This is an article that appeared in the 16th October 1998 edition of Police Review magazine.
It is reprinted here with the blessing of its author. Unfortunately things have not changed. In fact it has become worse. Welfare units in the UK have been disbanded and scandalously six months plus (often now counted in years) on sick leave with no contact is nowadays par for the course, rather than unusual.
Below the article is a recent ABC documentary. Although this program was broadcasted in Australia (Insult to Injury, reported by Quentin McDermott and presented by Sarah Ferguson, aired on Monday 1st of August at 8.30pm) exactly the same has happened in the UK for at least the past 20 years as the Police Review article demonstrates.
Strain on the System?
Enough is said in the national press about the wasted millions through ill- health pensions. I will receive almost £750,OOO in pension before I die, in my opinion, because the Met didn’t want to spend one year’s worth of salary counselling. I was medically retired from the service when I had at least 20 years left to complete. The reason for this was that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder which was brought on by an attack on me while on duty as a PC.
More disturbing for me was the fact that I wasn’t elderly, I wasn’t lazy or a malingerer, and I wasn’t one of those people that the service was ‘looking for a reason to get rid of’. Far from it — my performance appraisals were always excellent and my superintendent had described me as ‘one of the best operational prospects I have seen’.
Six months before my ill-health retirement, I had taken and passed the sergeants’ promotion exam, I was a control-room trained supervisor, and a police driver who had obtained the best student and driver awards on my course. I had also been accepted for the third stage of the accelerated promotion selection process.
This hardly sounds like the kind of officer that the service would be in a hurry to get rid of — but that is exactly what it did. Following my attendance at an incident very similar to the one where I was attacked a few years previously, I met with a service welfare officer. Within three meetings my career had ended.
Having lost trust in the police welfare system in 1993 when I appealed for help with psychological problem; (in the middle of counselling I was told that I was to be medically retired and all police counselling support was being withdrawn), it was with reluctance that I approached the welfare department again in 1996.
In 1993, I had managed to stay in the service after fighting the decision to retire me. The service’s withdrawal of support came at a particularly difficult time — just as I had told the service’s psychiatrist that my young niece, who was terminally ill, had maybe six months to live.
In 1996, the welfare officer told me there was no support for someone who had the long- term symptoms of PTSD. I was told there were people who could debrief immediately after an incident, but not after the illness had gone untreated for some time, as mine had. The delay in seeking help was due to a lack of awareness of what had caused the symptoms that I was experiencing.
The welfare officer told me she would speak to the chief medical officer and meet me again to tell me what options were available to me. The answer came two weeks later — I was either to stay in the service and see my GP for help or resign. The Met had no counsellors available for my kind of problem, I was told, and all the resources that had existed were no longer available to me. The meeting lasted maybe 10 minutes.
I could not carry on without treatment and so I had no option but to see the chief medical officer regarding a medical retirement.
During September 1996, I went sick. I saw the chief medical officer for an interview which lasted no more than five minutes. I was told to go home and await the decision regarding my medical retirement and whether or not an injury award would be made. After all, PTSD is all in the mind; I didn’t have anything visibly wrong with me. I was then left sitting at home for six months, without once being contacted by any welfare personnel or management from my division. The first time I was contacted was by my chief superintendent who told me that I had been granted a 15 per cent injury award. I had 30 days left to serve before my medical retirement. I appealed this ridiculously low amount. Of course, it took a considerable amount of time, and I remained living on a pension equal to half of what my salary had been. This lasted nine months. Eventually, I had a two-hour interview with a Home Office-appointed consultant psychiatrist, and my injury percentage was increased to 65 per cent. Having seen my GP as recommended by the service welfare, I waited 18 months to be referred via the local hospital’s psychiatric unit to a psychologist. After two consultation sessions, I was told that I needed about 50 sessions of counselling, Or one year’s worth.
