The hidden toll facing our police force

Sergeant Greg Gentry worked with the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams and the motor vehicle theft unit in Broadmeadows before arriving in Bendigo 12 years ago. Picture: DARREN HOWE

Sergeant Greg Gentry worked with the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams and the motor vehicle theft unit in Broadmeadows before arriving in Bendigo 12 years ago. Picture: DARREN HOWE

EVERY day presents a unique and unpredictable set of challenges for the 250 police officers serving in Bendigo.

From approaching call outs to houses with only a limited amount of information available, to dealing with an increasing number of aggressive and psychotic drug users, officers are run off their feet on a daily basis.

“There’s always that danger element at the back of your mind,” Sergeant Greg Gentry said, when asked about the reality of approaching unknown situations.

“As a sergeant, that doubles because you’re always thinking of the troop you’re leading. You do not want to place them in danger.”

It is impossible for uniform police in Bendigo to have anything close to the routine of a regular office job.

Critical incidents can occur at any time.

“One of the great challenges and rewards is that every day is different. Every day can present anything,” Sergeant Gentry said.

“It’s difficult to put in words, it’s such a complex job we do.

“It expands into every other department, like DHS, the council, other emergency services.”

At one end, uniform police arrest offenders and press charges. At the other end, 12 police prosecutors in Bendigo represent the community in court.

Among them is Senior Sergeant Cherree Blair, who has worked as a police prosecutor for four years.

Prosecutor Senior Constable Cherree Blair says the large number of repeat offenders in the Bendigo Magistrates' Court keeps prosecutors busy. Picture: DARREN HOWE

Prosecutor Senior Constable Cherree Blair says the large number of repeat offenders in the Bendigo Magistrates' Court keeps prosecutors busy. Picture: DARREN HOWE

She said, on average, prosecutors in Bendigo have to deal with 60 cases in one day. It can be up to 100 on a busy day.

Often, the first time they see a case file is when it sits on the bar table in front of them, and in front of a magistrate.

The offender’s defence has already analysed the case and have their arguments ready. They are also usually highly-trained lawyers, eager to leap on any “slip-ups” from police and the prosecutors to get a reduced sentence for their client.

Senior Constable Blair said prosecutors tried to get the best possible sentencing result for the community.

“The sheer volume of work can definitely be a challenge, and the fact we have to weigh up the community’s expectation with judicial decisions,” she said.

Prosecutors also question witnesses and victims, attempting to present their cases in a fair manner. They can be children or the victims of family violence, and they are expected to ask questions on the spot.

“When you do contested hearings and you have children or other victims involved, you just want to do what’s right for them,” Senior Constable Blair said.

For police in all divisions, the nature of the work can take its toll. In the past, it has rarely been discussed.

But in 2016, more research than ever is being undertaken into the mental wellbeing of Victoria Police members.

One of those playing his part is Peter Bull, who served as the Superintendent of Bendigo police from 2005 to 2009.

Peter Bull, who served as Bendigo's Superintendent from 2005 to 2009, is one of Victoria's leading researchers looking to improve mental health outcomes for officers.

Peter Bull, who served as Bendigo's Superintendent from 2005 to 2009, is one of Victoria's leading researchers looking to improve mental health outcomes for officers.

He was one of the four lead researchers who compiled the Victoria Police Mental Health Review, released in May this year.

Mr Bull will speak about the research, and the work being done to support the mental health of police, at the 2016 Blue Ribbon remembrance service in Bendigo on Thursday.

“Not only can members be physically injured, attacked or killed, there are high instances of mental health problems and suicide,” Mr Bull told the Bendigo Advertiser.

“There is a hidden toll. Far more police took their own life in the last century, than were killed in the line of duty.”

The review came up with 39 recommendations, including increased staffing of the Police Psychology Unit, improved suicide prevention initiatives and ensuring officers have breaks, rather than work for years – or decades – on end.

Mr Bull said the past police culture of “suck it up, princess” worsened the mental health burden for current and former officers.

“There’s a saying in police: ‘Critics don’t live in the real world’,” he said.

“But that’s been proved to be incorrect. In reality, the world police live in is very skewed, our state of reality is so different than the rest of the community.

“We meet people almost solely in aggressive circumstances. Few other people in the community face this.”

The prevalence of ice in the community was also increasing the danger for officers, and increasing the need for greater mental health support.

Acting Inspector Craig Gaffee, who works as the Bendigo police station commander, said violent encounters had become more frequent.

Acting Inspector Craig Gaffee says, "The vast majority of the public already support us and the work we do, they appreciate our work. They understand that we have a difficult job."

Acting Inspector Craig Gaffee says, "The vast majority of the public already support us and the work we do, they appreciate our work. They understand that we have a difficult job."

“We’ve seen people are more likely now to react with violence than 10 years ago. They are more likely to try to resist arrest,” he said.

“Bendigo is a big city now, the challenges we have here are the same as anywhere in the state.”

He said police relied on the public’s support and understanding of their work.

For Sergeant Gentry, a close-knit and committed group of officers makes the world of difference.

“Bendigo is a popular station. There is always a waiting list to come here,” he said.

“It has a fantastic working team of sergeants and our troops. We’re very fortunate here.”

The Bendigo Blue Ribbon remembrance ceremony starts at 10am on Thursday, September 29, at the Soldiers Memorial Institute on Pall Mall. If it rains, the event will be at the Havilah Road RSL.

Contact Lifeline: 13 11 14

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