SUICIDAL police officers are going out on emergency jobs because they are too busy to ask for help.
A number of officers surveyed during their shifts said they had considered taking their lives in the past three weeks but were still on the frontline, a senior police chief warned. Andy Rhodes, chief constable of Lancashire Police, said a survey of 18,000 officers found one in five were suffering post-traumatic stress disorder due to horrors they see on a daily basis.
Mr Rhodes, who heads the new National Police Wellbeing Service, said it was assessing 5,000 officers on top of the survey of 18,000.
He told the Police Superintendents’ Annual Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon last week: “We have found through psychological screening that we have got people scoring critical levels.
“We had people come in with critical levels of blood pressure just about to go to a job. Some have filled out that they have considered taking their own life in the past three weeks, but they filled it out themselves while they were on their way to a job.”
He said officers were reluctant to seek help from occupational health teams because they were too busy and due to a “hero culture” in the service.
The NPWS now has four wellbeing vans which are being sent out to major incidents to support officers through trauma, with six more on order.
Mr Rhodes said: “We have people in there who can refer them. You have got to take the coals to Newcastle, because people do not want to walk into your site through the organisation’s corridors to occupational heath yet.”
He said the average person faces an average of four major traumatic events in their life, but police officers could face hundreds each year.
He added: “Our people experience excessive levels of trauma and we see that trip people into crisis over more minor things like debt or having their locker moved.
“The survey of 18,000 staff found up to 20 per cent of our police have got PTSD or complex PTSD, and that is huge. Working excessive hours, there is an element of that in the job from time to time, but if it happens consistently and becomes the accepted norm that is a problem.”
Recent high-profile attacks on officers, including the death of Andrew Harper who was dragged by a car when responding to a burglary last month, have led to calls from many for all police to be armed with Tasers.
Mr Rhodes said: “If our people are saying they will not put themselves in harm’s way unless you equip them with a Taser, then that is a debate we need to have as we still want them stopping three people in a car at 3am, don’t we?
“The NPWS has worked with organisations in Australia, Canada and the US to develop its programme.
“They are all fully armed and there is a very ‘Big Strong’ culture level there and self-harm and suicide are very high. We have spent a lot of time on a peer support model.”
There are signs the tide may be turning. At Lancashire Police, occupational health referrals for psychological issues have risen from 120 to around 600 a year.
Katy Bourne, chairwoman of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, told the conference that officer wellbeing had to be at the heart of any force’s strategy.
But she said a crisis in the whole criminal justice system needed to be fixed as thousands of hours of officer time were being wasted on cases that never make it to court.
She said: “Think of the criminal justice system as an established ecosystem, perhaps a bit like the Great Barrier Reef. From a distance it looks like this magnificent edifice that we hold dear and stands the test of time.
“But, as you look more closely, we see the infrastructure is tired and worn out.
“The creatures that depend on it do their best to carry on with less resources and less success, leaving the most vulnerable exposed.
“Put simply, there are far too few convictions at the end of the criminal justice process, which is affecting police decisions and resource allocations, undermining public confidence and embroiling criminals.
“If we just carry on as we are there will be diminishing results, leaving crime victims with justice delayed and denied.”