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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.

Fourth AFP officer suicides at work

Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

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 ex-PSO’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.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 15, 2018 as "Fourth AFP of f icer suicides at work". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.