The NHS only provide six sessions free of charge; the others would cost me a I am now in a situation whereby I am unable to work, unable to get counselling and have a criminal injuries claim outstanding which is in its fifth year of appeal. It dismays me that having been told by a clinical psychologist that after one year I would be better and able to return to work, the service would not invest that time and money in me. I have been paid the equivalent of my police officer’s wages for not working (actually, slightly more because of the injury percentage) but all the thousands of pounds spent on my training has been wasted. Instead of investing in one year’s salary – and the salary of a psychologist or even private sessions at £60 a week for a year to enable me to do the next 20 years Of service – all my training, knowledge and experience has been thrown away. I am sure I am not the only one.
Insult to Injury
SARAH FERGUSON: Good evening and welcome to Four Corners.
Tonight the scandalous treatment of police suffering from post traumatic stress after exposure to violence and trauma.
Despite advances in the treatment of PTSD in the military, former policemen say they’ve been abandoned when they were at their most vulnerable.
It’s estimated 1 in 5 police officers either have or are at risk of developing PTSD – making them potentially a danger to themselves and to the public they serve.
In Victoria alone 35 serving policemen and women have committed suicide since 1995, including 4 this year.
In tonight’s program police from three states describe how their claims were treated with suspicion and how they were scrutinized in ways that made them feel like criminals. In some cases this included being secretly filmed by insurance investigators.
Quentin McDermott reports.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT, REPORTER: Every morning Brendon Bullock wakes from his nightly terrors and begins his daily battle to survive.
BRENDON BULLOCK, RETIRED NSW POLICEMAN: I suffer from intrusive nightmares at night, I suffer from insomnia, I can’t sleep unless I’m medicated.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: At dawn he’s greeted by his loyal companion, Boss, who serves as a reminder of the man he used to be.
BRENDON BULLOCK, RETIRED NSW POLICEMAN: The Staffordshire bull terrier breed is renowned for being bold, fearless and totally reliable, and much like I once was.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Brendon starts his day with two hundred milligrams of anti-depressants.
This decorated former New South Wales police officer is strong on the outside but shattered on the inside.
BRENDON BULLOCK: From the onset of my career I was exposed to extreme acts of violence, suicides and homicides. These traumatic incidents that I witnessed, I shut away in my subconscious mind.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Now, severely disabled by post traumatic stress disorder, it’s a battle just to get out of the house.Even driving to the shops is a major mental challenge.
BRENDON BULLOCK: I’m very hyper-vigilant. Um I’m constantly aware of my surroundings and who is around me at the time. I am constantly on the lookout for people following me I’m very apprehensive about being in public places. They are environments that I consider myself when in them to be vulnerable. It’s in my nature to um be constantly on the lookout for danger.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: It was a very different Brendon Bullock who graduated from Goulburn police academy in 1999.
BRUCE BULLOCK, BRENDON’S FATHER:The graduation ceremony at Goulburn way back then was something very special. Um from a, from a dad’s point of view I was really pleased for him and proud of what he’d been able to achieve, and ah get to a point of a goal that he’d had for quite some years prior to that.
BRENDON BULLOCK: For me the job was very satisfying. It gave me an opportunity to help people, to make a difference in someone’s life, er, to investigate crime, and to bring perpetrators to justice.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Brendan was a detective in the Terrorism Investigations Squad and surveilled organised crime figures for the Australian Crime Commission.As a front line officer he had death threats, and was violently assaulted.He attended murders, suicides and horrific traffic accidents.Four years into the job, it started getting to him – but he couldn’t admit it.
BRENDON BULLOCK: I was supposed to be a police officer. I was supposed to be able to deal with trauma, um, process it, and move on.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So is there a stigma attached to putting your hand up and saying, I need help?
BRENDON BULLOCK : I don’t think the culture of the New South Wales Police Force allows their members to have the confidence to open up to their superiors and disclose to them that they are feeling psychological effects of um, everyday stresses that police go through, yeah. I could perceive this old school of, you know, get through it, get it done. There just didn’t seem to be any debriefing, you know, for these traumatic events that he had to witness and be part of. And um i-in a word he started to break, openly. You know, emotionally on- by our phone call conversations, um he just- It was, it was very rapidly becoming all too much.
BRUCE BULLOCK, BRENDON’S FATHER: I could perceive this old school of, you know, get through it, get it done. Th-there just didn’t seem to be any debriefing, you know, for these traumatic events that he had to witness and be part of. And um i-in a word he started to break, openly. You know, em-emotionally on- by our phone call conversations, um he just- It was, it was very rapidly becoming all too much.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: One night in 2011 he went home, and never went back on duty, after being called to a domestic incident at a house in inner-west Sydney.
