A new BBC documentary series following officers in Stoke shows the alarming incidents they must deal with and their emotional strain
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“Has there ever been a better time to be a criminal?” asks Inspector Jon Ward of Staffordshire Police in the middle of an exhausting shift.
Austerity has seen the force lose more officers than almost any other in England and Wales – over a quarter since 2010.
At the same time, emergency calls have risen by 21 per cent, knife crime has soared by 70 per cent and other agencies have been cut to the bone (Stoke-on-Trent City Council slashed its budget by £194m between 2011 and 2019).
As the first episode of Cops Like Us, a new BBC documentary series, illustrates, the officers are having to deal with everything from suspected kidnappings and stabbings to a woman on probation slitting her wrists, a man having hallucinations on a comedown from “monkey dust” and a King Charles spaniel found in a fast lane.
Chief Constable Gareth Morgan outlines the difficulty of reconciling the scale of the challenges faced by his officers, taking in counterterrorism, hate crime, domestic violence, serious and organised crime and an explosion in online offences, with diminishing police numbers.
With a catch in his voice, the officer of 32 years says to the camera: “I need a minute, actually,” before he bows his head, places his face in his hands and appears to wipe away tears.
“I think people have a view of senior police officers, they probably wouldn’t expect to see somebody getting emotional talking about some of these issues,” he tells i.
“The reality is, in response to the questions I was being asked, I was reflecting about how the decisions I’ve made in the public interest have an impact on the people I work alongside and the public, and those decisions weigh heavily on your shoulders. So, it may well be surprising. I’m fairly unapologetic about it.”
The 53-year-old says he agreed to take part because he wants viewers to see that his colleagues are “caring and they’re compassionate, they’re hard-working. I also think they would see there’s some human side to them, there’s good humour, they’re stoical. Yeah, I’m very proud of them.”
The three-part series, filmed over six months, paints a picture of one of the UK’s most deprived cities, where police officers are increasingly having to function as quasi-social workers. Stoke-on-Trent once prided itself on being home to Royal Doulton and Wedgwood, which furnished its workers with meaningful jobs for life. It now counts Bet365 as its biggest private employer.
Stoke’s Hanley police station could well be a metaphor for the area’s social safety net. As well as leaking ceilings, for a two-week period its lights cut out in the officers’ changing room, “so we have to get dressed in the dark”, and there was no hot water. When a blind broke, the bobbies, convinced it would not get replaced, patched up the window with an evidence bag and masking tape.
Almost half of Staffordshire officers who responded to a Police Federation survey said they worry about money and 60 per cent said they had low morale.
In the programme we see PC Becci Price, an officer for 12 years, called out by a mother after her 11-year-old – who has ADHD, ODD, depression, anxiety, hypervigilance and intermittent explosive disorder – smashed in the front windows of their house.
“This is what happens when the system fails you,” the mum tells the officers. PC Price admits: “I didn’t appreciate before joining just how much a police officer is actually just somebody to help you.”
While attempting to talk down a father threatening to throw himself off a bridge, the 36-year-old is shown opening up about her own life experience. “We join the police to protect people and I think it’s a privilege to enter into people’s lives at such a personal time when they’re absolutely crying out for help,” she says. “We’re just normal people. We’ve got our own families, we’ve got our own issues.”
Mental health, she adds, is “a subject close to my heart and I discuss in the show my cousin taking his own life. I had not actually long finished work that day and I had to go and identify him.
“I just think it’s nice now that we’ve all got the freedom to be more ourselves,” PC Price says of her employer’s approach. “There’s no stigma now. I don’t know anyone in the police that would say: ‘Oh Christ, so and so is struggling.’ Now, they’re all like: ‘Yeah, you are struggling, what can we do to help you?’”
- Cops Like Us begins on Tuesday 17 March at 9pm on BBC2