SMH Editorial: Police underbelly exacts too high a price (online headline); Cultural change needed to aid police officers (print headline)

Like other emergency services, police work, despite being vital, is often thankless. And as The Sun-Herald reveals today, the job itself and the internal culture of the NSW Police Force can be punishing in ways that demand the state government’s intervention.

Hundreds of NSW police officers are leaving the force because of the toll their job is taking on their mental health. It is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year to compensate and replace these officers. The annual workers’ compensation bill to support police who have been medically discharged has jumped $90 million in two years to nearly $265 million in 2020. Compensation for these police officers has cost taxpayers $833.2 million since 2016.

The NSW government committed a further $583 million over four years to deliver 1500 new police officers in 2018.

As Nigel Gladstone has revealed in a series of reports, police are not only dealing with psychological injuries associated with the stress and human tragedy of the job. Bullying within the force has contributed to a culture that treats police officers as expendable and has been allowed to quietly flourish for many years.

Many officers have been thrown onto the scrap heap after being rendered mentally unfit to keep working, and the psychological injuries they suffer test (and often contribute to the destruction of) their personal relationships.

As Slater and Gordon practice group leader Ramina Dimitri, who specialises in police compensation cases, says, most police work-injury damages claims are settled behind closed doors, which reduces scrutiny of police culture.

The cumulative impact of confronting brutal crimes, road carnage and human tragedy has contributed to post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological injuries in police officers. Those who put up their hands to say they need help, and those who have stood up to defend them or to complain about misconduct within the force, can find themselves being bullied by their colleagues and superiors.

One former police officer described being “constantly in fear of what I would be in for when I turned up for work each day, not from jobs out on the road but internally”.

More than 80 current and former police from metro and regional areas have provided detailed accounts of toxic leaders, cover-ups and “upwards bullying” of senior police by lower-ranked officers, who they claim gang up on their managers. Police officers across NSW have described a culture in which complaints were “weaponised” and used to push good officers out while protecting underperforming police who are part of “cliques”.

These accounts echo a series of damning reports about dysfunction at police commands across the state by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), an independent body that oversees the NSW Police Force.

The LECC uncovered an entrenched culture of misbehaviour, including sexual harassment, led by senior officers and emulated by junior staff at one police command.

In July 2018 a joint NSW parliamentary inquiry recommended the establishment of an independent, external complaints management oversight body for workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination in the police force and other emergency services including the rural fire, state emergency and ambulance services.

NSW Police is unlikely to support more external oversight, but with no sign that the culture is improving, and with the cost of compensation rising, some intervention is needed to force cultural change. More also needs to be done to equip our frontline workers for the dangers and stresses of the job so that we are not just mopping up after the damage is done.

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