BRENDON BULLOCK: I arrived at the scene as one of the first response officers there and I observed a male person in the driveway of the residence, which he was covered in blood. And he disclosed to myself and other officers that he had killed his wife. I made my way down the back yard, into a, a flat underneath the house, and it was there that I found a woman who had been eh…hacked to pieces.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Brendon shielded two junior constables from the harrowing scene in the flat below. But he couldn’t protect himself from what he had witnessed.
BRENDON BULLOCK: It was the day that I had to be true to myself and accept that I was unable to process and deal with trauma, um, any longer.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Did he tell you about that incident?
BRUCE BULLOCK: He did.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What did he say?
BRUCE BULLOCK: He just, he just told me the circumstances of how the callout came and what he was required to do. He was- he had two junior constables under his care that evening, and um he, but he [crying] Excuse me.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: For Brendon, the images of the wife mutilated by her husband tipped him over into full-blown mental illness.
JOHN COX, PERSONAL INJURY LAWYER: Brendon Bullock is one of the um worst affected Police Officers I’ve seen um when I first saw him. But then in terms of the impact that the delays and the litigation process took I watched his symptoms become significantly exac- exacerbated.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When Brendon Bullock applied for compensation, it marked the start of a five year battle with insurers operating on behalf of the New South Wales Police Force.
JOHN COX: Police that end up in this situation with PTSD and out of their job um I think have a ah a right to feel that their claims will be handled swiftly but instead they find the opposite. And their claims are delayed, they’re frustrated and they go through quite lengthy process in getting um compensation and insurance claims paid.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Are those delays justified?
JOHN COX: No they’re not justified. In my experience ah the delays ah most often are deliberate delays.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Do some police officers simply give up?
JOHN COX: Yes. They do. And that’s why I think this is a deliberate ploy. Even one police officer giving up his claim is a significant saving for an insurance company.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Brendon was covered by the police’s Blue Ribbon insurance which entitles officers who are incapacitated to Total and Permanent Disability benefits.
JOHN COX: These people aren’t fraudulent, these claims aren’t fraudulent, these are the very best of the police that I see go out with PTSD. And can I just say that the pattern that occurs almost exclusively with these cl- with these claimants is that they come in and see me and they spend a significant part of that first conference crying in front of me. And I’m going to suggest to you that fraudulent claimsters would have difficult um or would be extremely good actors to go through that.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Instead of being granted your Blue Ribbon death and disability payment quickly, what occurred?
BRENDON BULLOCK: A lengthy and intrusive investigation into my disability.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The insurers went to extraordinary lengths to check the veracity of Brendon’s claim. Investigators hired by one insurer, MetLife filmed him on at least six occasions, at his home, out shopping and going to the beach with his family.
Brendon’s lawyers wrote to MetLife, saying: “We ask that no surveillance is conducted on our client”, adding: “in 2006 and 2011 our client received death threats… Covert surveillance could exacerbate his condition.”
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Did they stop the surveillance?
BRENDON BULLOCK: No, they didn’t.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As the surveillance continued, Brendon rang a MetLife supervisor, to ask about his claim for a total and permanent disability benefit.
Audio of conversation, Brendon Bullock and Metlife supervisor.
BRENDON BULLOCK: Mate I wanna talk to you about my claim – my TPD claim… Mate, what’s the delay with this TPD claim of mine?
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: He also wanted to see a psychiatric report commissioned by MetLife.
Audio of conversation, Brendon Bullock and Metlife supervisor
BRENDON BULLOCK: You should have a copy of that on file.
METLIFE SUPERVISOR: I believe we do, yes.
BRENDON BULLOCK: Mate why hasn’t that been sent to me, or sent to my legal team?
METLIFE SUPERVISOR: Er because unfortunately, First State Superannuation, which are the owner of the policy, forbids us to send medical reports to the claimant themselves.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What MetLife’s supervisor didn’t reveal was that seven months earlier, the psychiatrist had advised that Brendon’s claim should be accepted.And the psychiatrist warned: “His condition is severe…he remains badly depressed, if not at risk of suicide.”
