Calls grow for better safeguards to 'protect the protectors' including better mental health provision and greater punishments for those who assault emergency workers
As a campaign grows to ‘protect the protectors’ The Herald has learned that a quarter of Devon and Cornwall Police officers who have lost their lives since 2009 died by their own hand.
A Freedom of Information request found that since October 10, 2009 – the earliest ‘death in service’ data available – a total of 30 police officers, police staff and PCSOs died in service.
None of those who died were killed in action, all were off duty at the time. a
However, out of the 12 Devon and Cornwall Police officers who died, three – a quarter – were deemed by a coroner to be suicides.
By comparison, the Police Service of Northern Ireland recently revealed that of the 96 officers who died while in service, 17 had taken their own lives since 2002, prompting calls for more help for front line emergency service workers.
The revelations come at a time when the Police Federation – the body which represents rank and file officers – has called for better protection of officers in light of a rise in assaults against police and increasing pressures affecting their physical and mental health.
The Federation also cite cutbacks to each force by the government’s austerity measures as increasing stress among officers. They fear budget cuts have left fewer officers tackling crime and disorder, as well as dealing with an increase in mental health related incidents.
Last month, as part of World Mental Health Day, Devon and Cornwall Police Sgt Regie Butler bravely spoke out about his own battle with depression and described how he pulled himself back from the brink of suicide.
He admitted he was “embarrassed” to admit he was suffering depression and that it nearly cost him his life.
Now a health and wellbeing support officer, assisting officers across the force, he revealed he reached a point where he was “having suicidal thoughts” and did not know where to turn.
He said: “It all started back in the mid 1990s, I had been in the police force for a couple of years then. There was a lot going on in my personal life at the time, I had had a marriage break down and I wasn’t coping. I ended up having a nervous break-down that ended with me sat on Dartmoor wanting to take my own life.”
Regie battled with depression for years to come. He admitted that by 2013 issues “blew up” and he “started to realise that I was having suicidal thoughts again, that I couldn’t cope at work and I was very highly stressed”.
It was only after coming across articles by the mental health charity MIND did he realise he needed to take positive steps.
Now his goal is to support his fellow officers, try to stop the stigma and put an end to embarrassment around mental health.
Regie added: “It’s almost embarrassing in this culture and especially in the blue lights, saying ‘I’m struggling’ or ‘I’m not strong’, it’s very hard to say.
“I’m not proud of what I went through, but I’m not going to hide it either.”
The Samaritans charity frequently highlights how around 90 percent of the people who die by their own hand have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problem at the time of their death.
he charity also emphasises how there are often a culmination of factors and stressors in combination – rather than one specific cause – which leads to situations of self harm.
The Police Federation hopes its campaign will see fundamental changes to safeguard officers from the risks their jobs entail.
Janice Adam, chair of the Devon and Cornwall Police Federation, said: “We are very concerned with the current issues affecting the health and wellbeing of officers; injuries to officers, both physical and mental which in extreme cases lead to death or suicide are unacceptable and unfair.
“This issue, the impact on officers and ultimately the public they serve, needs to be recognised by everyone, be understood and be prevented.
“Data shows that the number of assaults on officers is increasing.
“In 2016 we had 492 members of staff assaulted. In the first eight months of 2017 there has already been 416 assaults.
“The number of officers suffering from stress is increasing with absences linked to stress and psychological disorders being the major cause of absences from the work place and officers are continually reporting levels of demand that they no longer have sufficient numbers to deal with.
“For the 12 month period to June 2017 [stress was] the main reason for absence of officers, accounting for 9,166 days.
“Policing is a job like no other, officers run towards danger when most run away, officers work hard every day to protect the public, safeguard the vulnerable and prevent harm and officers face danger and uncertainty every time they are on duty.
“If officers are assaulted, are absent from work, feel stressed and not supported then they cannot deliver the high level of service they strive for and that the public deserve. This is putting public safety and security at risk.
“In rural areas like Devon and Cornwall the situation is even more challenging with the remote and isolated working conditions our officers face, back-up often being some distance away this increases the risk of assault and is also challenging in terms of mental wellbeing.
“It is well known that remoteness and isolation increases the likelihood of stress and depression and with the reduction in the number of officers available it is often the more rural areas that are affected most.
“The Government cuts to policing have a big part to play in this, with less officers all that can be delivered is less, however the demands on police officers are actually increasing and becoming more complex, from terror threats, dealing with the results of an under-resourced mental health system, to increasingly complex safeguarding requirements and ever more cyber crime.
“Anyone can see that this just does not add up or make sense and it is our officers and the public who are suffering.
“Although much of the funding issue and the resulting cuts to officer numbers is not something the force can resolve, there are things the force can do to support officers and improve wellbeing; and as an employer they have the responsibility to do so.
“There has been good progress in terms of personal protection for officers with the wide and increasing roll out of Tasers and leading the campaign against assaults on blue light workers.
However the delay in rolling out Body Worn Video for all responding officers is disappointing. This piece of equipment will not only improve police efficiency but is an excellent deterrent against assaults so worth its weight in gold.
“Again the force is doing some excellent work in recognising the issues with stress and mental wellbeing, encouraging openness regarding mental health with great initiatives through our Occupational Health team.
“However there is a need to recognise that there are just not enough officers to deal with all the demand being placed on them and the force needs to reduce that demand and relieve the pressure it is putting officers under.
“If these issues are not addressed and the Government do not stop playing ‘Russian Roulette’ with policing and public safety, then I fear policing as we know it, the police service the public deserve to have will be totally broken.
A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Police said: “Policing is a job like no other. Every day, police officers put themselves in harm’s way to keep people safe, and as employers we have a duty to help officers manage the impact this has on their mental health and wellbeing.
Wellness is a priority for the force and we have developed a number of initiatives to support officers and staff including a peer support network.
“Other initiatives include our local wellbeing delivery groups which are led by superintendents and support the local and force-wide initiatives.
“The force has set up and trained over 60 peer supporters to support individuals with mental health issues.
“The force is rolling out a ‘psychological health support programme’ for staff in roles with high psychological risk to provide ongoing support alongside the force ‘Employee Assistance’ programme.
“We have also increased the number of gyms in police stations and are carrying out stress management inputs to new recruits and staff across the force.
“There is currently a resiliency pilot being run offering a day workshop to staff and officers and we have targeted some of the groups we know are under particular stress at this time.
“As a force we acknowledge mental health issues and acknowledge the stressful work that our officers and staff do.
“It is important that we take care of each other and advise our officers that if they have a mental health issue, it is okay to reach out for support, either from within the force or outside.”
Superintendent Tamasine Matthews of Plymouth police added: “As part of localised wellness initiatives, officers and staff meet quarterly for a wellness steering group which covers wellness, continuous professional development and improvements to the working environment.
“We have an innovative collaboration with the local sports college to provide comprehensive fitness and wellness testing, nutritional advice and sports injury support to our frontline Response staff.
“We have completed a pilot with one section and are looking to roll this out.
“We are also part of the FitBit research being conducted by Exeter University to understand the day-to-day stresses and strains on frontline staff and their motivation and opportunity to exercise and keeping fit and healthy.
“In addition we are working with mental health charity, MIND, to provide mental health training to all our supervisors – this training includes both an external focus and how to recognise mental health issues in self and peers, how to support colleagues and access pathways.
“The wellness network provides coaching and mentoring opportunities for all staff that wish to access them.”