This is part one of a two part blog written for Oscar Kilo by Sarah Jane Lennie, a serving police officer on a career break after fifteen years of police service and currently on a scholarship at Manchester Metropolitan University studying for a doctorate.
Her thesis is: Emotional In-authenticity: the psychological consequences of emotional labour for police officers.
Before she explains her research, she tells us a bit about herself and how she got to be on a career break studying for a PhD.
I believe that story telling is the most natural way to connect with those around us – it also helps us deal with the challenges we experience and the emotions that are connected to those experiences. It stops us feeling alone.
I have had a pretty interesting and varied career until this point. At 19 I ran away from home (well, not strictly true, I went to the Army careers office in Liverpool first) to join the British Army as a musician – a French Horn player in fact. I did pretty well here and enjoyed life, I excelled at being a squaddie, picking up awards for Best Shot, Best PT and Best New Recruit, and then went on to be awarded ‘best female musician’. I saw a bit of the world; Cyprus, Turkey, America and learnt to ride a motor bike – surprisingly still alive to tell the tale!
From there I went back to full time education and studied for my undergrad – in Shipping Operations! Well, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do then and I was really interested in sailing and the law.
It was this interest in the law that really got me – and the idea of being active and contributing to the world. Having seen both my parents do it, I joined the police. At this time I was ‘down south’ in Southampton, so I joined Hampshire Constabulary. A great decision. I loved being a police officer, I quickly got my first promotion and awards for leadership, and after working as a uniform Inspector, with four years’ service, I decided to become a Detective – and made the transition.
Having tried a variety of a roles in Hampshire my head turned to bigger and greater challenge, and my love of the north; I saw an advert for the North West Counter Terrorism Unit. I then worked in child protection in central Manchester before heading up the rape unit as Detective Sergeant. Long hours and intense investigation ensued – but this is what I loved, the cut and thrust of detective work. It was then that I spotted the advert – Special Branch were looking for a Detective Sergeant to work within the North West Counter Terrorism Unit. I moved into that role for three years before deciding to make the move to progress my career and I became staff officer to an Assistant Chief Constable and was enrolled on the High Potential Development Scheme.
It was then that I moved to become a Detective Inspector back covering the South of the city with no idea it was to be the last stage of my career. One sunny day in March 2014 I paraded on as DI SJ Lennie – the station was pretty quiet, no one else around, so I found what I presumed was my office and sat down and waited for the computer to flicker into life. Not long after I had sat down the Detective Sergeant for the intelligence unit came in and talked me through a set of intelligence which led, to a ‘threat to life’. A ‘threat to life’ in police context is a high level strand of intelligence where the police believe that someone’s life is under significant and imminent threat. Needless to say I was late off that night, and the next and the night after that. Days turned into weeks, turned into months which turned into exhaustion.
I have a high level of commitment to detail and professionalism, I always seek to identify and minimise risk. I take responsibility and can’t walk away until the job is done to the best possible level. I always look after my staff and support them through the challenges we face – I need to be there for them, I need to be strong for them and we faced many challenges. At the beginning I knew that I would have a heightened level of stress, that I would worry about every angle of every day, I expected this to level out as I became more comfortable with my role, but with each new investigation, with every new death, threat, kidnapping, rape, shooting, attempt murder, robbery… I became more afraid.
I can pin the moments when it was beginning to dawn on me that something wasn’t right. The first night that I didn’t sleep one second, but was so completely wired that I got out of bed at seven and went for a run and then on to a full day – without blinking. The moment when I was driving to another death and my husband called me to ask if we could visit family that Sunday, and I realised that I couldn’t because I had an assignment to submit (did I mention that as part of the promotion scheme I was studying for an MSc. with Warwick University) and sobbed until I reached the scene, then got out of the car and climbed into my white paper suit. When I was regularly working fourteen/fifteen hour days, and resented my job for not allowing me to see my husband (we had only been married six months) because I was too scared to stop working and go home. When I worked 24.5 hours none stop and went back into work after six hours, only to work another twelve. When I couldn’t stop crying when I did get home. When my heart rate was so high I didn’t feel I could get enough air – when I was lying in bed. When I felt so alone in my office and that I was the only one left to manage all the risk… when I came home and begged my husband to help me make it stop.
I give myself some credit for my self-awareness. I knew I was suffering and I knew that if I didn’t make changes I was going to suffer a lot worse. I had heard about the brilliant hard working officers that one day couldn’t get out of bed and spent months ill. I needed to make changes. I went and spoke with my DCI, he listened – and gave me lots of reassurance and a little pep talk. No, I was doing the right thing, yes, the senior management team thought I was doing a great job – which is why they were leaving me alone to carry on, and yes, everyone feels the way I did from time to time.
Excellent – I’m a top banana and everyone feels terrified in the police… surely this isn’t right?