BRENDON BULLOCK: At that particular time I was in a state of self-destruction. I was drinking heavily, I was heavily medicated. Um I was hyper-vigilant, ah very aware that I was being watched, yet couldn’t understand why this surveillance was continuing.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: One day Brendon snapped, and confronted a private eye who was parked in his street.
Video of encounter between Brendon Bullock and private investigator
BRENDON BULLOCK: How are you doing mate, sitting outside my house?
PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: This ain’t outside your house. I’m not outside your house.
BRENDON BULLOCK: Mate you’re sitting outside my house; what are you doing?
PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: I’m not sitting outside your house…if you’ve got any problems call the cops. I’m about thirty metres from yours; I don’t know what you’re so rattled about.
BRENDON BULLOCK: I beg your pardon?
PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: I don’t know what you’re so rattled about.
BRENDON BULLOCK: You’ve been sitting in my fucking street for three days mate!
PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: Yeah?
BRENDON BULLOCK: That’s what I’m fucking rattled about! Who are you working for?
PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: Nothing to do with you. It’s got nothing to do with…
BRENDON BULLOCK: Who are you fucking working for? You’re a fucking idiot mate.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The private investigator has told Four Corners that he was conducting surveillance in Brendon’s street – but not on Brendon. However Four Corners has established that on at least ten occasions after MetLife knew Brendon was suicidal; their investigators continued to surveil him.
BRUCE BULLOCK, BRENDON’S FATHER
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Do you think all the delays a-and the surveillance and everything exacerbated his condition?
BRUCE BULLOCK: Without a doubt. He, he spiralled downwards after that started to happen, over that period of time, unbelievably rapidly. A-and that was when by phone, the hundreds of hours of phone calls, you know, when he was in a really, really bad way, looking for help- [upset] It was really unfair. And I certainly did, and I’m sure Sandra did as well, we started to have some grave concerns about him.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Nine months after he lodged his disability claim, MetLife told Brendon they wouldn’t pay out, as a new insurer had taken over the policy.
BRENDON BULLOCK: The decision that they came to ah caused me t-to give up all hope. Um their decision to decline my claim ah pushed me to the edge and I just couldn’t take it anymore.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Brendon attempted to take his own life in his own backyard at home. His wife and two young daughters found him just in time.
BRENDON BULLOCK: It’s something I live with every single day and regret my actions. And I’ve got to take responsibility for those actions. But what I won’t accept is how the insurance companies drove me to a sense of no hope, no positive outlook. Yeah.
BRUCE BULLOCK, BRENDON’S FATHER: They were warned that there was a probability that Brendon would attempt, and they just wanted to sweep it under the carpet. I, I just I can’t, I can’t fathom why anybody would want to treat anybody like that. I-it’s madness!
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Do you blame them for what occurred?
BRUCE BULLOCK: Absolutely, one hundred percent. I have no doubt about that at all. Without those years of torture, the surveillance, the lack of support and all the above, Brendon wouldn’t have got to the point that he did. No doubt.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: A common tactic by the police’s insurers is to use surveillance to test an officer’s claim of PTSD.But most surveillance footage reveals nothing about a person’s state of mind.
PROFESSOR SANDY MCFARLANE, University of Adelaide’s Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Can the surveillance exacerbate an Officer’s PTSD?
SANDY MCFARLANE: Oh very much so. I mean one of the things that we know is the triggers in the environment will often drive people’s symptoms and distress. So if um ah a person is being followed it very clearly can make them significantly worse because ah they perceive this threat in their environment that that you know brings back very real things that have happened to them in their career.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Leading psychiatrist SANDY MCFARLANE has assessed hundreds of officers with PTSD.
PROFESSOR SANDY MCFARLANE: As a medical researcher I have to go and get very detailed consents from people ah to collect information about their health and welfare. Ah and I really don’t understand how under the privacy legislation these people can be followed and filmed ah in that way.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When Greg, a New South Wales cop who asked us not to use his surname, made his claim, he too was filmed – shopping at the supermarket, walking to his car with a coffee; drinking another coffee in a restaurant. And here, talking on the phone.
