John Sutherland is a hero of mine, and I don’t use the word hero lightly. He is a former Borough Commander with the Metropolitan Police retiring in 2018. He has dealt with and has an understanding of some of the most invasive and damaging issues that we face as a society. His books act as a vital bridge between the police and public, they offer an insight, and his latest book Crossing the Line which is published on 14th May 2020, offers answers. His blog pieces strike a chord, and when he speaks in public you can see and feel people intently listening, learning, appreciating. I’ve heard him speak on several occasions, always inspiring, but I will never forget attending the Chiddingstone Literary Festival in 2018. He was up on stage with Erwin James (journalist, author, and trustee of the Prison Reform Trust), and John mentions this meeting in Crossing the Line, two years later and I can still feel their connection and hear their words. While what John has to say is hard-hitting, he has true empathy, and is also wonderfully balanced. I believe that everyone in our country (including our politicians) would learn something if they read Crossing the Line, for me, this book really is that important. John very kindly agreed to answer some questions for LoveReading, and for those of you who have read or will go on to read his books, the last question reveals a humdinger of an answer!
John Sutherland is a married father of three, who lives with his wife and children in South London. He joined the Metropolitan Police in 1992, serving for more than 25 years until his retirement in 2018. Having won the Baton of Honour as the outstanding recruit in his training-school intake, he rose through the ranks to become a highly respected senior officer. During his career, he worked in a variety of roles across the Capital, both in uniform and as a detective. He is an experienced Hostage & Crisis Negotiator and Premier League Football Match Commander. His last operational posting was as the Borough Commander for Southwark.
John is the author of the Sunday Times bestseller, Blue: A Memoir, which tells the remarkable stories of his policing life and describes his battle with crippling depression. His second book, Crossing the Line will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in May 2020.
Congratulations on your second book, it is a book that I feel everyone should read. How important was it for you to act as a bridge between the public, the police, and the issues we all, as a society, face?
You’re kind… I suppose the book is really a cry of the heart. The painful privilege of policing is to see all of life and all of death - and everything in between. It’s a job that offers a singular, shattering perspective on the world around us. As a serving officer, I realised that - on a daily basis - I was seeing things and hearing things and being called upon to deal with things that most of the rest of the world remained largely unaware of: knife crime and domestic violence and child abuse and extremism and all the rest. It wasn’t that people didn’t care about those things, it was simply that they didn’t know about the reality. And it left me wondering whether I had some sort of responsibility - a duty even - to tell the world beyond policing about the world that policing inhabits and reveals. The book is an invitation to people to cross the line from one side of the blue and white cordon tape to the other, and to stay for a while in the places where police officers spend their working lives.
You have the ability to look beyond the problem, to not only what the cause may be, but how that could be solved. Is it something you do naturally or is it a skill you’ve developed over your years in the police?
I’m still very much a learner - but I don’t think it does much good to point out a problem unless you are also prepared to suggest what ought to be done about it. The world is full of armchair critics who are remarkably quick to find fault in almost anything, but we need to do a whole lot better than that. We need to understand what's happening out there in the real world and, just as importantly, we need to understand why it’s happening. Why are so many boys and young men dying on our streets? Why are so many women being murdered in their own homes? What is extremism on the rise? These are some of the most urgent questions of our time and I wrote the book in an attempt to answer them.
If you hadn’t become a police officer, is there another job you think you could have settled into?
From about the age of about sixteen, all I ever really wanted to do was become a police officer. It was the only application form I ever filled out and the only interview I ever went for. And it set me off on the adventure of a lifetime. I still think that it’s the finest thing any of us could ever choose to do with our working lives.
You wrote Blue: A Memoir before you retired, when did you start to think about writing Crossing the Line, and did writing after you’d left make a difference to your voice?
Blue was very much my story. Crossing the Line tells a much bigger story - about policing and what it reveals about the world we live in. I started writing it just over 18 months ago, but much of the content of the finished book is a reflection of concerns that I have held for many, many years. By way of example, I have been writing and speaking about knife crime for more than a decade. Likewise, Domestic Violence, which I continue to regard as the single greatest cause of harm in society.
Retirement perhaps offers a little more freedom to talk about these things, but I have always wanted to remain constructive in what I write and I hope that what I have said in Crossing the Line is consistent with the things I was saying as a serving officer.
How has the transition from police officer to member of the public been for you, or do you forever wear blue?
When I retired, my wife and daughters gave me a small silver band that I wear on my wrist. It’s engraved with the words ‘Always a boy in blue’. Policing is like a family to me: I still love the job and I still love the people who do the job. I might not be able to do it any more, but I will always be fiercely proud of the fact that I was a boy in blue.
You've got a young family. What's it like trying to balance writing and home-schooling during lockdown?
Like everyone else I suspect, we’re making up as we go along. Our girls are all of secondary school age and they’re pretty good at just getting on with things - which is just as well, because I haven’t got a clue about most of what is being asked and expected of them! My wife Bear is - as ever - being completely amazing. Home school is based in the sitting room and Bear and I do most of our writing and other work in the kitchen. So far, we seem to be doing alright!
What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since becoming an author.
I still haven’t quite got used to the idea of being an author - it seems too grown up a word to use! If people ask me what I do, I tend to say that I "write a bit and talk a bit”… And I love doing both (though all my speaking work has all been cancelled since the virus hit). The most unexpected things have all been delightful things: being invited to literary festivals, meeting other authors, finding myself in a world that I had never previously imagined being part of. And I still haven’t got used to seeing my name printed on the front of a book.
What was your favourite childhood book and which author do you turn to now?
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I loved reading them as a child and I loved reading them to my own children. I still find them completely captivating.
These days, I turn to all sorts of different authors - but the stories I love most are the ones that bring hope. In the last year or two, I have loved books like Becoming by Michelle Obama, Spitfire by John Nichol and Sevens Heaven by Ben Ryan: three very different kinds of book, but all with hope at the heart of them.
Much of the media coverage of policing during the virus lockdown has seemed to focus on the negative. Why do you think that is?
To some extent, I think it's always been that way, particularly in the last ten years, when the public narrative about policing - led by certain politicians and certain newspapers - has been remarkably hostile. The focus has been relentlessly on the negative: the police are racist; the police are corrupt; the police are incompetent; the police are misusing their powers. And so it goes on.
I feel a mixture of anger and sadness when I read the latest headline confecting rage at a job I love with all my heart and soul. So much of the reason why I write - whether on Twitter, on my blog, or in the books - is to try to tell a different kind of story.
I’m absolutely not a blind apologist for policing. Sometimes police officers - individually and collectively - get things terribly wrong and the consequences can be devastating when they do. I think that society has every right to expect higher standards of police officers than they do of anyone else - and we must never tire of holding policing up to the light. But there has got to be balance. For every negative story about policing, I could tell you a hundred extraordinary ones. For more than twenty-five years, I worked with heroes - and theirs are tales that demand to be told.
And finally, of course we’d like to know what’s next?
I’m looking forward to going wherever the adventure takes me. First up is my first attempt at writing fiction!