I sought some counselling and tried to carry on with my role. I spoke to people a lot and tried to be rational with my thinking… but in the end…
I clearly remember my last job as a DI. It was a cold winter’s day, I was stood out in the middle of a field in a pair of wellies and a white SOCO suit, instructing the cadaver dog handler to look for a dead baby. A couple of hours earlier I had been in my office deciphering letters written by the absent parents (post finger printing) who wanted to be reunited with their child. Ten years ago I would have been looking for little signs as to how I could find them, who they were, what had happened…on this day it was all I could do to fight back the tears as I became overwhelmed with the sadness of their loss and desperation; I couldn’t see the words, never mind find the clues. I was completely emotionally compromised… I knew I couldn’t lead my team like this and I knew that I couldn’t carry on.
I took logical and reasonable steps. I made my decision, I asked to step down from my role and move onto a project – this would give me breathing space to decide what was next. For now I was mourning the loss of my career – it was a long time before I could say the words ‘I can’t be a DCI’ without welling up. I had always dreamt that I would go on to be a Detective Chief Inspector leading murder investigations, and occasionally partaking in a glass of whiskey at the successful conviction of a killer. It was difficult to admit that I was no longer cut out for the role. You can tell me that I haven’t failed… but I won’t believe you. That is how it is with the job.
So what next…
I worked on the project for a while whilst I licked my wounds and thought about my future. It was clear to me that I would have to leave the police. A lot of people advocated using my status to get into a more ‘back office’ role, where I would be more protected from operational policing, but I knew this wasn’t me. I need to be proud of what I do, I can’t hide for an easy life. Whatever I was going to do, I was going to do it to the best of my ability and I wanted to hold my head high.
The things that I knew about myself were that I really enjoyed leading people and I cared passionately for the staff that worked in the police. I had commissioned some work whilst I was a DI with an outside company to conduct some occupational psychological assessments on the sub division after the sudden loss of one of our Detective Sergeants. I was really interested in how team dynamics played out in supporting roles and creating a sense of ‘family’. This is one of the many ways that officers get through the daily business as an officer, it is a powerful element of the organisation but one that is so undervalued and overlooked.
At the same time I became aware of a new initiative in the organisation: ‘well-being’. This was news to me, there was an element of the organisation that was also identifying the need to look closely into how we support our staff to get through their daily lives as officers. I made contact with the wellbeing team and learnt what they were doing and what they were trying to achieve. I told them my story and they listened with understanding – one was an organisational psychologist and the other a sports and wellbeing psychologist.
They both supported me and gave me complete insight into the work that they were doing and I began my own research, I looked at the pressure that officers were under with the reduction of staff, the increase in work load and scrutiny and the greater exposure to trauma. I read all I could on wellbeing, the importance of leadership and support, autonomy in role and understanding of role. I learnt about mindfulness (and began to practice) and the different coping mechanisms that were available. At the same time I was exploring my own story with time in counselling and understanding how I had got to the point and location my life.
I realised that the work that the wellbeing team were doing was invaluable if my colleagues were going to make it through the difficult times that they were experiencing, I also recognised that the service was due to experience another round of cuts – and that this team and the work they were doing was vulnerable. Having a good understanding of the strategic running of the organisation I knew that this team needed in some way to prove the impact that they were having and how this was important to articulate to the organisation. So I offered to work on an evaluation piece for wellbeing in the organisation. I exploited my learning from my PGdip study at Warwick and self-taught myself research methods, I wrote the methodology and rationale, spending hours after work researching current published writing; I immersed myself in the world of wellbeing and what it meant to not just the police but to any organisation and society as a whole. I quickly became passionate about looking at how we experienced our working lives, how our long hours cultures, our meeting to meeting lunches, our criticism of mistakes – our fear of ‘failure’ our lack of support and understanding, our intolerance of difference – our inflexibility and our inability to talk to each other was crippling our health, our mental health, our productivity, our creativity, our happiness, our ability to be present with our families both physically and mentally…our lives.
It was here that I realised what it was that I was going to do next.
If I can’t work as a police officer helping people, then I can work helping the people that do.
This is why I am doing my research.
I am starting by giving my colleagues their voice – an authentic voice that gives them the opportunity to say how it is for them – but with the security of confidentiality.
But I want to do it in such a way that it can’t be ignored, that is credible and relates to a reality that goes to the heart of what it is to be a police officer.
So my research captures the emotional narrative of police officers living and breathing the job through the recording of diaries.
Each one has a story and I want them to tell that story, exactly as it is – inner emotions and displayed emotions. Hidden fears, anxieties and frustrations. And the passion for why they do what they do.
From this I am going to work out just exactly what the rules around feeling and displaying emotion are within our organisation.
Then I am going to take this collective voice and give it a platform, a place from where it can be heard.
You can read more about Sarah’s research in the second part of her blog that we will be publishing soon: Sarah Jane Lennie: My Research
Sarah’s blog: thereflectivedetective.wordpress.com