GREG, RETIRED NSW POLICEMAN: I’ve gone from being a- a high ranking commissioned officer in a police force to basically being t- treated like a criminal. What they say to people is that well we don’t believe you. Um and we’re going to fight you all the way and I mean ultimately I, I think what they want to do is just drag it out as long as they can so you can either give up or go or- or go and kill yourself.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In a 17-year career as a New South Wales cop, Greg was exposed to one horrific event after another.
GREG: The things police see and – and do all police, not just me, um almost on a daily basis are just you know now that I look back on them horrible, horrible things. Um you know people who’ve blown their heads off with shotguns, ah people who’ve jumped under trains, you know you’re picking up body parts, you’re holding you’re holding ah the bodies of- of dead babies that have died and then dealing with the emotions of the family.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The deaths of children hit Greg particularly hard. He found himself taking it out on his own kids.
GREG: I’m pretty overprotective. I’m uh you know w- if one of my kids sort of hurts, hurts themselves um I tend to overreact quite badly. Um…
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What do you mean by that?
GREG: Ah well, you know I, because- because of the emotions are so high an- inside me is that ah it- it normally ends up turning to anger, which sort of the reverse of what it should be. So it doesn’t make for a very happy family life if you know what I mean.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: It’s very confronting for them.
GREG: Mm… Oh it’s … m- my- my journey with PTSD has been horrible for them. I have an eight year old son who’s really only known me as an angry person and that- that’s not a really good situation for a family. I mean we’re lucky that we’re s- we still are a family to be honest.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: For Greg, the incident that triggered his spiral into PTSD, was the murder of an indigenous woman, Theresa Binge, in country New South Wales. Is this the spot?
GREG: Yes Quentin.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Her body was found dumped in a culvert.
GREG: I still find it hard. There’s an enormous sense of frustration and some guilt I suppose. She was a 43 year-old woman who was murdered and er, dragged out here in the middle of nowhere, naked, bashed, and displayed, and erm, that’s the long story short. You know, some people may be able to switch off, I don’t know, but um I still think about her and what happened, today.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Thirteen years on, his failure to bring Theresa’s killer to justice still causes Greg intense distress. How did that investigation start?
GREG: So it was 2003 um … just give me a minute. It’s pretty hard to talk about…I just can’t believe I still get so upset about this.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As the horrors of life on the front line multiplied, so too did Greg’s efforts to suppress them.
GREG: You just got on with it, because I mean w-what’s the choice? You can’t have coppers you know in the corner rocking back and forth every time they see a dead body. N- No work would get done. There are things to be done so you push them to the side and you get on with it.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But his anger – a dangerous symptom of PTSD – was growing. Finally, he snapped.
GREG: It was building, building and building, the anger. Um and not just towards crooks but towards my colleagues. Um and you know, it was it was sort of the case that um you know I, I s- y-you scare yourself. You’re walking around with a firearm on your hip and y-you’re that angry and you’re that wound up and um you don’t sort of think that there’s any out. It’s not a good place to be if you’re a cop with a gun on your hip walking round the streets full of that much anger. It’s just not safe.
KYLIE, GREG’S WIFE
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: He came home and- and he was punching holes in the wall wasn’t he?
KYLIE: Yes. Yeah, it was … it was shocking. It was confronting. A man that I saw as someone who was strong, very capable, very intelligent, very…I was so proud of him brought down to a level of being un- not in control of his emotions. It was it was … upsetting. It was devastating.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: After he put his claim in, Greg and his family were followed and filmed.
GREG: To learn that you know for 80 hours some guy in a car with a camera followed me around and took photos of me, followed my wife, took pictures of my kids at the beach, um is absolutely humiliating.
KYLIE: I don’t see how it’s lawful to film children without parents’ express permission When it comes to children, it’s not right and Greg and our family does not deserve to be treated that way.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Greg’s last day on duty was six years ago – but even now, he and Kylie suspect they are still being surveilled in relation to a further claim.
