Burden for Life

NZPA | Thu February 1st, 2018

Police has set up a critical incident working group to review the handling of serious situations such as police shootings. After a rise in such shootings, Police has acknowledged it can do better to help members who are forced to fire in the line of duty. By Ellen Brook.

Burden for Life

In the past five years, 18 people have been shot by police and, of those, 10 died.

Last year, a Stuff story questioned the actions of police involved in some of those fatal shootings. It questioned their tactical decision making and training. It raised suspicions over why they hadn’t faced criminal charges and disciplinary action from Police. It called into question the findings of the IPCA where officers’ actions were found to be lawful. It quoted a lawyer describing officers this way: “They just Rambo-like pulled the trigger ... and hoped they’d hit something.”

The gist of the story was that there is insufficient scrutiny and a lack of consequences for police who fire a fatal shot in the course of their work.

For the officers involved, and who read that story, their reactions range from anger to weary disappointment.

They are not able to respond to such stories. They rely on Police spokespeople and the Police Association to take their part.

Meanwhile, some of them are going through a sort of hell that only those who have pulled the trigger in a fatal shooting can relate to – not just for them, but for their families and the families of the person who has been killed.

They are stuck in anonymous isolation, waiting to find out the results of ensuing Police, IPCA (Independent Police Conduct Authority) and coronial investigations, unable to talk openly about the incident, and trying to come to terms with what has happened.

In a few seconds many lives have been changed forever, and it could happen on any shift at any time.

No police officer goes to work wanting to take a life. No one wants to be that person who fires the fatal shot.

But when it is you – when your job has put you in that moment – you have to act, they say.

When Officer A* was faced with the opportunity to stop an armed offender, he did, but it took courage, he says.

“It’s not easy to pull that trigger. Not everyone can do it, but you can’t hesitate or someone else might die.”

Another officer faced with an armed offender recalls: “He really left me no choice. If I hadn’t fired, he would have shot me, one of my colleagues or a member of the public. It puts you in a horrible place where you have to take action because no one else will.”

In both cases, the threat to police and the public was over, but it was just the start of the awful burden that descends on officers after a police shooting, not helped in some cases by poor communication from Police and speculation in the media.

For Officer A, there was the initial interview with Police and mandatory counselling, but during three days’ leave, he says, he didn’t hear from anyone. “They never told me about the investigation, what was happening… Was I in trouble? Why weren’t they contacting me?”

He took some more leave and after a week of no contact, he was even more worried. “I was thinking, is something wrong, am I in trouble or do they just not give a shit? I was worried about myself, my family, my job – imagining the worst-case scenario. Was I going to be charged with murder? My wife was also going through hell.

“I don’t think there was any ill will on the part of Police, it just never occurred to them, but they are learning now.”

Officer B* didn’t sleep for three days after fatally shooting an armed offender. “I was totally strung out, an emotional wreck, replaying it in my mind, and worried I would be charged with murder,” he says.

“We do get briefings beforehand about what might happen during these sorts of investigations, but all anyone ever thinks about is Waitara, where the officer involved was charged with murder [in a private prosecution]. It’s hard to think rationally, even if you believe you did the right thing.

“At the time, I felt a lot of anger towards the offender. Why didn’t he put the gun down? Why did he put me in that situation? I really didn’t want that to happen. I wanted it to be resolved peacefully.”

He took two weeks off work, but when he returned he found that none of the files he had been working on had been picked up, even though he had requested they be taken care of.

“I was behind the eight ball and it all snowballed until I had a bit of a breakdown.

I went to the doctor and my blood pressure was through the roof. He told me I shouldn’t be at work.

“I took five weeks off to relax and calm down. If I’d had more support with my workload before that, I wouldn’t have had to take that time off.”

He doesn’t blame Police. “Dealing with these situations is a relatively new thing. No one has much experience of it.” The biggest issues for him were the ongoing worry about the Police investigation – “being investigated by your colleagues is really hard and it went on for a year” – then the coronial process, plus the stigma of such incidents and the impact it had on his family.

The incident led to some significant changes in his circumstances, including changing his work group and shifting to a new city.

“I’m a big boy. I knew I might have to make that decision one day. In many ways, it affected my wife more than me.  Police said don’t tell anyone, so we took that advice, which meant she wasn’t able to talk about it, even with the people closest to her. She also had to cope with me being pretty self-absorbed for months. Eventually, she did confide in some people and that immediately lifted a weight from her.”

He says it should be mandatory for partners to see a counsellor too.

Ongoing support has helped him. “I can see a psychologist whenever I want to, and because I did see one regularly during the first six months, I recognise when I am going through a low patch.

“Also, it’s a very personal thing – personal to me and him and his family.”

Officer A recalls intense feelings of anger and grief and recognises the benefit of his visits with the psychologist.

“It’s important to know that you will get through it and get back to work, with help from colleagues, family and, above all, good communication from Police.”

 

Burden for Life pic 2For Officer C*, his experiences have spurred him into action to raise awareness over what he sees as a lack of understanding about the effects of fatal shootings on the officers who have taken the life of an offender.

“I do not want to see any other members travel the path I have been down,” he says.

After shooting a man dead during a police call-out he became crippled with guilt and developed PTSI (post-traumatic stress injury) symptoms, including flashbacks and nightmares.

“No amount of training can prepare you for the psychological implications of taking another person’s life. Even when it is justified, it makes little difference to the human psyche,” he says.

“I take no pride or satisfaction in taking my offender’s life and it is certainly no badge of honour. It is a burden I carry every day and although I have learnt to live with it, it has been a struggle.”

