Victoria Police, Violence, and Cumulative Stress Disorder: History Tells Us that We are Crying Out for proper Counselling


by Elspeth Ball

Executive summary

  • This article looks at the prevalence of violence in society and the impact this has on members of the police force who are employed specifically to intervene in communities. It explores how Cumulative Stress Disorder is considered a precursor to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and is potentially the leading cause of job-related illness and Occupational Health and Safety concern for emergency services in the near future—specifically the Victoria Police
  • This article suggests that, as a function of their employment, members of Victoria Police are subject to higher levels of stress and violence than the average Victorian worker and that stress from non-critical incidents is detrimental to the mental health of police members.
  • Honour rolls reveal that there is a consistent rate of employment-related deaths and members are targeted for abuse because of their profession. It also highlights examples of non-critical, stressful encounters that stimulate Cumulative Stress Disorder.
  • It takes the view that, even though Victoria Police advertises its mental health strategies in Annual Reports, the implementation of these strategies seems flawed and other leadership decisions impact upon them, rendering them ineffective.
  • The article’s key argument is that consistent exposure to non-critical events of violence accumulates in a manner that the individual is either not aware of or under the impression that it is not important—until such time that a critical incident renders them unable to fulfil their employment.
  • The article concludes by suggesting that, as a minimum requirement, all members of Victoria Police should receive mandatory stress management training, incorporated in the biannual OST sessions. Also, it argues for the re-establishment of non-operational policing positions for members affected by stress, to enable them to remain employed and continue to utilise their training and experience serving Victoria Police.

At the start of 2011, frightened hospital staff called police as the spouse of an overdose victim became violent. Ranting throughout the night in his cell, the man yelled at the police officer: ‘I’ll find your wife and rape her; I’ll find where you live and rape her. I’ll get you and your kids and your whole family. I’ll have sex with your kids’. Ten years ago, police and fire-fighters were called to two buildings that were on fire. Whilst in the lobby, they heard ‘thuds and splats’. Frantic men and women were jumping from their offices in the Twin , NYC, and those were the sounds that their bodies made as they landed on the ground below—just metres from emergency service personnel. In 1989, a young man broke into a gun supplies store. Confronted by police, he waved a riffle and yelled: ‘You bastard, shoot me, shoot me, you’d better kill me because I’m going to kill you’.

Violence in society is undeniable and, with increasing threats of terrorism, it is clearly escalating. News and media report on accidental deaths, murders, overdose victims, nightclub bashings, bombings, domestic violence and abductions just to name a few prominent examples. Violence, no matter how great or small, always claims at least three victims: the individuals directly concerned; the families around them; and the police (including emergency personnel) who attend the scenes. As members of society, we require the government to provide infrastructure for living and law enforcement with a justice system for protection, but it is the police who are employed specifically to intervene in communities. As a function of their employment, members of the Victorian Police force are subject to increased levels of violence and, as such, are exposed to higher levels of stress than the average Victorian worker.

Evidence of this claim is found in police force honour roles. Between 1837-1852, four police officers were killed ‘on the job’. From the official formation of Victoria Police in 1853 up to 1899, 57 officers were killed performing their duties with the main causes being shooting, horse accidents (vehicle of the day) and drowning (in pursuit of offenders). Between 1900-1999, a further 90 officers died with the main causes being vehicle-related and shootings. This included a sharp rise from the previous century of deaths by personal injury (stabbing and bashings). In this century, from 2000 to 2006 (end of available records but not the end of deaths) another five deaths have been recorded. One officer was shot with his own revolver whilst conducting a random breath test after issuing a speeding ticket, and four were killed by vehicle either being struck by a car or being inside the vehicle itself.

These statistics are important because they show the inherent dangers associated with police work and provide considerable proof of regular violence over time. Averaged over a decade, the period 1837-1899 had 61 deaths in 62 years equalling 9.8 deaths every 10 years. There were 90 deaths between 1900 and 1999 at an average of nine per decade, and with four deaths from 2000 to 2006 the projected average would be 8.4 deaths within this decade. Even though these statistics show a minor improvement over the centuries, what the numbers hide is the fact that of these 156 deaths, 30 of the officers were slain specifically because of their uniform.

Examples start from the very first recorded death in 1837, with a constable being shot by an escaped convict, and include the state’s first multiple police deaths of Officers Kennedy, Lonigan and Scanlan murdered by the Kelly Gang. Senior Constable Curson had his throat slit on the steps of Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station in 1974, and we all remember the bombing attack on the Russel Street Police Complex that claimed the life of Constable Angela Taylor in 1986. A routine check of an abandoned car in 1988 was actually a deliberate ambush, resulting in the deaths Constables Eyre and Tynan. In 1998, Sergeant Silk and Senior Constable Miller were gunned down as they investigated armed robberies.

What, then, do we think of these statistics? It could be argued that they are terrible but largely uncontrollable situations that, after all, are just historical moments that we have to move on from. Right? Wrong! The perpetuating psychological damage from these incidences and other forms of violence can be compared to the aftershocks from an initial earthquake. Many officers exhibited forms of survivor guilt, for instance recounting: ‘I should have been there, but I got held up so they went in my place and now they are dead and I’m still alive’. Worse still is the perpetuating idea that it happened once so it could happen again, which potentially affects the mindset of all officers.

