Ex-police chief John Sutherland: The cop who led Islington’s response to Ben Kinsella’s murder
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Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of Ben Kinsella’s murder. John Sutherland was one of Islington’s top cops at the time. He recalls the effect it had on him, and how the case changed the police’s approach to dealing with knife crime.
Every police officer comes across a case they will never forget. For John Sutherland, Ben Kinsella was one of them.
John, now retired, was a superintendent with Islington Police at the time of Ben’s murder.
He was in charge of leading the force’s immediate response to the tragedy, ensuring there were no reprisals or escalations and reassuring the community.
“It’s absolutely one of those cases where I remember where I was when I heard about it,” he tells the Gazette. “It was a Sunday, it was my day off, and I was in my kitchen when a report came through on the radio.
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“I remember standing at our kitchen sink, looking at our little back yard, absorbing what I was hearing and feeling sadness: professionally and personally. Sometimes you can’t help it when a victim was on your watch.
“There was a press conference at Islington police station a couple of days after. His dad George and sister Brooke were there a little early. For five minutes, it was just the three of us waiting in my office. They can’t remember this – and why would they? – but I promised I would do everything to try and prevent this happening again.
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“It was a promise that shaped a lot of my work ever since, and in reality it’s a promise I wasn’t able to keep. But it doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it with all my heart. As an officer, there are days you just never forget, and that was one of them.”
At the time, John was still reeling from another senseless knife murder in his former west London patch a year before. Kodjo Yenga was chased and stabbed in the heart.
John joined the Met in 1992, leaving in 2013 after he suffered a major breakdown and crippling depression. A career of being at the centre of catastrophes had destroyed his mental health.
He has since spoken eloquently and honestly about his trauma. Last year, he released an acclaimed memoir, Blue. Brooke calls John her “superhero”.
John says: “You carry a professional burden. But let me make clear: that burden is nothing compared to the families.
“In my career in four different London boroughs, I dealt with the aftermath of the murders of four different young men. Cumulatively, that can’t fail to have an impact. In some small way, I carry a little piece of each of them.”
‘Stop and search saves lives – but is not a long-term solution’
Did Ben Kinsella’s murder change the police’s approach to knife crime?
John Sutherland explains: “The conversation tends to be around stop and search, or tougher sentencing. My position on stop and search is clear: it saves lives. But it’s not a long-term solution.
“So after Ben’s murder, I set up a dedicated youth engagement team. Its only job, day-to-day, was to be out in the streets, in the youth clubs, in the schools and engaging young people. I think it was reasonably successful and there was certainly a drop in youth murders.”
There have been too many knife deaths in Islington since 2008. But why does Ben’s still resonate so strongly?
“It’s a reflection on contemporary culture, not Ben’s family, but there was the very basic fact that he had a famous sister.
“But each life is precious. Each of these stories are heartbreaking. And we need to keep talking about all of them, otherwise the watching world becomes complacent.”