Fourth AFP of­fi­cer sui­cides at work

Af­ter a fourth of­fi­cer’s sui­cide in just 18 months at Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice head­quar­ters, staff hold lit­tle hope the or­gan­i­sa­tion will change. By Martin McKen­zie-Murray.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

Last Sun­day, the body of Sergeant Sa­man­tha Baglin was found in the ar­moury of the Ed­mund Bar­ton Build­ing, the Can­berra head­quar­ters of the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice. She was 44.

Six weeks ear­lier, in the same room of the same build­ing, Su­per­in­ten­dent Richard Roberts had also taken his life. Staff were shocked, ap­palled. Some called for a royal com­mis­sion. One of­fi­cer ex­pressed a sense of ex­quis­ite sor­row to me, and said Baglin was well liked, re­spected. Among other du­ties, she had been de­ployed in­ter­na­tion­ally and had worked as a fam­ily li­ai­son of­fi­cer for the Maslins, the Perth fam­ily who lost three chil­dren in the de­struc­tion of Malaysia Air­lines flight MH17.

Last year, two other veteran AFP of­fi­cers, Sue Jones and Mal­colm Scott, com­mit­ted sui­cide in the agency’s Mel­bourne head­quar­ters. One for­mer of­fi­cer told me other AFP staff have taken their own lives out­side the work­place, and that there is lit­tle op­ti­mism among serv­ing mem­bers for a change in cul­ture to ad­dress this.

In Fe­bru­ary this year, the Phoenix Cen­tre for Post­trau­matic Men­tal Health re­leased its 200-page re­port into men­tal health in the AFP. It found that al­most a quar­ter of staff ex­pe­ri­enced mod­er­ate to high lev­els of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress. “More specif­i­cally, 14% re­ported symp­toms con­sis­tent with a di­ag­no­sis of de­pres­sion, 9% re­ported symp­toms con­sis­tent with a post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) di­ag­no­sis, 6% re­ported clin­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant anx­i­ety, and 9% re­ported prob­lem­atic al­co­hol use.”

The re­port, how­ever, was quick to qual­ify these re­sults – the sam­ple was not ran­dom but in­stead com­prised the vol­un­tary re­sponses from staff. What’s more, self-re­port­ing must be dis­tin­guished from clin­i­cal eval­u­a­tion. Still, the num­bers were sig­nif­i­cant – roughly com­pa­ra­ble to Defence Force fig­ures – and the re­port found ar­eas of man­age­rial in­ad­e­quacy in deal­ing with dis­tressed staff. “Our im­pres­sion is that cur­rently Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sup­port Ser­vices is not ad­e­quately re­sourced to ful­fil its in­tended func­tion,” the re­port read. “Fur­ther, it would seem that roles and pri­or­i­ties are not clearly ar­tic­u­lated.”

The re­port also reaf­firmed what

fed­eral of­fi­cers told me this week – that the or­gan­i­sa­tion is dis­united, an of­ten-awk­ward amal­gam of roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. Low es­prit de corps, high fac­tional tensions. “Some de­scribed [the AFP] as a ‘platy­pus’, with widely dif­fer­ent or­gan­i­sa­tions be­ing forced to­gether into an un­nat­u­ral whole,” the re­port read.

“We cer­tainly de­tected many ex­am­ples of hos­til­ity and re­sent­ment be­tween var­i­ous sec­tions such as: geo­graph­i­cally (e.g., Can­berra vs re­gions vs re­mote lo­ca­tions); work roles (e.g., Na­tional Of­fice roles vs ACT po­lice vs pro­tec­tive ser­vices vs aviation); type of staff (e.g., “true blue” AFP vs “lat­er­als” from state po­lice vs exPSO’s vs cur­rent PSO’s, as well as Sworn vs Unsworn/Pro­fes­sional staff ).”

