Crossing the Line, by John Sutherland
This book was first published in 2020, but an updated version, with an epilogue written in December of that year, was published in 2021 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, ISBN 978-1-4746-1237-1. The epilogue included the author’s response to the pandemic, to the time of writing of course, but also events which had happened between finishing the first publication in 2020 and the end of that year and were relevant to the theme of this book. The title, in conjunction with the cover image of the blue & white striped tape used by police to close off crime scenes, might lead one to suppose that this is an account of instances of when police officers have ‘crossed the line’, or transgressed against their calling, but in fact, the subtitle immediately removes any doubt: Lessons from a Life on Duty. John Sutherland was a Metropolitan Police officer until his retirement after twenty-five years of service, and he is very well aware of the low regard with which officers of all ranks are nowadays regarded, from across the whole spectrum of British society [meaning England & Wales; Scotland & Northern Ireland having their own police services].
It isn’t until well into the book that the author reveals that he suffered a nervous breakdown in 2013, although he was able to return to work after a period of recovery, but that revelation does give some perspective to his observations, because as well as being obviously articulate, he makes it clear that he is not an officious disciplinarian, seeing no need to question the status quo. He is obviously distressed about societal disintegration which he sees as the catalyst for the majority of crime, but he also analyses why this should be, and how it can be rectified. He is unequivocal that the majority of police officers are conscientious, joining the service from a genuine desire to help people, and he separates the areas of crime affecting British society today into ten different ‘challenges’, as he refers to them (although there is inevitably some overlap), and the subject areas are clarified in my brackets:
I: Drunk and Incapable; [alcohol]
II: Possession with Intent; [‘drugs’]
III: Just a Domestic; [domestic violence]
IV: On a knife Edge; [knife crime]
V: Places of Safety; [mental health]
VI: Learning to Listen; [community relations]
VII: Keeping the Peace; [public disorder]
VIII: The Rise of Extremism; [extremism]
IX: A Question of Belief; [sexual offences]
X: On the Register. [child abuse]
Item VII is an area where opinions are generally distinctly polarised: the right to freedom of expression; in this case, the right of the British National Party to operate a bookshop. Although Sutherland, who was still in his probation and hadn’t completed his riot training, missed the violence by the time he arrived on the scene of an earlier riot in October 1993, he takes what he considers to be an impartial view: “Though I may despise the BNP and all they stand for, I am still bound by duty and law to protect what’s theirs.” This has a bearing on the research I did for my biography of Wilfred Risdon, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, and the right to express contentious views is just as controversial now as it was in the 1930s.
I can’t share his implicit support for the “respectable folk from rural communities” who participated in “a large demonstration [arranged by the Countryside Alliance] to protest against government proposals to ban fox hunting”, which descended into a standoff between officers & demonstrators near Parliament Square. He says that “At the time, I didn’t hold any particularly strong personal views about fox hunting, but I was very clear what I thought about people trying to break into Parliament.” In my view, “respectable folk from rural communities” can become violent very quickly when their ‘right’ to slaughter innocent non-food animals is called into question. After the incident, “The then Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, admitted that the disorder had taken the Met by surprise. He also confirmed that the force would identify lessons to be learned from the events of the day and that they would examine the actions of individual officers to see whether any had overreacted in their treatment of protestors. And that is exactly as it should be, because the police don’t always get it right. On occasions, whether individually or collectively, they get it terribly wrong. The death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests of 2009 represents a particularly grim reminder of just how badly things can end.”
So, a commendably even-handed exposition, and he can now comment as an ex-police officer: “I will defend with my last breath your right to protest: about human rights, about foreign wars, about basic poverty, about government policy, about state visits by the leaders of totalitarian regimes, about austerity, about any of the myriad things that matter to you. Now that I am retired, I might even line up alongside you. And I will defend your right to challenge the police to be better at what they do, to act with restraint and to say sorry when they get things wrong. Indeed, I will join you in making that challenge. But I will never defend violence or criminality of any kind. Those are the things that render a just cause lifeless.” Room for subjective judgements there, of course. He does try to end on a positive note, but unfortunately, it only serves to signal that there is plenty of room for improvement: “… hope is not a passive thing: it demands action. We know what needs to be done; we just have to get on and do it. We need to understand that, while the cause could not be more urgent, nothing of lasting worth is going to be accomplished overnight…it is going to take time to mend all that has been broken. It might actually take our lifetimes. In the meantime, we need to recognise just how much it is costing to get things wrong and to start spending our money in a completely different way: independent of political agendas, guaranteed for the long-term and focused relentlessly on the first things that must always come first.”
Whatever your place in British society, this is a book worth reading, to go beyond the stereotype presented by the media and those with axes to grind; police officers are human beings too, and improvements to the system under which they work might have been made, but in June 2021, there are obviously still problems with the Metropolitan Police, perceived or otherwise: Guardian article from the 24th of June here. The Daniel Morgan inquiry, recently concluded, has also not helped inspire public confidence: article from The Canary here.