The key to recovery and avoiding PTSI, which can sometimes develop years later, he says, is making peace with the memory.

“From a professional, dispassionate point of view, I had no qualms about killing my offender, but from a human perspective it caused me great pain. Burying your memory alive is dangerous for your mental wellbeing and will eventually come back to haunt you.”

It was about 18 months after the incident that he began to experience PTSI symptoms, although, at first, he didn’t recognise what it was. “The colour of orange dawn and dusk were my major triggers and every time I drove through road works, I would be back at the scene.”

Instead of seeking help, he says, he kept things to himself, waking up in the night crying with guilt, anger and frustration, seeking refuge in alcohol and struggling at work.

“It was like I had a volcano bubbling away inside of me just waiting to explode. I refused to seek help because I felt a deep sense of shame. I thought I should have been able to  resolve things just as I felt I had during and immediately after the incident.”

He began disintegrating mentally over a period of about six months and eventually did seek help, but, unfortunately, he says, the damage had been done and it had cost him dearly, both privately and at work.

“I was able to mask things from my workmates, but I was just bullshitting myself and living in denial. I was bitter too, because there are things I can’t undo or fix in my personal life now.”

Dealing with the PTSI was the hardest part, and it made him question whether he still wanted to be a police officer.

“I felt vulnerable, lonely and lost all confidence in myself. The best way to describe PTSI is imagine your most stressful day and then multiply it by 150.

“I have seen the darkest depths of my psyche and faced my demons many times since my incident.

“Within our organisation most people don’t understand the mental pain that you suffer after taking an offender’s life,” he says. “It preyed on my subconscious and stripped away my humanity.”

He is advocating for studies to be done into the effects of shootings on police officers. “We need to start having open and realistic conversations about this subject because at some point we will lose a member who was unable to cope to suicide.

“Our generation owes it to the next generation to make sure we have a better understanding of what they are likely to face and the implications of dealing with fatal and non-fatal shootings.”

Officer C says that he and his colleagues who have been involved in fatal shootings have experienced an extremely abnormal event that most other people will never go through.

“After my incident, I felt a part of me had died. It is a part of me that I will never get back and remains at the scene of my shooting.”

From the point of view of these officers, any suggestion that there are no consequences for their actions could not be more wrong.

And there’s a more subtle effect, one that’s hard to talk about, says Officer B. It’s lack of recognition from Police for their actions.

“If I went out and dealt with an armed offender and I was unarmed and didn’t get shot, I’d probably get an award for bravery. Am I less brave because I was armed and did what was required?

“If, in the future, my kid finds out about this, I don’t want him thinking I did something wrong. I want him to know that I did something right.”

 

*Anonymity remains vital for these working police officers.

 

Focus on Welfare

These officers’ concerns are central to what Police’s Critical Incident Working Group (CIWG) will be considering and making recommendations on regarding post-shooting procedures.

Superintendent Anna Jackson, national manager police professional conduct, says Police has listened to its staff and recognises that, following police shootings, welfare has not previously been the key priority it should be.

“More consideration needs to be given to the officers, the families of all involved and to the public,” she says.

The CIWG, which meets monthly, is made up of representatives from Wellness and Safety, Investigations, Dog Section, AOS, the Police College, Public Affairs, HR, the Continuous Improvement Group, Professional Conduct and the Police Association.

It is working through several policy recommendation options, including:

• Raising awareness during training about what to expect after a shooting and what supervisors are expected to do

• Standardising post-shooting responses, which currently vary from district to district

• Not recording post-shooting leave for staff as being “stood down”

• Appointing family liaison officers and providing a support information pamphlet

• Appointing a critical incident liaison officer (probably an AOS member) as a single point of contact throughout the process

• Providing a long-term point of contact for psychological and legal care

• Guidelines for dealing with media

• Private ceremonies to formally recognise the efforts of staff.

The CIWG also wants anonymity for officers from the outset of a critical incident, but that would require an amendment to the Policing Act 2008 (see story next page). Ms Jackson said the Police legal services and policy group had been asked to provide advice on the issue.

 

Name suppression

Should police officers be granted anonymity in the Coroner’s Court?

The Police Association thinks so and has the backing of Susan Hughes QC, who last year urged a “concerted campaign” to have changes made to the Policing Act 2008.

She wants assurances that officers involved in critical incidents will not have their names made public during the processes involved in such events.

“Many of these events occur in rural or provincial areas. The concerns I have heard on many occasions are, ‘I need to keep my family safe’, and, ‘I can’t be identified, I will become a target’. Frankly, anonymity is the least that such officers should expect.”

Ms Hughes says there is a willingness among coroners to consider issues such as “closure” for a bereaved family and to provide the family an opportunity to ask questions, “but where does the officer feature in this paradigm?”

She questions the lack of balance between the interests of the family of the deceased and the interests of the officer and his or her family, who would already have been through a homicide investigation, an internal policy and procedure investigation and investigation by the IPCA.

“By the time the matter comes before the Coroner, a decision will have been made as to whether the shooting was justified or not,” she says.

“If it was not justified, the officer will face the criminal courts. If justified, then should that decision be reviewed by the Coroner?

“Can a Coroner add to the information already available? If the answer is no, then an inquest should not be convened, and, if it does go ahead, then the officer or officers should have automatic name suppression.”

The Police Association’s view is that there should be automatic name suppression for any police officer involved in a fatal incident in the course of performing his or her duty, at least until a court finds an officer guilty of an offence causing a fatality.

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