Mercury: Talking Point: Tasmanian police pay a high price for stress

The average person sees two to five critical incidents in their life. A 20-year police officer sees more than 800, writes Colin RileyInspector Colin Riley is president of the Police Association of Tasmania.

THE average person will experience two to five critical incidents in their life. On average a 20-year police officer will experience about 800.

Last year’s Senate inquiry, “The people behind 000: mental health of our first responders”, confirmed the issues caused by such exposure. Beyond Blue’s Answering the Call survey of 21,014 emergency service personnel found post-traumatic stress disorder at the following rates: 4 per cent in adults, 6 per cent state emergency services, 8 per cent ambulance, 8 per cent Defence Force, 9 per cent fire and rescue, and 11 per cent police.

Incidence of psychological trauma in Tasmania Police is concerning. Police suffer from repeated exposure to highly emotional incidents and being subjected to violence. On average, four officers are assaulted each week.

The Tasmanian Liberal government’s announcement of $46 million for the IT system is a major advancement and will help protect members by providing timely access to intelligence before attending incidents. However, repeated exposure to these emotional incidents, assaults and elevated stress levels ultimately lead to mental illnesses.

Currently there are 94 (7.1 per cent) officers on open workers’ compensation claims, with 39 for mental health issues. Of the 94, 25 are totally incapacitated, 34 have some form of restriction and 35 have returned to pre-injury duties. The department’s workers’ compensation premiums are about $3.5 million a year. Seven officers have received workers’ compensation lump sum payouts in the past 18 months for mental health issues because they were unable to return to policing. This is the tip of the iceberg.

Every day our members are called on to fill gaps in other government agencies. It is the nature of police; we assist when there is a need. Work in areas in which we are not fully trained or equipped causes stress. No other agency can do the roles of police, but we regularly do theirs. We are only 1330 and the state service is about 27,000. We seem to be backstops. If other agencies were held accountable for their core business, we could free up capacity to focus on priorities such as reducing serious and fatal crashes.

There are reduced police numbers at 24-hour stations, caused by work related to COVID-19 quarantine, so those on the frontline are stretched even further.

Inability to de-stress the workplace means wellbeing gradually deteriorates. Tragically, four of our members have taken their lives in the past four years. The government has provided

$6 million to the MyPulse preventive program for police, fire, SES and ambulance emergency services workers towards the problem. In addition, it is essential Tasmania Police focuses on de-stressing the workplace.

Let’s expedite solutions identified by Police Association members: Safe staffing levels at 24-hour stations (planned over the next 18 months); relief policy for country police stations when officers are on leave (under development); court safety improvements; policy for managing long-term absences; removal of police from Burnie Supreme Court security role and cessation of Justice Department prisoner transportation to Launceston to be able to do policing roles; five wellbeing performance indicators; roster reform to make them healthier and more productive (trials under way); fatigue management policy (under development); reduction in doing work of other agencies (review of tasks is pending the fatigue policy); review of care of members on workers’ compensation.

Tasmania is the only state without a full-time Special Operations Group. This would reduce first responders and detectives having to do high-risk and dangerous searches and arrests without the necessary protection.

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