KYLIE: It’s not helping Greg. He’s scared to go out in case he’s being followed. It can happen at any day at any time. Um we’ve recently had a car sitting out the front taking photographs. We’ve got it on we’ve got CCTV footage of it. We have cameras around our house. We have six foot walls to try and keep some privacy but still they persist.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Greg has even closed down his Facebook account, after investigators hired by one insurer – Employers Mutual – started spying on his posts.The investigators captured and kept more than 13,000 items from Greg’s Facebook account. But they insist: “We did not breach privacy legislation in our data collection activity.”
JOHN COX, PERSONAL INJURY LAWYER: The desktop surveillance is something that we saw commence approx 18 months ago and these are ah private investigation companies retained by the insurers and the police force ah to basically ah monitor and collect data on social media about these claimants.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: How intrusive is it?
JOHN COX: Extremely intrusive and I must say not only intrusive but in my opinion ah the actions of some of these investigators are illegal.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In what sense?
JOHN COX: Well in the sense that social media is important for many ex-Police. It is the only way that they socialize if you like. Ah and they have high security settings. Now the law says Section 308H that anyone who breaches a security setting on a, a computer system um is committing an offence. In the desktop enquiries I’ve seen that’s occurred. I’m instructed that my clients have had very high security settings and they’ve been breached.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Greg has finally won a settlement for total and permanent disability. But his battle with EML is continuing. He blames the insurers’ tactics for damaging his chances of recovery.
GREG: Here I was trying to get my health back, mental, physical everything, keep my family together and all they were doing was tearing it apart and you know still continues today.
PROF SANDY MCFARLANE, University of Adelaide’s Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies: In my view there’s an enormous conflict of interest ah for the insurers. They’re about saving money ah and about profits. And I think that potentially a-at times drives what I would see as being ah unethical behaviour ah and not understanding that they’re actually part of a health and welfare system where a an equal concern needs to be about providing people with the care ah and compensation and income maintenance for people who have genuinely ah been injured ah in the course ah of a public service.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In Victoria psychologist Tony McHugh has helped police and military veterans recover from trauma. Surprisingly, he says, it isn’t war veterans who suffer the greatest psychological damage.
DR TONY MCHUGH DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHIATRY, UNI OF MELB: Police are the most traumatised group in the community. Um w-we know this ah because of exposure to police stories. We know this from the limited research that is done. Ah over a 20 year career, ah police will seem ah many, many badly injured and deceased people way in excess of what one would normally see in a military career.
PROF SANDY MCFARLANE: As many people are developing the disorder as have it at the current time. So eh. We’re really talking there about twenty percent of ah the Police Forces around Australia have have got a a group of people who at significant ah risk in terms of their mental health.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So one in five police officers around Australia either have or could develop PTSD?
PROF SANDY MCFARLANE: Yes eh that that would be a, a reasonable ah estimate.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: What effect can that have on their ability to do the job?
SANDY MCFARLANE: I think that’s really the critical issue that the public needs to be interested in. Ah there are number of ways that ah an officer ah is I think a risk to themselves and to the community.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In Victoria, the scale of the problem has been painfully exposed by a spate of police suicides. Thirty-five serving officers have taken their own lives since 1995, including four this year alone.
DR TONY MCHUGH, DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHIATRY, UNI OF MELB: What we know is that suicide overlaps enormously with mental health problems and if we have undiagnosed mental health problems in exposed populations like the military or police, then it’s likely that there’s going to be a greater number of suicides…Edit… The systems haven’t done well enough in looking at this and ah the sooner the the number of suicides can be reduced, hopefully to practically zero, the better.
GRAHAM ASHTON, CHIEF COMMISSIONER VICTORIAN POLICE: As with many police I’ve had colleagues that have er at the extreme end of mental health trauma have taken their lives and so I’ve felt that personally and er it’s had an impact on me personally and so it’s something that I’m very much personally committed to as a priority for Victoria Police to get right and improve.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Last year Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton ordered a review into the mental health and wellbeing of officers in Victoria. It concluded that the culture must change from the top down.
