Trauma in uniform

“We had a police officer who had to handle the death of a four-year-old child. The event was traumatic for him, because it reminded him very much of his own young child. He was really struggling to handle the situation.” - Police Inspector Matthew Attard

The work of police officers can be traumatic. Behind each uniformed figure, there’s an intricate spectrum of emotions that are an inherent aspect of being a living, breathing human being.

This emphasis on feelings, and taking care of feelings, is why the Police Force set up a section dedicated to Transformation Strategy and Change Management. The strategy itself is written in a publicly available document that covers five years, from 2020 to 2025. It promises that a “renewed emphasis will be placed on the psychological and physical wellbeing of all members of the workforce”.

The Journal spoke to Inspector Matthew Attard, who is responsible to implement this transformation strategy within the Police Force. He explained that there has often been an unspoken expectation that officers should maintain good physical and mental health, without seeking assistance. This stigma is particularly pronounced among male officers, and it intensifies with higher-ranking positions. The prevailing belief is that no circumstances should adversely affect an officer’s well-being. Reality, however, is that we are all human, after all.

“We had a police officer who had to handle the death of a four-year-old child. The event was traumatic for him, because it reminded him very much of his own young child. He was really struggling to handle the situation,” said Inspector Attard to give just one example.

Steps to change the mindset

The Police Force is now taking steps to change the current mindset. A working committee has been set up, and it is collaborating with the Employee Support Programme (ESP). The latter is a service that is given to all public employees, providing free and confidential support aimed at helping people manage work and life difficulties. Apart from roping in the ESP, the working committee is actively involving the police chaplain, the Police’s Victim Support Unit, a medical professional, and union representatives.

Senior staff are being trained to be able to recognise specific behaviours and situations that may require attention. For example, there are a number of police officers working within the Victim Support Unit, providing a single point of contact for victims of crime shortly after lodging a police report. There are very vulnerable victims that reach out to the Police and, as a result, the police officers handling these cases often need help themselves. This is precisely why the Force is now identifying instances of trauma and engaging with police officers to address their needs.

In cases involving traumatic incidents such as suicide attempts, severe injuries, homicides, workplace accidents, or sudden deaths, individuals are referred to the ESP. This service is treated with confidentiality, whether it’s the police officers themselves seeking assistance or whether they are sent there by referral. The medical professional within the working committee also evaluates the situation.

In addition, training is being provided to managers to help them identify changes in performance, attitude, or an increase in sick leave among their team members. This training is incorporated from the very beginning, and it starts during recruitment and continues as individuals advance in rank, even if they become sergeants. Inspector Attard explained that this proactive approach enables managers to address concerns as they arise, fostering better communication.

A wider approach

It’s worth noting that not all cases are directly work-related, as this service encompasses a broader range of support. Police members who are experiencing difficulties in their private life are also helped.

“As a Police Force, we have internal customers and external customers. Whilst the public at large is our external customer, our internal customers are the police officers themselves. By taking care of each other’s well-being, we can better serve our external customers,” said Inspector Matthew Attard

While it is important to ensure that police officers who need help receive it, it’s also important to prevent situations that make them feel overwhelmed at the workplace.  In fact, Inspector Attard points out, there are many measures of a preventive nature that are being implemented.

An example is the fact that whereas previously there were no restrictions on how many hours an officer can work at one go, there are now specific limits in place. In addition, while in the past officers would often be uncertain about their work schedule from day to day, they must now be given a two-day advance notice. Moreover, if they need to work overtime, they have the flexibility to choose when to do so. In the past, overtime was applied for and then assigned randomly.

The canteen in the Police Headquarters has been renovated, so that the officers’ time to unwind is respected. A service where a doctor conducts blood tests is being offered, eliminating the need to visit a doctor or hospital when physical health issues arise. Furthermore, continuous training is offered on various subjects such as illegal substances, health promotion, disease prevention, weight management programmes, and self-care. A Police Sports Committee is working to promote physical activity within the Force, and the Financial Criminal Investigative Department has seen the introduction of an in-house gym that alleviates some of the monotony of never-ending paperwork.

Inspector Attard adds that the introduction of new uniforms has brought about a higher level of comfort and the implementation of body cameras has led to a reduction in reported incidents of violence and false reports against the police. Lastly, a recent measure stipulates that, if a police officer passes away, their pension will be transferred to their next of kin for up to five years following their death.

All these measures are indirectly contributing to improving the work environment of police officers, yet they are not enough. For example, Inspector Attard speaks of the need for an in-house counsellor or psychologist. What is clear, though, is that significant progress is being made in ensuring the physical and mental welfare of police officers.

They are, after all, the ones who, in turn, must safeguard us all from the less joyful parts in the ebbs and flows of life.

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