Published 19 June 2017
It takes a certain literary skill to write a memoir which is both humble and humbling. Chief Superintendent John Sutherland, shortly to retire from the Metropolitan Police, has it in spades.
Highly personal, yet never self-centred; authoritative yet often amusing, Blue: A Memoir, captures the challenges and rewards, the joys and despairs of 25 years in a police uniform – up to and including the juddering breakdown and crushing depression which has curtailed his career.
Sutherland applies the principle of forensic science that every contact leaves a trace to the traumas which police officers routinely witness (and surely suffer too) and asks what the “compound impact” must be? In the aftermath of the Manchester and Borough Market atrocities, and the current horrors of Grenfell Tower, it is a timely question for those who lead, govern, regulate and scrutinise policing.
Sutherland is clear on why he chose a life of running towards danger: he wanted to help people (it turns out, for a number of reasons, he has spent most of life wanting to help people, ultimately at no small cost to himself). Despite heavy subject matter, such as youth violence and hostage negotiation, he writes with a light touch. It is clear that he loves London. The streets, the neighbourhoods, the estates and their inhabitants, are referenced with care, respect and often affection, despite the traumatic events which unfold around them: lonely deaths, suicidal strangers, violent teenagers and grief-stricken parents.
Blue offers the reader much more, however, than merely a well-edited string of vivid anecdotes. Sutherland uses them to make broader points and pose awkward questions. The chapter covering his time as Borough Commander in Southwark should be compulsory reading for anybody who aspires to express a credible opinion about the policing of London. Community engagement, stakeholder relations, media management, people management, crisis management, multi-agency working, the Troubled Families Programme etc etc. These tasks are not easy to reconcile with the concept of the single-minded crime fighter, to say the least.
On prioritisation Sutherland is clear: youth violence has to matter more than a stolen bike; not every burglary deserves equal treatment and domestic violence has to matter more than shoplifting. Resources must go to tackling high harm crime even if that means uncomfortable conversations with the public. On stop and search, he is adamant that, properly done, it has public support and saves lives. He increased it by 25 per cent in one borough and saw robbery, knife crime and serious youth violence fall. Importantly, the number of complaints about stop and search fell over the same period.
Two other points leap out.
Firstly, Sutherland fingers domestic violence as the common denominator in the backgrounds of the teenagers and young men who go on to commit serious knife crimes including murder. When 17-year-old Kodjo Yenga was stabbed to death in his borough in 2007, Sutherland discovered every suspect had suffered or been exposed to domestic violence as a child. Hundreds of articles have been written about Kodjo’s murder and his killers yet none mentioned domestic violence.
Furthermore, I have seen countless teenagers on trial for murder, heard the evidence, spoken to their neighbours and interviewed the senior investigating officers. I have heard drugs, gangs, girls, social media, rap music, postcode rivalries, absent fathers and computer games put forward as malign influences on the accused. But never exposure to domestic violence. Not once. Given the levels of serious knife crime in the capital, this hypothesis demands prompt investigation.
Secondly, Sutherland deserves praise for his clear-eyed assessment of the current narratives around policing. He never flinches from the uncomfortable truths policing has had to face in recent years (Hillsborough, Plebgate and, of course, the legacy of Stephen Lawrence to name but a few) nor the need for policing to reform. Neither has he time for the denial, self-pity and borderline conspiracy theories some of his (typically anonymous) colleagues indulge in on social media. Sutherland is adamant that because of the powers they wield and the oaths they swear police officers should be held to a higher standard than anybody else (he once announced to colleagues that the MacPherson report was “a necessary humbling of the Met”). He accepts unequivocally that some officers are racist, corrupt, untrustworthy or inept and sometimes failings are institutional as well as individual.
But he insists with passion that this “is not the whole story, it’s not even most of the story” and argues there is an urgent need to rebalance the public narrative to emphasise the qualities and capabilities which most police officers demonstrate every day. Recent events support his argument that most police officers are “everyday heroes and heroines” and that the best police officers “are the best that people can be”. Given a chance, the public are capable of seeing this. From the unarmed officers who took on the terrorists at Borough Market to the officers shielding firefighters from burning debris at Grenfell Tower, the Met has positive stories to tell and, for the first time in a while, an audience willing to listen. And as the author notes, and his book proves, stories matter.
John Sutherland has made many significant contributions to policing. This book will hopefully not be his last.