Traumatised police seek counselling

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Rotorua police area commander Inspector Bruce Horne.
Rotorua police area commander Inspector Bruce Horne.

Several traumatic incidents - including four police officers shot while attending an AOS callout - is behind a spike in the number of Rotorua police seeking counselling for work-related trauma.

Rotorua police area commander Inspector Bruce Horne said the shooting of four of his officers during a siege in Onepu in March was part of the reason for the spike. He said the numbers were likely to keep rising as a result of the fatal shooting of a man by police on Te Ngae Rd two weeks ago.

Shargin Stephens, 35, died in hospital on Tuesday after police shot him twice in the stomach after he was seen wielding a slasher.

Data obtained by the Rotorua Daily Post under the Official Information Act showed in the first four months of this year there had been 31 referrals to counselling for Rotorua police compared to 29 for the whole of 2015 and 23 in 2014.

Mr Horne said Rotorua police had dealt with more serious incidents this year.

He said he couldn't remember the last time four police officers were shot in one incident.

"It has also been a very long time since Rotorua police were placed in a situation where they had to shoot someone."

He said while these high profile cases got attention there were more day to day incidents that also placed officers in traumatic situations.

The high number of requests this year is put down mainly to trauma - with 25 cases falling under that category - and six were for attendance at incidents where there had been a fatality.

"The AOS callout and subsequent shooting in Onepu Springs Rd earlier this year resulted in a large number of staff being assigned and/or recommended for counselling and this would be a major contributor to the increase. "

He said aside from the two major incidents there had also been a number of fatal crashes, some out of the area, which staff had attended.

Mr Horne said it was standard practice that any officer involved in a serious incident was assigned or recommended counselling and police managers were proactive in making sure that support was put in place.

He said it was about making sure police had not just the physical but psychological tools to cope.

"They are human beings. The community doesn't want robotic, hard-hearted people policing the community."

Mr Horne said 30 years ago there would have been a lot of resistance to seeing a psychologist, but now people realised it was healthy.

It was not just the staff who attended the incidents that were affected, and some could have a much wider impact or bring back memories of stressful incidents many years earlier, he said.

"You never know what is going to be a trigger. We've seen a bit of that in recent days."

He said while the year so far had lots of challenges, he was "tremendously proud" of the way the team had got through it and the way they had supported each other.

New Zealand Police national manager for wellness and safety Marty Fox said police work could sometimes be traumatic and disturbing, leading to occupational stress and trauma.

"For some, the psychological impact of their involvement in particular serious incidents may be great. In other cases, it is the cumulative exposure to a number of events which adversely affects the wellbeing of employees."

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