How our police are pushed to the brink - and what we can do

Published by The Age on 17 August

The policeman with the ready smile learnt early you don’t have to be a stone-faced cynic to be a good cop.

Long before he walked into the Police Academy as a recruit, he embraced community service as a SES volunteer, by raising funds for different charities and, later, improving mental health awareness in the profession he loved.

A natural investigator, he had been identified as a future detective. He was close to his colleagues, respected by the community and maintained a large group of friends away from work.

He was just 27 when, a couple of months ago, he took his own life. Why he took this fatal step will never be known as he didn’t leave a note, an indication or an explanation.

More than 2900 friends, workmates, members of his country community and strangers took to social media to express their sense of loss, but he was not there to read how valued he was.

One colleague wrote: “RIP Brother ... your shift is over and your burden unloaded ... we’ve got it from here.”

Another said: “Met him in the Academy and kept in contact with him ever since. Anytime you needed a chat he was there, anytime you needed anything he was there. I wanna give you a good shake and ask you what the hell is going on, but it's too late and you can’t tell me. As a friend and colleague I love ya mate and won’t forget ya. You helped me out and I wish I could only do the same for you.”

Yet another: “I’m an ex copper who suffers from PTSD and at a real low point pulled my gun out of my holster in the police station with the thought of ending it all. If any ex members or current members are struggling, please seek help as soon as possible.”

The former crime squad chief who loved a good time drifted into retirement. Few of his old mates knew he was spiralling into depression until they read the death notices.

The tactical adviser had just performed efficiently in a briefing before he went home, wrote emails to his children and wife, left his will and superannuation statement on the table, fed the cat and hanged himself from a tree in the backyard.

In the last year, three police in Victoria have taken their own lives. There were gambling debts, financial pressure and family breakdowns in the background making it difficult to know how much work stress contributed to their battles.

In addition to the 27-year-old officer, there was the senior constable, 60, a policeman for 31 years, who used his service gun and the highway patrol officer, 38, who had been treated for PTSD, returning to duty only to hang himself.

Two incidents seemed to push this genial giant to the edge. He performed CPR on a murder victim who was slipping away and comforted a mother at the scene where her child had been killed. He received a posthumous commendation for his work.

Beyond dispute is that police are at risk of suffering post-traumatic stress due to the nature of the work. A 2017 Victoria Police Mental Health and Wellbeing study found around 32 per cent of police workers experienced a diagnosed mental health condition and 90 per cent experienced work-related burnout.

The study found 1.7 per cent of police had started to plan their suicides - four times more cases than in the broader community. This means that well over 300 serving police employees have seriously considered taking their own lives in the past 12 months.

Yet the rate of suicides is comparable with the rest of the community, which means that part of the police mental health program must be working. Former policeman and shooting victim Ron Fenton says his trauma dog Yogi, trained by a NSW prisoner, has been a lifesaver.

But as the Police Association's secretary, Senior Sergeant Wayne Gatt, points out: “If people are considering suicide then they are ill and their injuries are stopping them enjoying a productive life.”

A 2018 Beyond Blue survey found emergency service workers were more than twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts and three times more likely to have formed a suicide plan than the general population.

Gatt says it is difficult for police to step away from their work and relax. “When we walk down the street we see crooks and drug addicts. When other people walk down the same street they see shops and restaurants.’’

One of the great stresses in the police force is an antiquated IT system leaving operational police drowning in paperwork. One of Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton’s priorities is to modernise the process to get police out from behind the desk and back onto the streets.

Yet there is a downside to modern technology – particularly for police. The electronic gizmos that were supposed to free us too often trap us.

Just last week I walked through a snazzy city food court at lunchtime and counted 65 people sitting and eating – 63 were using their mobile phones or had them on the table next to them.

Perhaps we should look at the French for more than just soft cheese and smooth reds, for they have tackled the new technology creep. Two years ago they introduced a law known as the right to disconnect, which protects workers from receiving after-hours emails.

Police have rolled out mobile phones across the state and despite being warned, many have handed out their numbers to victims and informers – meaning they are on call seven days a week.

One ex-detective said: “I loved my time in the job but what I don’t miss is dealing with ‘gigs’ [informers]. They drive you mad. You get some good mail but they never leave you alone.”

One battle is how to deal with police under stress in the modern world. Once it was a little like the chasing pack at the Tour de France, where everyone takes a turn battling the headwind before ducking back to a protected spot.

Not that long ago there were hundreds of non-operational positions such as the watch house and property office that offered the temporarily damaged a place to heal. Those positions have now been taken over by public servants.

“We want people to put their hands up and seek help but the challenge is, where do you put them when they do?” says Gatt. “There are fewer positions of respite - fewer non-operational positions where people can be given times to get well.”

The problem for police looking to come forward with mental health issues is that to remain operational they have to be qualified to carry a gun - and that can create massive problems.

The fear is that if you seek help within the police you will be sidelined and eventually pensioned off as medically unfit. And so many police either seek help privately or don’t seek treatment at all.

The police survey showed 61 per cent try to manage their problems themselves rather than seeking help from a health professional.

The police culture is often referred to as The Brotherhood, which has a sinister, secretive connotation, where loyalty is blind and you cover for fellow cops even if they are violent or corrupt.

But the real Brotherhood is based on a support network where you spend time with people who understand what you do and the stresses that you face.

It is epitomised by the radio call “Police in Trouble”, where all cops respond immediately and head into danger to try and help colleagues they may not even know.

Often the best support is peer group support, talking through a traumatic incident with those who were there.

When police retire, many of them lose the link to The Brotherhood and deteriorate rapidly. Both Ashton and Gatt have said there is a desperate need to reconnect with ex-members and offer continued support.

Both men want Federal and State support for programs that recognise police veterans in the same way as military veterans. The Federal government is investing $2.5 million in the BlueHub pilot program with the Victoria Police Association and the Australian Police Association, a dedicated independent mental health service provider to provide early intervention, accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Police who put their hands up with mental health problems often report the internal process - particularly the adversarial workers’ compensation process - adds to their stress.

The reason is that they have had to effectively prove their emotional issues are work-related. “The fear of not being believed is setting them up for failure,” Gatt says.

Under the new system, the claim is provisionally accepted and for the first 13 weeks the sufferer receives immediate treatment without worrying about fronting a WorkCover grilling.

Announcing the scheme, Victorian Police Minister Lisa Neville said: “We are going to treat mental health issues as if they are like a physical injury. If you break a leg under the WorkCover scheme, no one says you’ve got to wait until your claim is assessed, you go and get your leg fixed immediately. In mental health, people are often waiting weeks and weeks to get access to services under the WorkCover scheme.”

As the chief commissioner once said, if we helped break them we have an obligation to try and fix them.

Lifeline 131 114; MensLine 1300 789 978; Beyondblue 1300 224 636.