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Protecting sources to harrowing stories - what is it like to be a police officer?

PUBLISHED: 08:10 02 December 2019 | UPDATED: 09:08 02 December 2019

Steve Hunt, a police officer who has retired after 27 years in the force and three years in the Royal Navy. Photo: Steve Hunt

Steve Hunt, a police officer who has retired after 27 years in the force and three years in the Royal Navy. Photo: Steve Hunt

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It's rare we see inside the day-to-day of a police officer.

DC Steve Hunt has been diagnosed with PTSD after four years working on the child abuse unit in Norfolk Police. Picture: Steve HuntDC Steve Hunt has been diagnosed with PTSD after four years working on the child abuse unit in Norfolk Police. Picture: Steve Hunt

Putting TV dramas aside, our dealings with the force tend to come in times of need - when pondering a life in law and order is far from a priority.

But as Mr Hunt begins a new chapter, he has reflected on 27 years in almost every corner of the force, including a role leading the fight against online child abuse nationally.

It was in 1992 that the father-of-five first signed up to Norfolk police, having spent three years in the Royal Navy and a handful more in civilian jobs, including a furniture factory.

His first role was a bobby on the beat in Earlham, covering Larkman and Bowthorpe, which he said was a "steep learning curve" for a new recruit.

"Along with Mile Cross, those were the areas where you learned really quickly," he said. "We had some really good times in the first four or five years, you get to know your crew partner really well and there is a real team mentality."

Over time, the lure of criminal investigation began, and in 1997 he moved to a plain-clothes drugs unit.

Another teenager has been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage after wing mirrors were knocked off eight cars. Picture: James BassAnother teenager has been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage after wing mirrors were knocked off eight cars. Picture: James Bass

"We had a real impact with that," he said. "It was really successful, so much so that the criminal community said they had no idea if it was you knocking at the door."

He then became a detective, first in the stolen motor vehicles squad and later as a source handler, a now heavily-regulated role he said threw him "into the murky world of criminality".

It saw him work with criminals who would give police information in exchange for payment or a letter to the court detailing their helpful attitude.

"That work is vital because it goes on in the background but the intelligence could be quite hot, it's in the moment," he said. "You could action it and get to a crime in progress, or prevent a crime altogether, which is obviously the best outcome.

"At one point Norwich was called the whispering city because everyone was talking to everyone."

Later, he joined the criminal investigation department (CID), dealing with everything from burglaries to serious sexual assaults.

Steve Hunt, a police officer who has retired after 27 years in the force and three years in the Royal Navy. Photo: Steve HuntSteve Hunt, a police officer who has retired after 27 years in the force and three years in the Royal Navy. Photo: Steve Hunt

"Generally as an officer it is very rare that you would leave your work at the door," he said. "You carry things home, you think about what you'll do the next day.

"I tried to keep myself on an even keel. It's very easy to become absorbed in the police life to the exclusion of all else. You have to find balance."

Specialising in serious sexual assaults, he would sometimes be called out in the middle of the night to respond to incidents.

"You're obviously not getting paid for that, but it doesn't matter as it's so important," he said. "It's quite harrowing listening to the victims' stories, and it means you want to do right by them."

As his young family grew, Mr Hunt, 52, then worked in Dereham and Thetford before returning to Norwich.

It was in 2014 that an opportunity arose in a new unit, which would become the most defining period of his career.

Chief Constable Simon Bailey at Norfolk Constabulary Headquarters, Wymondham. Photo : Steve AdamsChief Constable Simon Bailey at Norfolk Constabulary Headquarters, Wymondham. Photo : Steve Adams

The online child sexual abuse team began with a handful of officers, as the force fought to keep up with the growing pace of the crime.

The scale of the issue became apparent at a Europol training course in Germany, through a live map showing people accessing the material live. Pins started to drop like "rainfall".

MORE: Norfolk's online child abuse unit makes 44 arrests in six months

"I realised we have got a real battle on our hands," he said. "That gave me a real impetus, even though it was hideous. I don't think I believed in a job as much as that one."

Steve Hunt, a police officer who has retired after 27 years in the force and three years in the Royal Navy. Photo: Steve HuntSteve Hunt, a police officer who has retired after 27 years in the force and three years in the Royal Navy. Photo: Steve Hunt

Over the next few years, he pored over the disturbing images, trying to identify both victims and offenders.

His ability - one test put him in the top 1pc of people in the country for facial recognition - saw many offenders put behind bars.

"I think they are pathetic," he said. "They are manipulative because that's part of the grooming process, but they are pathetic.

"Some are remorseful, some actually say 'here it is, take it' because they don't know how else to stop."

But the pressure of the job mounted and resulted in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"It was quite subtle to start with, and I didn't equate it to having anything to do with the job," he said. "Then it became more explosive, more frequent, and I'd think 'what was that about'?"

PC Kyle Gray on his beat in Motum Road.
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLYPC Kyle Gray on his beat in Motum Road. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Nightmares, suicidal thoughts and breathlessness followed, but swift support from the force, who referred him onto the Walnut Tree Health and Wellbeing service, was a saviour.

His final stint in the force involved missing persons, adult sex work, slavery and trafficking, but, though it was not an easy choice, he decided it was time to step back.

And what he'll miss most? His colleagues.

"They are just ordinary people like you and I but they are doing the most extremely difficult job in the most challenging circumstances," he said.

MORE: 'Children will not be safe online until tech companies act against sexual abuse'

"Just because you can't see a bobby on the beat doesn't mean there aren't people working around the clock.

"I left school with the minimum level of qualifications, and this job has given me an education and opportunities. I see [new recruits] coming in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and I think 'just try to hang on to a bit of that'."

As for the biggest change in the last 30 years, he cited both technology and leadership.

"Norfolk used to be seen as a stepping stone for chief constables to go on to other places," he said. "But [chief constable Simon Bailey] has introduced stability. There's a chief officer team, Norfolk people looking after the Norfolk force and that's brought about pride."

And he said "forward planning" at the top had avoided the full impact of funding cuts, which have seen forces around the country grapple to do more with less.

"It has an impact like anything, it will put more strain on the people that are left," he said.

"They are asked to do more with less resources, which in turn has a knock on in terms of wellbeing, pressure on the people that are left, it's a never-ending cycle."

And he said investment in public services was key if the country hoped to tackle some of its most pressing issues, including county lines drug dealing.

"I don't think you can arrest your way out of it," he said. "If you are going to increase arrests you need better court provision, CPS provision and more officers.

"It needs significant investment I believe, you need better infrastructure."

And what about those dramas and films we so often base our perceptions of police on?

"They have to dance the line between entertainment and reality," he said. "There's always a basis of fact, but if it was completely factual I'm not sure anybody would want to watch it."

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