Of­fi­cers told me these cul­tural di­vi­sions weren’t sep­a­rate to the is­sue of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tress – they af­fected morale, di­min­ish­ing an en­vi­ron­ment of mu­tual sup­port that would bet­ter en­cour­age in­di­vid­u­als to seek help. Po­lice of­fi­cers, whose sense of self is of­ten con­tin­gent on men­tal for­ti­tude, al­ready face a con­sid­er­able bar­rier to dis­clos­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity or dis­tress. The stigma around men­tal health is­sues re­mains strong in emer­gency ser­vices, a fact re­in­forced by in­ter­nal hos­til­i­ties. This week, I heard sto­ries of of­fi­cers se­cretly find­ing treat­ment for post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, so fright­ened were they of declar­ing their ill­ness at work.

“We can­not over­state the im­por­tance of good or­gan­i­sa­tional prac­tices in in­flu­enc­ing men­tal health,” the Phoenix re­port read. “We can add layer upon layer of men­tal health sup­port but if the un­der­ly­ing work con­di­tions in do­mains such as ex­ces­sive de­mands, lack of con­trol, and high lev­els of con­flict are not ad­dressed these mea­sures will be of lit­tle use. We do not un­der­es­ti­mate the dif­fi­culty of mak­ing some of these changes in the cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate and in the face of in­creas­ing de­mands from gov­ern­ment. It is our opin­ion, how­ever, that the men­tal health of AFP staff will al­ways be com­pro­mised if the or­gan­i­sa­tional is­sues are not ad­e­quately ad­dressed.”

The Phoenix re­port was sub­mit­ted to a fed­eral se­nate com­mit­tee formed in March this year, which is ex­am­in­ing “the role of Com­mon­wealth, state and ter­ri­tory Gov­ern­ments in ad­dress­ing the high rates of men­tal health con­di­tions ex­pe­ri­enced by first re­spon­ders, emer­gency ser­vice work­ers and vol­un­teers”. The in­quiry will re­port in Fe­bru­ary next year.

In the hours af­ter you learn your child has been mur­dered, you are ex­iled to an­other world. Noth­ing can pre­pare you for it. It is a world of un­re­al­ity. It has no lin­ear time, and its at­mos­phere is made of vaporous glue. Its cur­rency is mag­i­cal think­ing, and its ma­te­rial com­po­si­tion – your house, street, neigh­bour­hood – is de­nuded of mean­ing but for its res­o­nance with the dead.

It is the world of pro­found shock, and it’s near hope­less to de­scribe. But it is to the oc­cu­pants of this world that the po­lice fam­ily li­ai­son of­fi­cer must speak. In a high-pro­file crime, the of­fi­cer’s ad­vo­cacy is con­ducted against clam­orous in­ter­est. Po­lice, lawyers and me­dia will make their de­mands, and the fam­ily li­ai­son of­fi­cer will act as their hon­est bro­ker. They will shield fam­ily from re­porters and ex­plain the law’s gears, which may seem to grind con­fus­ingly or with cold in­dif­fer­ence. The li­ai­son of­fi­cer is an am­bas­sador for peo­ple in the world of shock, com­mu­ni­cat­ing the some­times-un­pleas­ant logic of the world they’ve just left. It is in this be­tween space that Sa­man­tha Baglin worked.

It is ex­traor­di­nar­ily de­mand­ing.

The fam­ily li­ai­son of­fi­cer can be, by turns, in­ves­ti­ga­tor, ad­viser and con­fi­dant. As these things go, of­ten they can be a friend as well. Where some ar­eas of polic­ing might per­mit the of­fi­cer to reg­u­late their sym­pa­thy-to-de­tach­ment ra­tio, this role obliges a level of in­ti­macy. As the years go on, some of­fi­cers may feel guilt about their de­creas­ing lev­els of emo­tional in­volve­ment. One of­fi­cer told me a pro­found fea­ture of po­lice work is moral in­jury, and there is an en­dur­ing de­bate among po­lice about the virtues of sym­pa­thy over de­tach­ment.

The AFP com­prises 6500 staff, di­vided into 15 “busi­ness ar­eas”, and the Phoenix re­port ac­cepted the broad sweep of its du­ties, each with their at­ten­dant de­mands on men­tal health. Spe­cial men­tion was made of polic­ing child ex­ploita­tion, a unit which sits within Crime Op­er­a­tions’ area of 430 staff. Fed­eral of­fi­cers I spoke to ex­pressed a kind of as­ton­ished ad­mi­ra­tion for col­leagues ded­i­cated to polic­ing crimes against chil­dren – and the at­ten­dant obli­ga­tion to view thou­sands of re­pel­lent im­ages and video.

