Police Federation

PFEW win a landmark case for retired detective suffering PTSD after prolonged exposure to child abuse images

PFEW win a landmark case for retired detective. 

22 December 2022

Slater  and Gordon logo

“I was suicidal, but with the support offered by PFEW I was able to get what needed to be done, done!” John Cahill implores other officers not to suffer in silence.

Working on behalf of retired police detective, John Cahill, PFEW and Slater and Gordon’s (S&G) Personal Injury Department have won a landmark case, a first in the UK, that acknowledges damage caused by prolonged exposure to child abuse images. It is John’s hope that by talking about his experience he can help shine a light into the dark corners of police work and ensure that the right support protocols are known about and followed.

In a UK first, PFEW and Slater and Gordon, won Cahill substantial damages, demonstrating that without correct work risk assessments and procedures being followed, John suffered from a breach of duty. PFEW supported his claim that he received a lack of support, was exposed to prolonged exposure to imagery that is capable of causing psychiatric harm and, that had basic risk assessment procedure been correctly followed, opportunities to mitigate the stress, trauma and harm would not have been missed.

John said: “PFEW gave support where others didn’t… I asked for help from my senior officers, but my requests were unanswered. PFEW listened to me when my superiors, my DI and DCI did not acknowledge my concerns; really, they closed ranks and just said, ‘suck it up and get on with it’. It was so disappointing; I’ll never forget those words. The potential consequences when dealing with an individual who may be suicidal are too terrifying to consider.”

John added, “The support from PFEW was beyond anything I could have hoped for. I couldn’t have wished for better; it was an oasis of support – a real life saver.”

PFEW assisted John throughout the case and Slater and Gordon’s thorough investigation. The legal team’s subsequent comprehensive understanding of the case and the issues involved meant that John felt supported by exceptional, hardworking professionals.

After what was a stressful and at times upsetting five-day trial, John was at pains to underline his admiration for the professionalism and hard work of his PFEW representative, Tim Hall, and the Slater and Gordon team.

He said: To the unsung heroes, Tim Hall, Matthew Tomlinson, and Sadia Masood, I am blown away by your integrity and all the hard work you did on my behalf…. Your legal expertise and professionalism went above and beyond my expectations throughout the course of my case. I was overwhelmed when I heard the outcome of the court proceedings…

… Amazing people doing amazing things, I am in awe of your excellent work”.

John Cahill joined the police service in 1991 and through diligence and hard work became known as a well-respected and “safe pair of hands” - a role model to the younger officers on the force. He worked hard at a job he enjoyed.

In 2014-2015 John was asked to work on an investigation into the online grooming of a 12-year-old girl. The work entailed investigating, reviewing and categorising child abuse images. These types of images, acknowledged by the court as ‘the most horrific’, are well known to affect harm beyond the victims they exploit. Indeed, the Judge described “Child abuse imagery, ‘as akin to asbestos to the mind, once ingested’ these unthinkable images cannot be unseen”.

John was responsible for examining digital devices saturated in child abuse images, often having to repeatedly watch harrowing, distressing videos of children being abused as he worked towards identifying all the offences in the videos, a critical task for the CPS when considering charges and chances of a successful prosecution. This work often formed the majority of his working week as he spent up to 32 hours a week looking at these images and videos.

It is no wonder that John sees this case as the beginning of his battle with PTSD. John describes, “a real lack of training at the sergeant’s level, not realising that the kind of stuff I was asked to deal with has a real impact, on your life and your mental health. I wish that they understood that mental health care is the most important thing when it comes to this type of work”.

As the court discovered, the distress and trauma that so affected John, altered his ability to recall events with clarity and precision. Two eminent psychiatrists testified to the fact that continued exposure to images such as those trawled through by John, is capable “of causing psychiatric harm”.

John says that in 2016 at a family gathering, the sudden and unexpected flood of grief and distress released at a family event with young children present, was such a traumatic and unexpected reaction he realised he was deeply affected by his work and has struggled to be around children since.

However, in 2017/18 John was asked to take over the case work of an officer who had become so distressed by the content of this particular case she was unable to continue. John was left to manage the case pending a restructure.

It is evident that between 2014 and 2018 John was continually exposed to such a level of distressing and traumatic imagery that he felt the impact beyond his professional life; the trauma he was bearing witness to had begun to seep into his personal life.

It was almost a last resort for John to ask PFEW for support, his only regret is not doing it sooner. He says, “When PFEW got involved everything just stopped. It was like I was surrounded by support, PFEW were basically saying, ‘you’re not going to do this to this person’, and that’s exactly what happened. I would say to any officers out there, don’t suffer in silence, ask for support because it is there”.

It was clear, too, in John’s mind that had the correct procedures been followed from the outset, he may have had the help and the skills he needed to process his work and prevent such manifestations of trauma.

The Judge in the case commented that John, was “compelling and [had all] the hallmarks of a genuine witness”.

In its defence, the force provided a number of witnesses to testify in support of the processes followed, but none could provide any information, statement or supporting documents that detailed the force’s actual risk assessment procedures. This was an absence of knowledge and procedure, and a “striking failure” of the part of the force, as commented by Judge Smith.

As had been clear to Slater and Gordon from the outset, the Judge was only really left with one possible conclusion: the member: “should have been screened in 2015 and again in 2017. Had those steps occurred, there would have been an opportunity which would have identified measures to mitigate the stress, trauma and harm caused to him”.

Judge Smith went on, failure to do provide the required support was a clear “breach of duty”. The claimant received minimal support despite being “exposed to prolonged exposure to imagery… capable of causing psychiatric harm”.

John is at pains to stress that he loved his job and those around him. He feels that the treatment he received is a reflection of the lack of funds and investment in the police over the past 12 years. Were sufficient training protocols known about, practiced and reinforced, the outcome of John’s experience may have been very different.

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