A police sergeant has told of the incredible pressures of policing in Cambridge which left him in tears in his garage, as data reveals an increase in officers taking time off for stress.
Sgt Shawn Emms, 44, a husband and father of two, broke down after two of his officers were charged at by a woman wielding a knife between Bridge Street and Chesterton Lane last year.
No-one was hurt during the confrontation, but the prospect of something bad happening to his team had a more damaging affect on Sgt Emms' mental health than he anticipated.
'You're sat there and can't do anything'
"They could have been killed," he told the News. "As they stopped at the traffic lights, somebody launched themselves at the van with a knife.
"The first I hear about it is when they're on the radio, 'I've got a woman with a knife, she has attacked the van, stand by, stand by, taser has been deployed, red dot, red dot'.
"You can hear it all and you're sat there and can't do anything."
Sgt Emms has been in the force for nine years. He started the job late after becoming disillusioned with his job as a graphic designer in London.
He works in the 999 call response unit, where he has a team of 10 young police officers.
Sgt Emms and his officers work varying shift patterns, but more often than not have 10-hour shifts.
It is not unusual to work past that by four or five hours. The nature of the job suggests the team go through ups and downs with each other.
As a consequence, Sgt Emms and his team have become like a family.
'What if, what if, what if…'
On November 10 at around 9.30pm, Sgt Emms received a radio transmission from two of his officers, who were being attacked by a woman with a knife in the city.
The woman was arrested shortly after for possession of a knife in a public place.
"They dealt with it brilliantly," he said. "Nobody was hurt.
"But afterwards, I couldn't stop thinking, 'what if, what if, what if'.
"One officer had a seven-month-old baby, then you're thinking 'hang on a minute, they were at risk' and your mind starts racing."
The weight of his responsibilities are great: managing the team by himself, ensuring training and welfare needs are met, not having enough officers to do what he wants to do and uncertainty about his post all took their toll on Sgt Emms.
"I didn't talk about it," he said.
"Working at a graphic design company, you have tight deadlines and just get on with it. I didn't understand what pressure was.
"The incident triggered a different response that I wasn't prepared for.
"One day I was working on something in the garage, then I found myself crying my eyes out and I didn't know why."
Sgt Emms' wife came into the garage and they dissected his life within an hour, where he came to a realisation that he was struggling to handle the job, and was going through mental health problems beyond his control.
"I know officers who have got stress problems, I never knew it would have been me," he said.
"My wife said I was stressed, I should speak to work and go to a doctor.
"I didn't do that, but just the act of talking about it with her helped. Now, I'm open about it because it helps.
"I'm hoping if I'm open about it, everyone else is open about it because we need help to do our job."
What do the figures say?
New data reveals that the number of officers from Cambridgeshire Constabulary taking time off relating to 'psychological illnesses' increased by 11 per cent last year.
A total of 96 officers took time off in 2016, while that number increased to 107 – of which, 20 absences started in 2016.
Cambridgeshire Constabulary admits that policing is "harder than ever" at the moment because of shrinking workforces and budgets.
Total officer numbers in Cambridgeshire are down by 38 since 2013 when the force had 1,383 officers. It now has 1,345.
But the force is gearing up to hire more than 50 new recruits, bringing the number of officers above the 2013 figure.
However, the 126 PCSOs the force currently employs will be reduced by natural turnover with a commitment to retain a minimum of 80 posts.
Below average funding, and fewer officers
Cambridgeshire receives below the national average in funding and has fewer officers per head of population.
It has 2.8 officers per 1,000 compared to 3.6 nationally with 76 per cent of its workforce on the front line, compared to 78 per cent nationally.
There has been a 17 per cent reduction in the force’s workforce since 2010 compared to 15 per cent nationally.
Cambridgeshire has some of the highest levels of 999 and 101 calls in the country at between 190,000 and 210,000 incidents per year.
The constabulary has made savings of £17.2 million over the last five years to meet budget reductions.
And the force faces budget gaps of £2.9 million for 2017/18, £4 million for 2018/19 and £3 million to £4 million in 2019/20.
A Cambridgeshire Constabulary spokeswoman said: "Times are harder than ever in the policing world at the moment, with workforces and budgets shrinking, yet demand for our services increasing.
"We take the wellbeing of our officers and staff extremely seriously and have support teams who offer a wide range of health and wellbeing services, including counselling for those who are suffering from stress or anxiety."
What else is being done to help officers?
Cambridgeshire Constabulary announced a new policing model to tackle what it calls an "unprecedented workload" in November last year.
Chief Constable Alec Wood said that despite the force's recent ‘good’ grading by the police inspectorate, "our current policing model is no longer sustainable".
He said: "It is hampering our ability to manage our demand. Like forces across the country, Cambridgeshire faces an unprecedented workload and, as a result, officers and staff are working long hours and juggling heavy workloads.
“We remain committed to protecting the most vulnerable people and targeting the most serious offenders. But this means we have to be realistic about what we can and cannot attend, and make some difficult decisions about our future structure."
The new system to be introduced in April will include:
- Additional constables to be deployed to the areas of greatest risk and need – frontline, child protection, rape investigation and partnership and operational support
- Demand Hub – "modernises approach to public contact and allows for early and more effective management of demand"
- Creation of MET Hub – focusing on Missing, Exploited and Trafficked children to protect those children most at risk of harm and focus on those offenders who target them
- Retention in the role of PCSOs to deliver neighbourhood policing and problem solving – "Continued commitment to community safety. This is what communities want"
The News published a special report into the realities of modern policing, where reporter Samar Maguire shadowed Sgt Emms on a Friday night shift. Read more here.
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