The Phoenix re­port ac­knowl­edged the pro­ce­dures that ap­ply to these of­fi­cers: “Some high-risk ar­eas, par­tic­u­larly those in­volved in view­ing ob­jec­tion­able ma­te­ri­als, have sound poli­cies in place to screen and mon­i­tor well-be­ing …

They rec­om­mend reg­u­lar psy­cho­log­i­cal screen­ing, and de­scribe the role of ‘hot de­briefs’ and how ex­plicit ma­te­rial should be man­aged and stored. In gen­eral, these prac­tices were well re­garded by staff in­volved, al­though some com­ments in the staff fo­cus groups and in­di­vid­ual in­ter­views/sub­mis­sions ex­pressed con­cerns that peo­ple were not ro­tated quickly enough out of these high-risk ar­eas and that psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sess­ments were lim­ited to ‘tick-and-flick’ ques­tion­naires. Man­agers in these ar­eas noted that main­tain­ing a high stan­dard of prac­tice with re­spect to these poli­cies in re­gional ar­eas was a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge.”

The eval­u­a­tion of child ex­ploita­tion ma­te­rial asks pro­found ques­tions of of­fi­cers. While re­sponses vary be­tween in­di­vid­u­als, the risk of sec­ondary trauma in­creases, un­der­stand­ably, with the sever­ity of the ma­te­rial. Still im­ages are likely to be less trou­bling than video – more trou­bling again is video with au­dio. It begs the ques­tion: Do you turn off the sound, for the sake of men­tal preser­va­tion? Most of­fi­cers would re­spond no – an au­dio track is po­ten­tial ev­i­dence, and the of­fi­cer should thor­oughly ex­am­ine all el­e­ments. This isn’t en­tirely self­less, ei­ther. Stud­ies – and com­mon sense – sug­gest that one’s re­silience when ex­am­in­ing this ma­te­rial is im­proved if the of­fi­cer be­lieves their work is ef­fec­tive. In other words, the strength to con­tinue their work is found in see­ing that work re­sult in ar­rests and con­vic­tions.

There are other ques­tions. How de­sen­si­tised does an of­fi­cer al­low them­selves to be? How much con­trol does an of­fi­cer have over this, any­way? A 2014 Aus­tralian study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Po­lice and Crim­i­nal Psy­chol­ogy, in­volved the anony­mous in­ter­view­ing of 32 child ex­ploita­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tors. On the mat­ter of de­sen­si­ti­sa­tion, their re­sponses var­ied. “I think the fact that some­thing is shock­ing is a good thing in the sense that it shows that you’re still hu­man,” one of­fi­cer said. “To be­come de­sen­si­tised is the wrong way to go. I think you al­ways have to ac­knowl­edge that what you’re view­ing is of­fen­sive and ter­ri­ble. I think if you lose that em­pa­thy of kids suf­fer­ing, your work suf­fers. You’re mo­ti­vated to do the job be­cause you want to do some­thing to ad­dress the ex­ploita­tion of chil­dren … so to be­come de­sen­si­tised to that I think you un­der­mine your abil­ity to do the job.”

An­other of­fi­cer had de­vel­oped a cool prag­ma­tism. “Ini­tially when you first start off the ma­te­rial kind of throws you a bit but af­ter a while you just get on with the job with­out think­ing about it,” they said. “When I’m plough­ing through thou­sands of im­ages to grade them on vic­tim ages, I’m not con­tin­u­ally say­ing

‘Oh my God! Oh, that’s shock­ing!’ Rather, I’m say­ing: ‘That’s young. That’s young. Don’t know about that one. No, she’s older. He’s older.’ Just tick­ing boxes off to get the job done.”

