John Sutherland



John Sutherland: Saving Lives: A Police Officer’s Greatest Duty

I was a police officer in London for more than twenty-five years and I have stood in far too many of the haunted places where boys and young men have lost their lives.

We are facing a humanitarian crisis on our streets and in our homes – and the easiest thing in the world is to look for someone to blame, whether it be politicians, police officers, parents, perpetrators, or whoever else happens to come to mind. The much harder thing to do is to try to understand what’s really happening out there – and what’s actually required by way of a response.

Here is a list of the five things I think we need to do if we are to have any hope of avoiding the continual madness of history repeating itself.

(1) A Long Term Plan
We need a long-term, nationwide violence reduction plan – at least ten years, preferably twenty. We have got to get beyond the relentless demand for quick fixes – understanding the simple truth that, where problems have been a generation or more in the making, they might just take a generation or more to mend.

From a policing perspective, there is an urgent need to get back to the absolute basics: the acknowledgement that the police are the public and the public are the police. Substantial reinvestment in effective neighbourhood policing – built on relationships of trust, established over time within local communities – ought to be the starting point for everything else we attempt to do.

At the same time, we need to understand that whilst the professional and effective use of police Stop & Search powers undoubtedly saves lives, it is not the long term solution to anything.

(2) A Public Health Approach
We need to re-frame our understanding of violence, recognising that it is at least as much a public health issue as it is a crime problem. Violence is a disease that can be caught and transmitted. But it can also be diagnosed and treated.

(3) Young People as the Answer
The current wave of concern tends to define young people as the problem. In fact, they are a very large part of the solution. And we need to involve them in designing and delivering every single aspect of the response to violence.

(4) Operational Independence from Political Control
The delivery of the violence reduction plan needs to remain completely independent from any form of political control. When politicians are in charge, experience suggests that the reaction to any pressing concern remains vulnerable to partisan priorities and shifting political winds. And we simply cannot allow that to keep happening. Some things are far too important to be left to politics. Violence is one of them.

(5) Policing at the Heart, but not the Head
Policing will always be first in line to respond to violence, and that is exactly as it should be. There is no greater duty or privilege for a police officer than to save a life. But the police should not be in overall charge of the plan. Violence is – and has always been – a whole society problem that demands a whole society solution.

The publication of the Youth Violence Commission’s final report is both timely and immensely significant. The report seeks to change, for the better, the conversation we are having about youth violence – not least in deepening our understanding of the underlying causes of youth violence. More than that though, it seeks to change, for the better, our actual response to youth violence. I have no doubt that, if we treat the report with the seriousness and urgency it deserves, and if we determine to act on its recommendations, lives will be saved.

John Sutherland is a former Chief Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police