‘Fish swimming amongst sharks’: Why so many police are quitting the force
Hundreds of police officers who love their jobs are leaving the force because of its impact on their health, and it’s costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year to compensate and replace them.
NSW Police officer turnover has almost doubled since 2015, with 728 officers leaving the force last year as 1000 new recruits were sworn in. The NSW government committed $583 million over four years to deliver 1500 new police officers in 2018.
But keeping cops on the beat is being hampered by the behaviour of some senior police and trauma on the job.
Hundreds of police being medically discharged with psychological injuries pushed the annual workers’ compensation bill to $264.7 million in 2020 – up $90 million in two years. Workers’ compensation for NSW Police since 2016 has cost taxpayers $833.2 million, annual reports say.
Almost all medically discharged police officers leave due to psychological injuries, which are primarily caused by “internal/organisational factors”, says the NSW Police Association.
“Like many other workplaces, the strategies that the NSW Police Force have implemented are addressing the consequences of harm from psychosocial risks, rather than controlling those risks, such as managing work intensification, workplace conflict and burnout,” the association said.
“Since 2013, the frequency of injuries for police officers has modestly increased, but the consequences of those injuries are worsening considerably (larger number of officers forced to be off work for long periods of time, fewer officers returning to work, and a large increase in medical discharges).”
Former NSW police officer Kathy Bassett says she was bullied and harassed to the point that she ended up leaving the force after 23 years and is claiming workers’ compensation for psychological injury.Credit:Rhett Wyman
Kathy Bassett said being medically discharged in September 2018 was one of the saddest days of her life.
Former NSW police officer Kathy Bassett. Credit:Rhett Wyman
“For me, being a first response police officer was everything; it was my life,” said Ms Bassett, who served for 23 years as a sworn officer, and 10 as a civilian.
“I don’t have a partner, I don’t have children, the police was my life and I loved helping people.”
She worked in western Sydney areas including Mount Druitt, where she won a police officer of the year award and held the rank of leading senior constable for nine years.
After moving to the Hills LAC in 2013 she says a vicious campaign of bullying and harassment pushed her unwillingly out the door.
“Once you put your hand up, stand up for yourself about an injustice, or support other officers you see being mistreated, it is committing career suicide,” Ms Bassett said. “I was a fish swimming amongst sharks.”
An internal complaint filed against Ms Bassett nine months after an incident she attended in August 2015 held up her chances of returning to the position of leading senior constable.
The complaint investigation dragged on until November 2017, when she was told, while on long service leave, that a further eight internal complaints derived from the original matter had been filed, and that criminal charges for corruption were being considered.
The final result of the complaints was a Region Commanders warning in August 2018. No charges were filed.
Ms Bassett said that by 2018 she was “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”.
“My health deteriorated and I was pushed out of a job I loved by relentless persecution from senior police.”
Former police officer Danielle Thorp with her service dog, Kyra. Credit:Nick Moir
Fewer than half of the 4370 NSW Police surveyed last year felt that “all things considered” the force “provides good support” for their mental health and wellbeing.
The same survey reported fewer than one in three police (30 per cent) had confidence in the ways the organisation resolved grievances, down from 36 per cent in 2016.
Danielle Thorp was medically discharged suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as well as other psychological injuries in October 2015. More than five years later she is still “in the system” on workers’ compensation despite no longer being employed by NSW Police and has retrained as a registered nurse.
“I had no support until after the [workers’ compensation] claim was accepted. It’s like being a rape victim, cross-examined at court before you have had any chance to get counselling or help,” said Ms Thorp, who was a police officer for more than 14 years.
“My problem is that I’ve got a photographic memory so I can tell you every deceased I’ve ever been to, what they were wearing and what position they were found in etcetera.”
Before she was medically discharged, Ms Thorp said she was “crying out for help”, but instead of assistance she was targeted and hit with a rash of minor complaints such as not filling up the patrol car with petrol after logging overtime shifts.
“Someone is crying out for help and you still treat them like shit and then came the [inappropriate] comments. Then I started getting targeted,” she said.
“Policing is a job that goes from job to job to job without a break and no time to debrief in the middle.”
She was asked why she didn’t wear make-up on shift by a supervisor and replied: “Because it’s not part of the uniform and I don’t have to wear it”.
“He said, ‘Well a bit of lipstick and eyeliner might stop some of your complaints’,” Ms Thorp said.
Slater and Gordon practice group leader Ramina Dimitri, who specialises in police compensation cases, said most police work-injury damages claims settle behind closed doors, which reduces scrutiny of police culture.
“The state of NSW is supposed to be considered a model litigant and does not want numerous files going through the courts targeting public servants,” Ms Dimitri said. “They seem to settle it to make it go away, but this doesn’t change the insidious culture of bullying and harassment; it just sweeps it under the carpet.”
Workers’ compensation insurers offer “compromised amounts” because they know police have psychological injuries and don’t want to go through litigation or to court and be cross-examined, Ms Dimitri said.
“Insurers take advantage of broken police officers by offering settlement amounts based on the person’s vulnerability and their desire to put what’s happened behind them and move on so they’re not constantly triggered by having to go over the same details about how their psychological injury was inflicted,” she said.
In a statement, the NSW Police Force said it is “currently assessing its insurance arrangements”.
“Any increase in officers leaving due to medical issues can be attributed to the fact that the officers are unable to safely return to policing duties post-injury,” NSW Police said.
“The recruitment plan considers the separation rate [of police leaving the force] as well as the increase in authorised police positions from 16,845 to 18,345.”
Historically, “separation rates” from the NSW Police force have fluctuated. For example, after changes to the Death and Disability scheme the rates increased.
“Low separation rates are not necessarily a healthy indicator for an organisation, and may limit the ability of an organisation to obtain new skills and adapt its workforce composition,” NSW Police said.
Police Minister David Elliott referred queries to NSW Police.
Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; beyondblue 1300 224 636.
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