Where do I start to write this blog? I wanted to write about something topical, something personal, and something people will be enlightened by. I wanted to take the opportunity to share experiences and give both my colleagues and the public an insight into my career. And then it hit me – which as you read on will realise is a rather apt phrase.
I want to share something that a few people know about, but which I don’t talk openly unless asked, and that is my experience with work-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The majority of people will link PTSD with military personnel as that is where much of the publicity comes from, but its reach goes far beyond the awful events taking place in sandpits thousands of miles away. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly nervous at how colleagues who know me might receive it, but I know them to be good people and I’ve never been one for taking the safe option.
My story starts on a mid-week night shift, double crewed with my regular crew-partner on the area car in Great Yarmouth, in the early hours of the morning. I had almost 4 years’ service at this point, was enjoying what I did, and had established myself as a high-performing PC who wanted to be at the forefront of every incident I could get involved in. I was no shrinking violet, had my fair share of exposure to griefy incidents, and had been subject to a handful of assaults which I had brushed off as part of the job.
Responding on 'blues', we were attending the report of a disturbance. As my crew partner and I went into the address to obtain the details of what had gone on, we established the caller was on Court Bail, with conditions to live and sleep elsewhere – but with no warning markers whatsoever on the police national computer system. Cue a list of excuses about how he came to be outside of his curfew times which fell on two pairs of uniformed deaf ears. Few situations are as black-and-white as Court Bail Conditions when they aren’t backed for bail and there was no doubt he was coming in. But I’ll never forget what happened next.
He had been wholly compliant and reasonable with us, despite suspecting he was coming in for a breach of bail. My crew-partner duly said the magic words to which his reply to caution was to agree to come with us. But out of nowhere he lunged for the nearby lounge windowsill, producing from behind the nearest curtain a kitchen knife (who doesn’t keep a kitchen knife on the lounge windowsill?). Holding it to his throat he began shouting about how he was going to kill himself.
Acting on instinct my crew-partner grabbed hold of the wrist controlling the knife, while I put my arm across the male’s neck to put a barrier between his throat and the knife. Despite my colleague’s best efforts the male began trying to stab upwards, over his shoulder, towards my face, the point of blade inches from my left eye. With my free hand I made it to my emergency button, shouting down the now-open mic for all on the talkgroup to hear. They knew where we were already, but the one word I wanted to make clear for anyone listening was “knife”.
I was vaguely aware of all sorts of chatter coming through my earpiece as my colleagues and the nearest Armed Response Vehicle, crewed by two PCs, who have since become good friends of mine, rushed to assist (collecting a Muntjac in the grill of their Volvo if I remember rightly).
My crew-partner managed to pry back the male’s thumb from the handle of the knife, and with an audible ‘pop’ dislocated it, ensuring our possession of the knife. As we were controlling him flat on the floor, our colleagues arrived through what was left of the door, and I recall hearing someone ask behind me “who’s bleeding?” Turning my right hand over, I noticed I had suffered an injury from the blade of the knife, into the side of my hand, and blood was now trickling down my forearm. I hadn’t noticed.
I didn’t dwell too much on what had happened at the time, it was just one of those things, another good story to tell people. We got our man, did our job, and that was that. He was ultimately found guilty of GBH on me and received a suspended sentence, but shortly after being at court he tried to stab a colleague of mine with a screwdriver during a warrant.
My Sergeant thought we did alright at that job, putting us in for Chief Constable’s Commendations, and we were invited to a knees-up for an official pat-on-the-back with biscuits. However, all was not to go smoothly in the run up to my handshake with the Chief.
Early hours on a Sunday morning in April, my crew-partner and I were asked to attend on blues, a disturbance in a house that had been converted to multi-occupancy flats. We had no idea what the details were, the caller spoke no English, and so we were left to find out when we got there. For any other police officers reading this, that will sound all-too familiar.
On arrival I was met with an intoxicated non-English speaking male. The language barrier meant I still couldn’t get detail of what had happened without a translator.
Suddenly, a female in a white dressing gown appeared holding an unplugged internet router and shouting in, what I would find out later, was Albanian.
To this day I have no idea what went on there, what I had originally been called to, or why, at gone-6am in the morning, she felt the need to wave an internet router at me. Suffice to say my crew-partner and I spent a few minutes trying and failing to get to the bottom of it, but I will save you all the detail. It is enough to say the male had assaulted the female and, as I went to arrest him, carnage ensued during which my crew partner ended up scrapping with my prisoner’s son.
The male who I had at least managed to handcuff tried to assault the female again and as I dragged him off, the woman he grabbed hold of the left shoulder of my body armour. He then threw me around like a ragdoll, first into the railings on the stairs, then into the wall, where my head connected neatly with a light fitting. For anyone who has worn similar items to body armour, you will understand how once someone is locked onto your vest you can’t just slip out of it and escape, it is now simply a fight until they let go.
I ended up in a headlock, fuzzy from what would later be diagnosed as concussion, while he began to squeeze around my throat. I managed to hit my emergency button on my radio, unaware that my crew-partner had already done so, but did not have the sense or ability to shout anything worthwhile to the colleagues I desperately hoped were coming.
The rest I don’t fully remember and I was, and remain, fully blind to the fight that my colleague was having which was equally as desperate and had led to both him and his prisoner becoming contaminated with PAVA spray.
My vision began to contract, with darkness setting in from my peripheral vision towards the centre and, at that moment, I was convinced he was going to kill me. It is the only time in my career I have thought I was going to not make it home. I was struggling to breathe, in a position of weakness, my PAVA was useless, I had my baton out but, as I couldn’t swing it effectively, it was equally as useless.