There is not a wealth of data on the mat­ter. Stud­ies sug­gest that child ex­ploita­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tors are ex­cep­tion­ally re­silient, but not in­vul­ner­a­ble. Psy­cho­log­i­cal in­juries might in­clude in­tru­sive mem­o­ries, hy­per-vigilance, de­pres­sion, ex­haus­tion, mis­an­thropy and dif­fi­cul­ties with sex­ual in­ti­macy. An of­fi­cer’s moral re­pug­nance can metas­ta­sise, be­com­ing a bleak and uni­ver­sal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the world. “In­no­cence is some­thing you have un­til it’s taken away from you by be­ing ex­posed to this ma­te­rial or ac­tu­ally be­ing abused,” one in­ves­ti­ga­tor told aca­demics. “There are plenty of peo­ple in the world who are in­no­cent; in fact 90 per cent of the peo­ple in the world are in­no­cent. They have a lack of un­der­stand­ing of the nas­ti­ness and evil­ness of the hu­man con­di­tion, and that’s a good thing for them be­cause if they lose that they don’t get it back.”

At least two of the four fed­eral of­fi­cers who took their own lives at work in the past two years served over­seas. The

AFP de­ploys of­fi­cers to war zones in in­ves­tiga­tive ca­pac­i­ties, or to sites of ter­ror­ism or nat­u­ral dis­as­ter for body re­cov­ery or iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Yet while AFP of­fi­cers may ex­pe­ri­ence trauma sim­i­lar to Defence per­son­nel, they do not have the same ac­cess to com­pen­sa­tion as sol­diers. Un­like mil­i­tary veter­ans – whose com­pen­sa­tion scheme is ac­quit­ted by the Depart­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs – trau­ma­tised po­lice are sub­ject to Com­care, a process de­scribed to me this week as of­fen­sively ad­ver­sar­ial.

It is a mat­ter of great con­cern to the Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion, who wrote at length about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween af­flicted of­fi­cers and Com­care in its sub­mis­sion to the se­nate in­quiry. “One of the most sig­nif­i­cant im­ped­i­ments for em­ploy­ees with men­tal health con­di­tions seek­ing as­sis­tance from Com­care is the need to demon­strate how the con­di­tion was caused as a re­sult of the course of their em­ploy­ment,” the sub­mis­sion read. “The Com­care model was de­signed to man­age phys­i­cal in­jury, where a spe­cific in­ci­dent can be iden­ti­fied as hav­ing caused the harm. When the cause of the in­jury may be re­peated small ex­po­sures over ex­tended du­ra­tions, it can be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for those suf­fer­ing the men­tal ill­ness to gain ac­cep­tance for their claims.”

It added: “More trou­bling, em­ploy­ees who are acutely men­tally un­well may be emo­tion­ally or men­tally in­ca­pable of telling how their psy­cho­log­i­cal in­jury oc­curred. In­deed, to do so may cause them ad­di­tional harm. In this case both the AFP and Com­care are ei­ther un­will­ing or un­able to as­sist the in­jured em­ployee ac­cess treat­ment or care.”

The Phoenix re­view re­ceived a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of re­sponses from staff who felt sup­port for those re­turned from in­ter­na­tional de­ploy­ment was less than those work­ing in other high-risk ar­eas, such as child ex­ploita­tion. Staff be­lieved that there were vary­ing lev­els of pri­ori­ti­sa­tion, which weren’t ad­e­quately ex­plained or jus­ti­fied.



AFP com­mis­sioner An­drew Colvin has pub­licly com­mit­ted to re­form­ing his or­gan­i­sa­tion, per the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Phoenix re­port and a sep­a­rate au­dit of AFP work­place prac­tice un­der­taken ear­lier this year. Fol­low­ing the death of Sa­man­tha Baglin, Colvin once again as­sumed the role of chief eu­lo­gist and con­soler, record­ing a video mes­sage for staff. All four of these deaths – Sa­man­tha Baglin, Richard Roberts, Sue Jones and Mal­colm Scott – are still be­fore a coro­ner.

As Colvin has ad­mit­ted, there is much work to be done. While the of­fi­cers I spoke with this week didn’t doubt his com­mit­ment and his sym­pa­thy, they didn’t share his op­ti­mism for the pos­si­bil­ity of re­form.

Aus­tralian Fed­eral Po­lice com­mis­sioner An­drew Colvin.

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief cor­re­spon­dent.

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