GRAHAM ASHTON: It actually had some strong recommendations for us, telling us that we hadn’t been providing the necessary leadership around these issues. Our managers weren’t sufficiently skilled in mental health management. They weren’t skilled enough in terms of knowing what to do to provide adequate support, and weren’t interventionist enough in relation to reaching in, looking for signs of trouble and difficulty with our staff. We recognise it as an issue. The next step is to actually deal with it as an issue.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Rob Bailey is a survivor of the infamous Russell Street bombing in Melbourne thirty years ago; he counsels other officers with PTSD who he believes, the system has failed.
GRAHAM ASHTON: I often have been asked by ah professionals to go and visit police who are in p-poor situations, some of the serving members and some that are ah retired police, ah from professional people and they’re in a bad way. They’re in a bad way and they feel like they’ve been abandoned.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: It it’s a terrible waste of talent as well isn’t it?
ROB BAILEY: It is and in dealing with the retired police, it’s really, really sad to see some of these people who headed up major divisions in the Victoria Police that are now retired sitting there drinking a slab of beer and a cask of wine every day.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Glenn Keyte has only just left the Force after a long and distinguished career. When he worked in internal affairs, he helped investigate the suicides of fellow officers. He says the need for change is now urgent.
GLENN KEYTE, RETIRED VICTORIAN POLICEMAN: How about getting them some treatment, rather than knocking them back? Because I’m telling you now, there will be more and more of this happen and how many police members have to resign, retire, suicide, before they actually sit there and go, okay, alright, we’re going to acknowledge this problem? It’s huge and it’s not going to get any better. It’s only going to get worse.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: After dealing with a number of police suicides Glenn too developed PTSD. And like many others, he didn’t get the help he needed.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When you went back to Vic Pol and said I have PTSD did they accept that?
GLENN KEYTE: No you’re asking for help, but then when you say, well how do I get it, they say, no. And when you get a refusal it’s like they dismiss, that you’ve got no issue at all. And then when that happens what do you do then?
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: For the psychiatrists who treat police officers like Glenn, early intervention can make the difference between keeping an officer in the job, and throwing him on the scrapheap.
PROF SANDY MCFARLANE, UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE’S CENTRE FOR TRAUMATIC STRESS STUDIES: All the evidence is that that’s where we need to go and um one of the challenges is that we’re dealing with a culture of people who tend to deny their own welfare ah and ignore their own suffering. I mean often you have to do that in extreme circumstances to function. So they’re not an easy group to get up eh to take up the opportunities for early intervention but I think that requires a very big cultural si- shift and a whole programme of education.
TONY MCHUGH, DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHIATRY, UNI OF MELB: My particular hope is that we will get earlier treatment interventions. Um th-that’s a win for everyone. It’s a win for the Force, it’s a win for the officer and it’s even a win for the Work Cover system. Earlier intervention prevents the growth of ah mental ill health.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: How helpful or unhelpful um in all of this are the insurers?
TONY MCHUGH: The insurers have an incredibly important role to play and my my view is that they don’t play it well enough at times. Um there’s data, ah there’s data that talks about the number of cases that are rejected and the number is way too high.
PROF SANDY MCFARLANE: The trouble is that so often these organisations see this as simply a problem of compensation. This is not just a problem of compensation. It’s about how you know humankind can only tolerate so much reality.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tony Crowley joined the South Australian Police Force when he was 16 years old. He devoted his whole working life to the job – and left a broken man.
PROF SANDY MCFARLANE: Tony’s story is one that’s very typical ah of Police Officers. He he went in enthused, energetic, hoping that he could do some good for the community um and really from a fairly early age ha- was exposed to some pretty horrific situations.
TONY CROWLEY, retired SA policeman: Shotgun blasts to the head, um, people hanging from their sheds, um, people gassing themselves in their cars, people gassing themselves with their families in forests in their cars, murder-suicides.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tony himself personifies the police’s failure to deal with mental illness, and what can happen to an officer on duty when early treatment isn’t given, and post traumatic stress disorder goes unchecked.
TONY CROWLEY, RETIRED SA POLICEMAN: My temper wouldn’t just hover around nought to ten, it would go from nought to a hundred at a situation. If things weren’t working at work properly, instead of just complaining or fixing it, I’d break it. I’d put me fist through it.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Sandy McFarlane is Tony’s treating psychiatrist.