As he slowly suffocated me, my vision reduced to the stage that all I could see was an area about the size of a tennis ball, right in the middle of my field of view. Everything else outside of that tennis ball space was just black....and getting blacker.
Using my body weight I managed to topple the pair of us to the floor causing him to release me, and I formed some semblance of grip around the handcuffs that were on his wrists. I held on tight and put my hands underneath my body, laying on top of them in my last ditch attempt to control him. If I could keep control of the ‘cuffs then I might now be okay.
The last thing I remember in my tennis-ball field of view, was seeing the bottom of the door open and assorted pairs of black boots coming past me. I blacked out on top of my prisoner and was carried out from the address by my colleagues, where I was driven to hospital by my friends.
I went to A&E, was told I had concussion, and some hours later returned to the nick to book off and go home. I remained on duty until I had completed my statement, meaning I didn’t leave until 1pm – 6 hours after my tour had finished. When I got home I took my uniform off to find burn marks around my neck, back and shoulder where the body armour had dug into me. I had a lump on the back of my head, bruises starting to come up on my face and arms, and cuts to my face and hands.
My mum cried when she saw what had happened to me – I was in my early 20s and still lived at home, and I couldn’t hide how late home I was or the injuries I had. Seeing the effect my chosen career had on my family will stay with me and it is a lesson I will always remember, how our careers affect those around us. I was in work a few hours later for my next night shift.
Over the next few months I carried on working as I always had, positive these events had not affected me, but I began attracting complaints of incivility. I was becoming abrupt and intolerant with the public, my colleagues and my supervisors. I was summoned to see my Inspector, who told me to take a look at my behaviour and asked me whether or not this job was right for me.
I broke down in his office. The first – and only – time I had shown any sort of emotion like that at work.
Thanks to some wonderful support from my shift Sergeant I was immediately offered some sick leave (which I staunchly refused, accepting non-public facing duties for a fortnight as a compromise), and was put in touch with a counselor through Occupational Health. I felt embarrassed that this had happened, felt weak and as if I wasn’t good enough for this job that I enjoyed so much, but I was diagnosed as experiencing a form of PTSD due to these events. I remember being told how a number of events combined with what, on reflection, was me being too invested in my work, had led to me experiencing my final straw.
I spoke about the sleepless nights and flashbacks I was having, where I would think back to being in that hallway or having that knife in front of my face. The feelings of anger and resentment I felt when I imagined the sheer contempt and hatred that some individuals had shown me. How dare they make me work all night, call up at the drop of a hat, and summon me to their house only to do that to me? What gives them the right? As soon as I felt or said such a thing I felt horrendous guilt at my sweeping generalisation and the feelings I was struggling to come to terms with. I took such pride in what we all do in policing but I felt angry at what had happened to me. I began questioning my decision-making; if I had done things differently maybe it wouldn’t have happened? Did I bring it on myself?
Whilst going through this period, I went to a Commendation Event where the then-Chief Constable Phil Gormley would shake my hand for the action taken in detaining the chap with the knife. Unbeknown to me after the presentations, my Sergeant – who was also in attendance that night – took the opportunity to tell the Chief of the difficulties I was having. The next morning I had a voicemail left on my phone from him, telling me to keep my chin up and if there was anything I needed I was to contact him. I really appreciated this and I have since had the opportunity to tell him so, but I was never going to bother the Chief with something so trivial as my problems.
The Chief however had other ideas.
At a training event some weeks later, then-Deputy Chief Constable Simon Bailey asked to speak to me. I didn’t associate the two events until he explained why he had sought me out. He told me the Chief had asked him to chat to me on his behalf and see how I was, spending twenty minutes walking around the site with me, hearing my concerns and letting my vent my anger in a way that I expect junior officers rarely get to do with their Chief Officers. Truth is, I was so angry and became so lost in my rant that I forgot who I was addressing and my tone unfortunately reflected that
A year later I saw Mr Bailey at the same annual event and thanked him for his time the previous year, telling him it was that conversation that had kept me from leaving the job. I now work with him most days since being selected to undertake the role of Staff Officer to the Assistant Chief Constables. I will always be hugely thankful to him for his time, his honesty, and his kindness, and whilst many police colleagues bemoan their ‘useless’ Chief Officers, I feel differently.
My struggles with PTSD are minor in comparison to some others, but were significant for me as an individual. They affected me at home and at work, damaged relationships with friends and family, and impacted upon my performance at a job I thoroughly enjoy. I have told people the specifics, conscious of the label it may attract and the damage it may do to the image I like to portray of myself, but I thankfully have had no issues for years and I feel just as I did long before any of this became a problem.
But if in writing this it helps one colleague who has experienced something similar, educates one member of public or journalist who sees us as nothing more than lazy, overweight whingers, or reminds one Chief Officer or senior manager of the sacrifices made by their staff up and down the country every single day, then it will have been a worthwhile contribution to what is already proving to be a popular blog.
I am proud of what I do, those I work with at all ranks, and the communities I help keep safe. The job can be extremely dangerous but also incredibly rewarding – despite the lack of thanks I think we receive. But it’s fair to say that despite all of this, and all of the politics we’re surrounded by, I still wouldn’t do anything else.
An amazing story from Joe and just one from the men and women up and down the country who literally can put their lives on the line every day to keep us all safe. Has your job affected your own mental health? Maybe you serve in the police and can relate to Joe's story. Either way, let us know in the comments below.
You can keep up-to-date with Joe on Twitter, where he's @SgtJoeSimon. Alternatively, if you're up to no good in Norfolk, you may just come across him in person ;-)