongside this road was a waterway, separated by a wall. Buildings to the other side and absolutely nowhere to go.
I had managed to compose myself long enough to radio it in and I knew now – at last – that firearms cars were coming but from some distance.
The front seat passenger was now fully out of the vehicle and slowly walked into the middle of the road. My eyes were fixed on him.
He slowly raised his right arm towards me. He had something in his hand and was raising it.
It reached shoulder height, he paused and then,with a flourish, he threw whatever he had in his hand into the waterway. He got back in the car and it drove off.
I couldn’t follow it. I was frozen.
We never did find the car again nor did police divers ever find what he threw into the water. They were down there all day the next day.
I will never know if it was a gun, an imitation or something else but in those seconds, alone and isolated I know what I felt and thought I saw.
No one asked how I was after this and it was never mentioned again.
I just dealt with it.
The second worst job I have ever been involved in was an occasion where we had to take three children forcibly into local authority protection.
In relative terms it was easy. We expected resistance, we were met with resistance and we dealt with it sensibly and proportionately.
I had read the briefing notes, seen what they were being exposed to and it was absolutely the right decision by the court to instruct authorities to take them into care. I have no doubt they were under great emotional distress and trauma where they were. I have no doubt that they were personally at risk.
Events were complicated by the fact that not one of the family spoke English. We had taken an interpreter but this proved to be of almost no use in the chaos and drama which ensued.
There is, of course, one word which is understood in any language – “Mama!”
That was a word I heard loudly in my ears as I carried the child away. Screaming desperately for her mother. Not knowing what on Earth was going on. It will haunt me always.
To this day, it is the closest I have ever felt to being “the bad guy”. Turning up in body armour; having to use force to gain entry; having to physically wrestle the screaming children from the arms of their equally traumatised mother; being utterly unable to offer any form of verbal reassurance or communication and then watching the, by now distraught, children being driven away by people they didn’t understand whilst trying to reach out of the back window towards their desperate mum.
It felt like a kidnapping. It was awful. I know we did the right thing that day but it has never felt like it.
The final example is the road accident involving a very young child. I heard the call come in and knew from the outset that it didn’t sound good.
In order to protect as many of team from exposure to it I directed the nearest unit to the actual scene, instructed all others to take positions on road closures. I made my way to the scene.
For the next 45 minutes to an hour my two colleagues and I took it in turns assisting the paramedics. One of us held a drip, one held the child’s head and the other performed chest compressions until our arms grew tired and we swapped. Meanwhile the air ambulance doctor and the paramedics tried desperately to perform a miracle and bring the child back to life.
At the same time we were trying to hold back desperate relatives and friends. My two colleagues even went in the ambulance and carried on CPR all the way to hospital until they arrived and were told what we already knew. There was no hope.
We had all tried but our efforts were in vain. There was nothing more that anyone could do.
This remains the only time I have ever gone home from work and broken down. This was the only time emotion had taken over. I won’t lie – I needed help after this and I sought it out. I also ensured that my colleagues were offered any assistance they needed.
Add to this, over two decades, the violence, the murder scenes, the injuries witnessed, the emotion seen, the news delivered, the crises managed and it is easy to see how an innocent boy can be transformed into a hard and emotionless man. A man who eventually needed to sit down and cry. A man who eventually needed help to put it all into some perspective.
Multiply that by 120,000 and you get a sense of the scale of what police officers contend with and personally manage every single hour of every single day of the week.
Police officers are frequently accused of lacking compassion and being insensitive. I’m sure that this is true but “flicking the switch” isn’t easy and after years of exposure to the very worst of the very worst that exoskeleton we all put on when we start a shift is hard to get through. It is a self defence mechansism without which officers simply could not cope.
Exposure takes a toll and officers aren’t good at seeking help. Organisations haven’t been much better at acknowledging, recognising or dealing with it either. It has been particularly pleasing this week to see that forces have been hosting regional wellbeing conferences. Finally, the penny is starting to drop that officers and staff are asked to deal with things of a severity and frequency way beyond what a human being should be exposed to.
If organisations don’t help to support their staff through this then they aren’t doing it right. All police officers join to help and serve the public. That comes at a personal price and it is vital – it is a moral imperative – that the organisation has their back.
We need to do more to publicise the work of charities such as @ThePDTrust and a new initiative from MIND called The Blue Light Programme which emergency service workers can contact directly for help and support.
The police continue to take a kicking in the media on a daily basis and it is up to each of us to remind the public of the personal price paid by our colleagues every day.
That is why I am thankful to Superintendent Morgan and Chief Superintendent Sutherland for their leadership and for reminding us all that, frankly, the public don’t know and that there are strong, courageous police officers out there putting themselves in harms way for others on every shift across the country.
If this blog has any purpose at all it is to remind everyone that these officers may need help and sometimes they need pointing toward it.
Our people are our best asset. Without them we are nothing and can do nothing.
Please look out for each other.