Collateral Damage: Police trauma
Whatever final revelations come out of the NSW Coroner’s report into Sydney’s Martin Place siege, the inquest has opened a window onto the human and emotional costs of terrorism for victim’s families, witnesses, and police. The hearings have provided a unique insight into the often hidden issue of police trauma.
“Shaken” and “distressed”. This is how Superintendent Allan Sicard, addressing the siege inquest in May, described the condition of his fellow NSW Police Force officer, Senior Constable Paul Withers, who had been communicating with one of the siege hostages when Sicard arrived at the scene.
The topic of post-traumatic stress is a sensitive one among police officers. But the issue has come to the surface in recent high-profile terror cases.
Channel Seven reporter, Robert Ovadia won this year’s Logie award for Most Outstanding News Coverage for his work on the 2015 Parramatta shooting in Sydney. In his acceptance speech, Ovadia dedicated the award to the family and friends of the victim, Curtis Cheng, and acknowledged the life-changing decision made by the special constable who fired at Cheng’s fifteen year old murderer, Farhad Jabar.
Ovadia said that police officers who have to make life or death “split decisions” need proper support, as these moments stay with them forever.
NSW Commissioner of Police Andrew Scipione has said that stress awareness and management is a crucial part of the job of policing.
"The nature of policing is that often officers will not have control over events that lead to stress and trauma, so it's important we look after our mental health,” he said when announcing a state-wide study into what keeps police officers happy and healthy in a line of work that can be highly distressing.
Launched in 2014 and now in its final year, the landmark research project by Western Sydney University and the Australian Catholic University aims to assist the NSW Police Force in developing fresh solutions that build resilience and help officers suffering from stress-related symptoms.
"“One of the major factors that hinders police officers from dealing with any mental health issue is that if you want a career it’s wise not to have anything on your records that show you’ve seen a psychiatrist or that you have mental or psychological history."
– Michael Kennedy
"Through this project, we aim to help officers become more resilient and assist those already suffering PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) to achieve better mental health outcomes and allow us to better help officers who have already disengaged," Commissioner Scipione said.
Michael Kennedy, who served as an operations police officer for 20 years and is now a researcher at Western Sydney University, told The Point Magazine there is still a long way to go.
“One of the major factors that hinders police officers from dealing with any mental health issue is that if you want a career it’s wise not to have anything on your records that show you’ve seen a psychiatrist or that you have mental or psychological history.
He said the taboo culture towards mental illness still remains within the police.
“There is an absolute fear, it’s part of a culture where people are convinced the organisation will look after them not realising that their mental health will deteriorate if not properly addressed.”
A spokesperson for the Australian Federal Police (AFP) told The Point Magazine that the psycho-social impacts of terrorism are different from those associated with other large-scale crises or disasters.
“Events caused by deliberate human actions may be perceived differently from natural disasters as a result of the scale of the incident, including number of deaths and injuries, and destruction to systems and infrastructure. As a terrorist incident is the result of human behaviour, this can have a greater impact on law enforcement personnel than if it were a natural disaster”.
Both the NSW Police and the AFP said that appropriate processes and procedures are in place for dealing with the psychological impacts of terrorist incidents on their officers.
Following the Bali and Jakarta bombings, the AFP provided psychological debrief sessions for its agents and support for their families on their return to Australia. The NSW Police Force provides sworn and unsworn officers and their families with 24/7 access to psychologists with expertise in dealing with trauma.
Kennedy said the police force needs more rigorous and reflective research before it can move forward on mental health.
“One of the major problems is the poor quality of research that has been done. On much of the previous research undertaken, there is reinforcement of the police that they’re all corrupt and don’t care and need reform and misses the mark on the point of mental health.”
In 2014, the Australian Federal Police Association released a special issue of their AUSPOL magazine on the topic of post-traumatic stress which featured a series of personal struggles with the disorder.
“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a real condition that a number of agencies still have difficulties coming to terms with. Members are exposed to incidents and stresses that are not experienced by the general population and they have long-term effects on personnel whether we accept it or not,” wrote Federal Agent Craig Baird.
“I was exposed to incidents early on in my career but was totally oblivious to the emotional impact they had on me. The affects of the trauma never healed and continued to worsen with the more critical or traumatic incidents I attended. Eventually I reached a point where I became totally dysfunctional in both my work and home lives,” he wrote.
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The coronial inquest into Sydney’s Martin Place siege has opened a window into issue of police trauma