Risk and resilience

NZPA | Sat September 1st, 2018

Some of our members pay a high price for serving the public. Vicious and unprovoked attacks on police officers can have life-changing consequences. Ellen Brook reports.

Hannah Templeman

Constable Hannah Templeman is helped by her Counties Manukau colleagues after a king hit to the head. Photo: STUFF

A kick to the face resulting in a smashed eye socket, lacerations and a broken tooth was a terrible way for Senior Constable Paul Symonds, 61, to end his policing career.

The long-serving officer, who received the New Zealand Bravery Star for his actions during the Napier siege, was attacked on December 20 last year in a cell at the Hastings courthouse. The man who did the damage was last month sentenced to 31 years in prison.

His actions caused a permanent injury requiring regular visits to a surgeon. Paul has had a titanium plate inserted to repair the eye socket and has double vision in his left eye, which will never fully recover. He also suffered a concussion and has ongoing memory loss.

Adding insult to injury, the day before the assault, Paul had handed in his notice. He had expected his last day on the job to be January 11, but he was unable to return to work.

Paul SymondsTo be left with a lasting injury is a high price to pay for carrying out your job, and the cost hasn’t stopped there. Paul (pictured, left) has been building a new home, planning to do most of the work himself, but the damage to his eye has meant he has had to employ someone to help.

Looking back on the assault, he reflects that it was probably preventable if he had been carrying a Taser. Normally, he would have been, but on that day neither of the two Tasers allocated to the courthouse were available – one was out and the other was not working.

It was an unnerving way to end his 30-year career, and is one of several recent cases that highlight the risks faced by our members as they serve their communities.

On top of the usual scuffles, punches, scratches, grazes and the indignity of being spat at, Police staff are sometimes only a hair’s breadth away from career-ending injuries.

The same month that Paul was attacked, Senior Constable Scott Woodsford, 57, was hit by a fleeing driver as the road policing officer attempted to lay road spikes at Te Teko in Bay of Plenty.

The car was travelling at about 100 kilometres an hour when it hit him. Scott went over the bonnet and windscreen and landed at the bottom of a two-metre deep drain next to the road. He was knocked unconscious. Fortunately, a quick-thinking colleague leapt in to hold him clear of the water at the bottom of the drain while emergency services sorted out how to get him out. The rescue took 40 minutes.

Scott suffered a brain bleed, concussion, a wrist fracture, a dislocated shoulder and broke multiple bones in both legs.

He was lucky to be alive. He spent two months in hospital and another 21 months recovering at home. He has metal rods in both lower legs and one in his right thigh.

He has only recently returned to work on light duties at Whakatane Police Station.

Light duties usually involve front counter work, taking calls and dealing with inquiries and paperwork. Pay rates are unaffected, but constabulary staff on light duties do not wear uniform and, if they are recovering from injury or illness, they may work reduced hours until they are able to pass the PCT and return to full duties.

Scott Woodsford

Senior Constable Scott Woodsford is on light duties at Whakatane Police Station. Photo: SENIOR CONSTABLE JOHN CHARLES

Mentally, Scott says, he’s feeling good, especially about the fact that he’s learnt to walk again. He’s gone from a wheelchair, to a walking frame to crutches and now to a single stick and he walks a kilometre to the station and back home each day, making strategic pit stops for coffee.

How long it will be until he can return to frontline duties is uncertain at this stage.

“The surgeons have told me that I will never be 100 per cent again, but say it’s likely I will be back up to fitness for work eventually, although it could take six to 12 months.”

He’s well aware that his life as a cop could be over, but he remains optimistic and he doesn’t hold grudges, especially about things he can’t change. After 20 years of policing, he says, he knows what to expect at work – that there is always a risk to the job.

He’s laid road spikes plenty of times, and knows it can be dangerous. This year marks a decade since Sergeant Derek Wootton was killed by a fleeing driver in Porirua when he was laying road spikes in a suburban street.

“The funny thing is,” Scott says, “sometimes it’s the simplest things that can catch you out. I would have thought something like this might happen at night, but this happened in broad daylight.”

Last month, his attacker was sentenced to more than five years in prison.

Road spikes

Laying road spikes is a potentially dangerous job. Photo: STUFF

Another Bay of Plenty police officer, Constable Ardon Hayward, 31, is on light duties at Rotorua Police Station for the foreseeable future after being smacked in the back of the head with the blunt end of a tomahawk on July 17 last year.

He was completely unaware that the attack was about to happen. He suffered a serious concussion and brain injury and part of his skull was replaced with a titanium plate.

The wound to his head has healed well, but he needs ongoing tests to monitor his brain function and memory and sees his doctors every six weeks.

Ardon, who joined Police in 2014 and worked with the public safety team, says he’s “moved on” from the incident, which occurred during an arrest at a family harm callout, but it took a while and hasn’t been easy. Now, he says, he just wants to “get back to normal, back to how I was before it happened”.

The man who attacked Ardon was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Ardon Hayward

Constable Ardon Hayward's head, post-surgery, after being attacked with the blunt end of a tomahawk.

Constable Hannah Templeman, 26, knows what it’s like to take an unexpected blow to the head.