PROF SANDY MCFARLANE: He was a man who had always been very willing to walk forward towards danger but that takes its toll and there comes a point when he gets into those situations he begins to lose control of himself.
News piece: Andrew Mark Norrie was arrested last Friday near Mount Gambier after what police claim was a seven day shooting spree…
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: After surviving a gun-fight with a notorious serial killer, Tony was ordered back on duty that same night.
TONY CROWLEY: I took from that that um many things, culture, um man up, um if you’re tired stiff shit and if you think you’re stressed out also stiff shit, you’re going to come to work um and don’t even think about going sick. You know j- just brutal words and brutal attitude. Ah that’s probably the closest to counselling I ever got in my life a-and that that is a fact.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tony Crowley experienced an unending series of horrors. As the images piled one on top of another, so too did the symptoms of PTSD – nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, suicidal thoughts – and a growing, dangerous anger.
TONY CROWLEY: If there was a huge fight on I wanted to be there, I wanted to be amongst it. If there was a weapon involved, if there was a gun involved…I don’t know what I was thinking, but I wanted to be the first there, I wanted to be, I wanted to be involved.
SANDY MCFARLANE, University of Adelaide’s Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies: The more an officer becomes traumatised by the job um they become increasingly worried as they approach a dangerous situation. And one of the emotions that can override fear is aggression. So one of the real risks is that Officers who are becoming really increasingly anxious become increasingly aggressive and increasingly impulsive.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: At a meeting one day, Tony lost control and his anger boiled over, when he thought his boss was being rude.
TONY CROWLEY: I snapped, yeah, I did. I remember clenching and shaking and- and um I had thoughts of punching him. I was going to punch him I caught a train and went home. Um and Ann come home from work and I just said eh I think my days are numbered. Um um this happened today at work and and I’m going to hurt and kill someone a-and th- this is the end of my career and I couldn’t see myself coming back out of that ever. Um so th- th- that was my final straw.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tony left the Force and lodged an insurance claim – but his troubles didn’t end there. The South Australian police wanted him to return to work, and sent him for an assessment with a psychiatrist they’d hired.
TONY CROWLEY: My temper was at 100 per cent and it embarrasses me to say this . There was a spare chair sitting next to me and I pictured it and I was going through the motions of throwing that chair through the 30th story window of Westpac House and him following it.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Tony now lives off his police pension and a meagre award of $65,000 to fund his lifelong medication and treatment for PTSD.
TONY CROWLEY: I had so much qualifications and I offered training to so many people. They couldn’t use me for any of those. There’s something wrong with them. It- it’s it’s bad to the core a-and where do you start? I, I don’t know. Recognition I suppose is- is about the start of it.
SANDY MCFARLANE, UNIVERSITY OF ADELAIDE’S CENTRE FOR TRAUMATIC STRESS STUDIES.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: It seems like such a waste of human capital to have highly trained officers ending up severely disabled and even suicidal. Would you agree with that?
SANDY MCFARLANE: Absolutely. And ah I think it’s a tragedy that the Government ultimately doesn’t sit back and look at the evidence and see that these are occupations that carry with them a cons- significant risk to the health and welfare of people who voluntarily go into these roles. I think the Governments have actually negated their responsibility to protect people who serve the community um and I think have put the bar f- too high in terms of long term compensation for officers.
GREG, RETIRED NSW POLICEMAN: When you disengage from the police force, um there’s very, very little dignity. There’s almost none. To the point where you are really treated like a criminal. The very criminal, the very criminals I used to lock up so when they follow me around like a criminal or follow my wife and kids and take photos of them, that’s the stuff I used to do to people who are doing armed robberies. Now you think what have I done to deserve that?
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: After four years, Brendon Bullock’s claim for total and permanent disability benefits was finally accepted.
But his life now is a far cry from the day he graduated.
BRUCE BULLOCK, BRENDON’S FATHER: I-it’s left a gaping hole in him. Um and he’s really, really sorry that it’s come to this. He misses it.
BRENDON BULLOCK, RETIRED NSW POLICEMAN: I struggle with it every day. I have lost a career that I loved. I lost a marriage. It’s broken me.
SARAH FERGUSON: Given how much we ask of our police is it too much to expect that we take proper care of them when they need it most?