'It's a very tough job emotionally - I saw a man slash his throat in front of me' - Sheffield police officer opens up about stress
A heroic Sheffield police officer who bravely tackled a knifeman while he was off-duty in London says it’s good to be back in his home city.
Sergeant James Marshall has been busy since returning to the streets where he grew up, after a decade with the Metropolitan Police, having already helped arrest a suspected arsonist and uncover an axe believed to have been used in a spate of burglaries.
He heads up the response team based at Woodseats police station, from where he and his nine constables cover a huge area stretching from Lowedges to Sharrow, dealing with breaking incidents from assaults to burglaries.
The 32-year-old, who was born near Crystal Peaks and grew up around Dronfield, joined South Yorkshire Police as a PCSO straight out of university before moving to London to become a constable.
“They weren’t recruiting PCs in South Yorkshire at the time so I thought I’d go and see the big smoke, because I fancied an exciting challenge,” says James, who rejoined the force in February this year.
“I always intended to return to Sheffield and thought I’d only be in London for a couple of years, but life got in the way and I ended up being there for a decade.
“It’s so good being home and being able to police the city where I grew up, which I feel extremely passionate about.”
As a Sheffield United fan, he’s timed his homecoming perfectly to coincide with the club’s promotion to the Premier League, and the keen footballer and basketball player hopes to take in a few games this season.
Although he’s thrilled to be back, it’s not been an easy return, with South Yorkshire Police feeling the impact of cuts which have affected forces across the country.
James tells how he and his small team are under huge pressure as they struggle to keep on top of their busy workload but he is proud of the job they’re doing with limited resources.
“I thought the Met had been hit hard by the cuts but I think South Yorkshire’s been hit even harder, which is a shame,” he says.
“We’d love to be able to respond to every call immediately but unfortunately there aren’t enough officers so we have to prioritise those where people are most at risk.
“I feel people’s frustration. I’ve had to call the police myself before and I know every minute feels like a lifetime when you’re waiting for an officer to turn up, but if they could spend a day at the station and see the pressure we’re under I think they would understand.
“One man was upset because we’d not been able to get out to him straight away but that changed when we explained how someone had gone missing after saying he was going to kill himself and we were able to potentially save that person’s life by finding him and getting him to hospital.”
Each of James’ officers has between 10 and 20 cases on their books at any one time, and the team typically handles 10 to 30 incidents a day, though a major one could tie them up for the whole day.
They are so stretched, he explains, he often has to ask his constables to cancel family plans at short notice to work extra or extended shifts – something he feels ‘terrible’ about doing.
But even worse than the long and unpredictable hours is the psychological toll of the often harrowing events they witness.
“It’s a very tough job emotionally, because of what you see and have to deal with it – not so much for me, because a lot of what I do now is admin, but for my officers,” says James.
“Only the other week somebody cut his throat in front of me. Thankfully he was alright but that’s the kind of thing my officers are experiencing all the time.
“It’s good having someone to talk to at home but our team is like a small family too. We’re very close-knit because we deal with a lot together and see so much serious stuff, and you need the support of your colleagues to get through it day to day.
“The people are definitely the best part of the job. We’ve got some real characters on the team and we’re able to have a good laugh, despite everything, because you need humour as a release valve.”
It’s not just his colleagues who help James get through the day, but seeing the difference they make to people’s lives.
In some cases that is obvious, like when they attended a report of domestic violence to be told ‘thank God you’re here. I thought they were going to kill me’.
But just a smile or a friendly word from members of the public can be the difference between a bad day and a good one.
“You deal with the worst people in society and sometimes morale can get pretty low, especially after long shifts, so when people stop to say thank you it really is appreciated," he says.
James always knew he wanted to join the police, and as a 10-year-old, he sheepishly admits, used to check cars for expired tax discs – much to his friends’ bemusement.
He studied architectural technology at Sheffield Hallam University but never finished the course, instead leaping at the chance to become one of the city’s first police community support officers.
“I hate seeing anyone being wronged by people who think they can take advantage of that person, and I wanted to be the one who would do something about that,” he says.
James worked for two years as a PCSO in Darnall and Attercliffe before moving to the capital – a period he describes as tough but fulfilling, during which his colleague was hit by a brick and they also came under attack with fireworks.
During the London riots in 2011, he was yards from where a man was killed in Ealing after trying to stamp out a fire near his home.
James described the scene of ‘devastation’ he witnessed that night, when he was one of around a dozen officers without any protective gear who found themselves in a stand-off with some 100 members from a well-known gang, who were hurling bricks and other missiles their way.
The officers were preparing to charge the rioters to get to the man when reinforcements in riot gear arrived and managed to reach him, though sadly he could not be saved.
“How no officer was killed or seriously injured that night I have no idea,” he says.
The weeks that followed – during which he worked 12 straight days of 12 hour shifts – were ‘absolutely exhausting’ but as terrifying and tiring as it was he is ‘glad to have been there and to have done our best’.
Even amid that dark episode, he is able to find the humour, telling how during a subsequent skirmish he confronted looters in a wine bar who began hurling bottles at him and his colleagues.
“As the bottles smashed around us you could smell it was good quality wine, and it turned out some of those bottles they were throwing were worth one or two hundred pounds,” he says.
Another time in Ealing, he attended a huge gang clash between rival mobs armed with knives and machetes, during which several people were stabbed and a firefighter who tried to help had acid thrown in his face.
At one point, he says, someone got off a bus and let off a ‘couple of pops’ off a shotgun.
He was later chasing two people, one with a knife and another who appeared to be carrying a table leg. He caught the knifeman but the second man got away, which may have been a blessing as what he thought was a table leg turned out to have been the shotgun which was fired earlier.
James was promoted to sergeant in London and ended his time there in Camden, where he helped bust a prolific gang who had stolen hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of tools from vehicles around the capital.
He once had his nose broken arresting a suspected child abductor but his worst injury came when he was off duty and tackled a knifeman he spotted threatening someone with a ‘huge’ blade.
He broke his arm and dislocated his wrist during the struggle but says it was only after the man had been arrested and the adrenaline died down that he realised how serious his injuries were.
James loves the fast-paced nature of his work but is sometimes frustrated that his team are there to provide what he calls a ‘quick fix’, saving lives and preventing damage to property, rather than a long term solution.
That’s what the neighbourhood teams are for, he says, praising the job they and the rest of the force do with limited resources.
“The police officers I've met in Sheffield are as good as any I’ve seen in the country,” he says.