Former police with PTSD say getting help is beyond hard. Photo / 123rf
Former police traumatised on the frontline are calling out the organisation’s top brass for severing support once injured staff retire.
But New Zealand Police have pushed back on the claims, saying they are doing their part to help current and past officers diagnosed with a work-related mental health injury.
However, a Northland police dog handler who made the heartbreaking decision to end his dream job after a shooting caused him to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) disagreed.
Carl* had spent more than 20 years as a police officer – a job he wanted to do until the day he died.
This came frighteningly close on December 1, 2020, when a standard job looking for one of Northland’s most wanted offenders turned into a life-threatening shootout on a remote Tangowahine farm.
“The only reason I am alive here today is the fact that I had a firearm on me and I was able to ultimately defend myself because without it, I was f****** dead. Dead all day long,” Carl said.
Carl and his canine, Arnie, were chasing a sighting of “top-five” offender Jamie Henderson alongside other armed officers.
As the duo closed in, Henderson pulled a “Dirty Harry”-style .357 magnum revolver from his backpack, turned, and fired.
A bullet aimed at an advancing Arnie struck the canine in the head from near point-blank range.
Carl said running away was pointless. He and the other officers would’ve ended up with a “huge hole” in each of their backs.
Determined to keep himself and the others alive, he returned fire.
“Then I obviously managed to hit him before he hit me.”
Carl appreciated the in-house support he received from the New Zealand Police in the wake of the shooting.
He was connected with a “really good” psychologist and was put into an “amazing” reintegration programme, run by officers who had also experienced gun violence.
But Carl knew in his “heart of hearts” that returning to work wasn’t a possibility. His PTSD was overwhelming.
So after 18 months of “putting on a mask and pretending everything’s all good”, even though he would burst into tears on the drive home, he quit.
Colleagues warned him not to leave, saying his support would be taken away.
“I thought what a load of s***. They’re not going to throw me out to the wind,” Carl said.
“But the second I left, the help just flatlined.”
Hatikvah Blue Hope founder and former police officer Allister Rose said he was getting approached daily by some “very unwell” and sometimes “suicidal” police left to fend for themselves.
His charity aims to reduce rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among police officers.
“It’s really devastating because when you’re a cop, you know you sign up for life and expect the circle of safety in return that you’d be looked after if yourself in the s***,” Rose said.
In correspondence seen by the Advocate police confirm they provide no wellness support to former employees as their priority is current staff, but say they may in the future explore options in this area.
Rose believed the status quo had a level of “immorality”, especially given research showed PTSD was rife among police.
A study by Arizona State University – focused on more than 4000 serving and retired members of the New Zealand Police Association – found around 43 per cent of survey respondents identified themselves as experiencing probable post-traumatic stress and approximately 14 per cent identified themselves as having clinically-relevant post-traumatic stress.
Rose claimed the police can’t fully appreciate the extent of the problem either because their data around suicide rates of former and serving staff is inadequate.
The police were unable to provide the number of former police officers who died by suicide in the past 10 years, according to an Official Information Act request.
The Advocate has approached the police for comment.
Rose said: “The police know there is an obligation – both legal and moral – upon them to look after police in the workplace and that doesn’t stop once they’ve left the organisation.
“Instead, damaged police workers who aren’t thinking properly are being thrust out onto the street.”
Rose referred to the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, in which police have the primary duty of care for their staff, as they are considered a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) under the legislation.
A WorkSafe spokesperson said the duty was not time-bound.
Police acknowledged the job can involve staff being exposed to traumatic incidents and told the Advocate they had policies and practices in place to mitigate the risk of work-related mental injuries. These included trauma support and wellness policies.
And when staff did suffer, the police were an Accredited Employer in the ACC Scheme. They are therefore responsible for managing their workplace injury claims and providing entitlement for employees, such as medical treatment, compensation for lost wages or salary, and rehabilitation support.
A police spokesperson said they were responsive to all their obligations in providing support to all current and former employees with accepted ACC cover for a work-related mental injury for the life of the claim, regardless of the person’s employment status.
“When we are made aware, NZ Police will always inform and assist any ex-employee to lodge a work-related mental injury claim if they believe they have a work-related mental injury as a result of their policing duties,” the spokesperson said.
ACC and employment lawyer Jack Whittam, of Lane Neave, said first responders suffering a mental injury like PTSD are not always in the headspace to tackle the ACC process.
“Yet unless they are willing to do so or can afford a lawyer or advocate, too often claimants do not understand their rights and entitlements.”
In Carl’s case, his fear that he would commit suicide drove him to seek out the help he was entitled to.
But even then, he experienced constant delays from Gallagher Bassett – a third party administrator formerly used by the New Zealand Police to manage their claims.
Whittam said agents of ACC, like Gallagher Bassett, were required by law to apply the “highest practicable standard of service and fairness”.
“In some cases concerning mental injury, extensive delays mean this standard is simply not being met.”
Gallagher Bassett referred questions about delays to the police, who said they could not comment on specific questions related to the administrator.
However, they did provide some insight, saying that collecting historical medical notes from health professionals, long waiting lists for appointments with ACC assessors – which can be up to four months depending on the area – and certain necessary reviews could all hold up the ACC process.
The police said while a claim was being investigated, claimants were entitled to psychological support.
Whittam said in addition to delays, the country’s outdated ACC laws had a hand in mental injury claims being denied.
“For example, the law says that to receive ACC cover, a work-related mental injury must be caused by a single event. This means that if a police officer develops PTSD because they respond to one suicide, they may be covered by ACC.
“However, if an officer develops PTSD from the combined impact of responding to 15 suicides, they aren’t covered.”
Whittam said first responders need an ACC law that recognised mental health was just as important as physical health.
*The officer’s real name has been changed to protect his privacy.
SUICIDE AND DEPRESSION
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• What’s Up: 0800 942 8787 (11am to11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.