Sam Milton: The Police Force, dyslexia and me
Saturday 11 April 2020
Life can test you, can’t it? It can push and pull you in directions that you might not want to go, but if you learn to channel that energy to achieve your goals, anything is possible. This belief is particularly relevant for the story of my early career with the British Police Force.
Like most stories, mine starts with some hardship; what is important to remember, however, stories aren’t about the first twenty pages, they’re about the whole book – the journey, decision and outcome.
I vividly remember sitting in a huge briefing room back in 2007, nestled among 200 other prospective candidates, who like me, had their sights set on becoming a British Police Officer. At the front of the room, a TV was blaring, showing videos that were every prospective coppers’ dream - police cars speeding down a road, infrared helicopters tracking overhead, and RIB boats crashing through waves in pursuit of suspects. I was instantly hooked.
Before I know it, the lights clicked on, snapping me back to reality and signalling it was time to leave. As we were preparing to file out of the room, one of the members of staff hosting the briefing asked for a candidate to stay behind, making the prospects look around curiously. I didn’t need to though; I already knew they meant me.
This was when I was asked, “Are you dyslexic?”. “Of course”, I replied, “Yes, I am.”
It turned out that there was a limit of five mistakes allowed in the entry exam, and that this would still apply to me, despite my dyslexia. Despite my protests that this was unachievable for a dyslexic person, the only resolution that was offered was a suggestion to “use simpler words”. The elation and subsequent deflation from the conversation all got too much and I blurted out, “shall I bring my crayons, too?” Before leaving the offices and wondering if I should even try completing the exam.
Picking my confidence up off the floor, I got to work practising my spelling before taking the exam and failing, which was devastating. In turn, I was offered a role as a Community Support Officer, a role which I accepted and worked in for three years until 2010, when the five-mistake limit was removed from the exam and I was able to pass.
Fast forward to 2020. I am now celebrating a decade serving as an Officer in the British Police Force and can say with confidence that I’ve had a great career working on tactical units and now within the marine world – but it’s not been all plain sailing (pun intended).
So, I am sharing an overview of my experiences and challenges to date, which I hope serves as a reminder to anyone at the beginning of their story or is facing hardship, that stories aren’t about the first twenty pages – they’re about the journey.
I cannot stress how much spelling has got me into trouble; my first handwritten statement as a Police Officer is a good example. The statement, which I had just taken from a retired teacher, was handed to him to sign, confirming it was correct. As he reviewed it, he pulled out a red pen, corrected it and asked me to rewrite it on the spot. I can look back and laugh at it now, but at the time it was devastating.
Needless to say, typed statements using spell-check weren’t much better. One time, I had to write a Crown Court statement about chasing a suspect, I thought I’d written “I pursued a male over the course of five minutes”, but when it was proofread by a colleague, we realised it said “I perused a male over the course of 5 minutes”. Another time, I jotted down someone’s occupation as ‘retarded’ as opposed to ‘retired’. Naturally, it got some light-hearted laughs in the office, but errors such as these can knock your confidence.
Reaching out to the Force
Given this was a cause for concern, I raised the issue with the Force Culture Board and as a result, was made a dyslexic ‘SPOC’, or ‘point of contact’. I decided it was time to find out whether it was just me having issues, or whether others were having the same problems. With management’s approval, I wrote an ‘all staff’ email to my division, highlighting my embarrassing stories in order to show others that if this does happen, they shouldn’t be ashamed.
The response was phenomenal. From my division alone, I received over 30 email replies, which were all positive. Interestingly, the majority were from colleagues who thought they might be dyslexic but weren’t sure how to be tested. One stand-out email was from a colleague who said that they were days away from leaving the Police Force as they were not getting the support that they needed, such as a laptop they had been promised. The responses got me thinking, what if there was colleagues nationwide suffering in silence?
I am pleased to report, things have changed, and dyslexia is becoming more understood is the policing world, however, there is still a lot of work to be done. Initially I was surprised how many people felt comfortable enough to talk to me, including ranked officers – it meant a lot.
My goal in both writing this blog and doing organisational talks is to promote the idea of having accessible points of contact in the workplace. I believe that support services are still key and should not be substituted, but sometimes people want to get advice from people that are living it and have experienced similar situations. Even if you help one person, that might just be the difference between them leaving or staying in their job.
Despite all the hurdles, half of which I haven’t been able to mention, I have still managed to progress to my dream job of working in the marine world. Even this has tested me with exams, intense learning and working in a very competitive area. In summary, I guess your success depends on you, your supervisors and the organisation as a whole. All three of these aspects can create barriers, but the good thing about being dyslexic is thinking outside of the box and solutions to the problem.
Remember, organisations can only change if people are prepared to put their hands up and say, ‘this is not right’. Therefore, whether you are dyslexic or are someone who supervises someone with dyslexia, bear in mind that we all have a responsibility to drive positive change.
Sam Milton can be found on Twitter as @samthedyslexic.