In November last year, she was part of a Counties Manukau team policing unit trying to contain rowdy drunken behaviour in Ōtāhuhu after Tonga’s Rugby League World Cup win.

As a man was being led to a patrol car, Hannah and her colleagues formed a line around the arresting officer to deter partying fans who were taking exception to the arrest.

The threat came from behind, and Hannah was king hit on the side of her head, causing her to crash to the concrete below.

“I didn’t see it coming and I don’t remember it too well, but apparently I was unconscious for about 10 seconds,” she says.

Her teammates immediately abandoned the arrest and went to her aid, covering her to protect her from the crowd and carrying her to a police van to take her to hospital.

“We’re a tight unit and they were really worried about me,” Hannah says. “They were gutted that it had happened.”

Her attacker had melted away into the night and was unable to be identified.

Hannah knows she was lucky to have sustained only a mild concussion and despite some headaches and bruising to her face and arm, she was back at work a week later. “I was very lucky because of where I was hit. It could have been a lot worse, even though it was very painful because I had my ear piece in on that side.”

After the incident, she says, she was a little worried that her managers might think that she couldn’t handle herself. “But I realised later that it could have happened to anyone.”

After five years with Police, Hannah remains devoted to her job and, fully recovered from the assault, she has this year passed the selection requirements to start training as a dog handler.

As Scott Woodsford says, police know their job carries elements of risk; it’s one of the factors that separates policing from most other public sector jobs. Nonetheless, they continue to keep faith with their sworn oath to serve and protect the public.

Our police officers are well trained and resilient, but they aren’t super human, says Police Association president Chris Cahill.

“They are ordinary citizens whose job is to try to protect the rest of us from dangerous situations and bad people. They know there are risks, but the life-changing effects of being injured are poorly understood.”

Sometimes, he says, the true costs are not revealed until years later and the harm to families is even less appreciated. “The partners who stay awake at night hoping their loved ones will come home in one piece; the children who see mum or dad battered and bruised… what is the effect on them? Saying it’s just part of the job ignores the human costs that shouldn’t have to be paid.”

And not all injuries suffered in the line of duty are visible. Emergency responders around the world are now recognising the inner struggles that result from exposure to trauma, which often don’t get as much consideration as broken bones.

Psychological and emotional damage can force cops from their careers too.

Paul Symonds says most people really have no idea of what’s involved with policing, of the risks that staff face as part of their work. “They try to sympathise, but they don’t really get it,” he says.

Unresolved trauma after close call

Bryony Lewis was only 18 months out of Police College in 2008 when she was crushed between a police vehicle and a drunk driver’s car during a T3. The offender had reversed into her and pinned her against the patrol car.

She recalled hearing a horrific “popping and cracking sound, like plastic bubble wrap”. That was her pelvis breaking in nine places and dislodging from her spine. She spent six weeks in hospital. When she made it home, she had to lie on her back for eight weeks and suffered from vertigo and migraines.

Bryony Lewis

It took nearly 18 months before she was able to return to work and complete the PCT.

Bryony did some writing during her recovery, going over the incident in her mind. She noted, incredulously, that it had been only two days before that she was “chasing the boys [her two small sons] around the house pretending to be Spiderman… only two days ago that I was woken by two toy cars being driven over my face like a racetrack and opening my eyes to two smiley faces just before they jumped on the bed, giving me cuddles and kisses. That ended in a split second… because of the actions of a self-centred drunk...”

She expressed gratitude and sympathy for her colleague who was sitting in the police car as she was pinned against it and “made a decision that will affect his life forever. If he moved the police car to release my body, there was huge risk I would be run over again by the driver, or, if he didn’t, I would have died. As hard as it was for him, he reversed our patrol car and I performed a magnificent jump to the side and fell like a sack of potatoes face down into the gutter. This is a night, a moment, that has dominated my thoughts and dreams.”

Reflecting on the incident now, Bryony, 38, who is a detective with Henderson Police, says that while her body eventually recovered, what she didn’t realise at the time was that the euphoria of having survived a life-threatening incident actually masked some significant emotional trauma, which only emerged several years later.

“I was a bit of a dick at the time and I didn’t take the time to get the psychological help I needed. I was trying to be a tough cop and get back to work as soon as possible. Police sent me to a psychiatrist, but after a few sessions I just thought, ‘nah’, and stopped going,” she says.

Two years ago, Bryony suffered a mental breakdown and posttraumatic stress was diagnosed, traceable to the night she was nearly killed at work. “I was having nightmares, I was afraid of driving in the rain – it had been raining that night – I couldn’t face working at night, and I was drinking heavily.”

A normally bright and bubbly person, Bryony, realised it was time to seek help and properly process what had happened to her. Her prosaic advice to others now is: “Take help when it is offered. Don’t be a macho knob!”

Meanwhile, she also stands by what she wrote down all those years ago: “What the public don’t realise is that every day a police officer is injured. It is the nature of the job and people don’t hear about it because we, as police, expect to get black eyes and broken noses and we laugh it off with a beer. We are just doing our job. This is our commitment to the community and I would do this a hundred times over if it meant I prevented a drunk driver from killing or injuring an innocent person, child or family.”

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