Many consider that stress disorders (SD), in particular Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), are relatively new concepts but in fact they have a long history. In 1666, Samuel Pepys, a witness to the Great Fire of London wrote in his diary: ‘It is strange to think how to this very day [6 months later] I cannot sleep a night without great terrors of fire and this very day I cannot sleep to almost 2 in the morning through thoughts of fire’ Stress disorders are not new, they simply have been given names for the purpose of classification. The other misguided notion associated with stress and violence is that the individual has to be personally involved or that it has to be a major event, or what police force members term a ‘critical incident’.

Victoria Police recognises the stress associated with critical incidents and members listed on an IFS (incident fact sheet) are sent generic emails to remind them to seek help if deemed necessary. For officers with an official diagnosis of PTSD (and who can make a successful work cover claim, which can pose another stress in itself!), there are effective clinics available to assist them and their families. What typically are overlooked as problematic, however, are any non-critical incidents of violence. These actions include verbal and physical attacks, domestic violence, car accident scenes or delivering a death notices. Officers are confronted daily by the grief, anxiety and aggression of other members of society and it is these events that slowly add up to what we know as Cumulative Stress Disorder (CSD).

To further highlight what is meant by non-critical violent events, examples might include a police woman in 2010 being the victim of a hit-and-run whilst performing a routine vehicle check. Also, police have to take statements from victims such as parents in SIDS deaths. Before the deceased baby leaves the home the police have to take statements from the family and assess the condition and location of the child as well as deal sensitively with the grief of younger siblings and parents. They have to control inner-city night club violence, investigate homicides and burglaries, control the scene at car accidents (both fatal and non-fatal), and perhaps the most devastating is the investigation of suicides. The West Gate Bridge (before barrier installation) averaged 1 suicide every 3 weeks. A Royal Melbourne Hospital report (2000) found that, of 62 suicide-related cases between 1991 and 1998, seven people had survived the 58-metre fall—and it is the police who have to attend the scene. As in the case of Darcy Freeman (2009), they are put in the position of retrieving bodies from the water in case they still are alive—as many actually die from drowning instead of the fall.

Many wonder why stressful events affect some individuals and not others, or why some recover quickly and others are left debilitated by stress disorders. To make an analogy of the principal behind this theory, imagine an old-fashioned bonfire. Day to day stressful events (not deemed as anything critical), affect an individual’s stress level. All incidents that are not emotionally dealt with are the equivalent of putting a ‘log on the wood pile’. As it is not ‘on fire’, it is considered ‘nothing to worry about’. These stressors accumulate over time, however, and when a critical incident occurs either to the individual personally or what could be felt as ‘close to home’ it acts as the critical incident or the match that lights the fire. The amount of wood on the pile determines both the size of the fire (i.e. the stress disorder) and, subsequently, how hard it is ‘to put out’ (recovery from SD). It is proposed that individuals being equipped to personally recognise issues in themselves and deal with accumulated stress could be the difference between simply having a ‘bad experience’ or succumbing to PTSD.

Victoria Police Annual Reports show that it is aware of stress and is trying to manage it. Reports from 2007 to 2010 and especially its ‘The Way Ahead 2008-2013’ campaign show an acknowledgment of the side effects of a stressful employment and announces a list of strategies to address various issues. Unfortunately, the design and implementation of these strategies seems flawed and other poor leadership decisions impact upon them, rendering them ineffective. In 2007, the report boasted work place agreements to provide: ‘Enhanced flexible working options that aim to create an environment that incorporates choice, versatility and adaptability by providing members with more flexibility to balance their work and life’. It referred to Psychological Health Education Programs designed to ‘better manage mental health issues in the workplace’. Furthermore, it declared: ‘The Peer Support Officers continue to provide support to employees with critical incident stress and personal issues’. Fast forward to the current day policies, however, and it is evident that these areas are ‘still being developed’.

The 2010 Victoria Police Annual Report still lists the same ideas as 2007 under the umbrella of ‘Valuing our People’. Its main concept is that ‘stress management has been given to managers and supervisors’. This is equivalent to saying that businesses with dangerous machinery only need to supply ‘some’ safety guards or only provide training to ‘some’ people. How is this logical? Apparently the ‘from above’ methodology employed here depends on information being given to managers and supervisors before then filtering down. Does Victoria Police only train supervisors to use guns and simply hope this skill will cascade down through the force? This methodology is predicated on the assumption that sergeants and senior sergeants can be all things to all men and women serving under them. It expects that they can do their own job, be knowledgeable of all incidents, and never have a personality conflict with co-workers or, God forbid, ever be the source of bullying in the workplace.

Victoria Police’s second achievement is the Peer Support Program. The 2007 report celebrated the 300th peer support trainee, but this is among 12,000 employees. The 2010 report fails to name a new figure of trainees, but here is the catch: this program is based on voluntary, unpaid positions. The force displays its commitment to its Peer Support teams by increasing the workload and stress that they are under in their own working lives, whilst using their ‘free time’ to support other members with no remuneration. At the very least, Victoria Police undervalues its Peer Support Trainees. The ‘Working Well – preventing stress program’ advertised in the 2010 report has potential. But, as a ‘pilot program’, it has not been evaluated by anyone contacted during research for this article.

Finally, the ‘Victoria Police Welfare, Chaplaincy and Counselling’ initiatives (2010 report) are appropriate and necessary support programs. Once again, however, they are predicated on the assumption that the officer recognises the need for help. Victoria Police can provide councillors and welfare officers to check on police members’ health, but if an individual is not aware that what they witnessed today will add to the violence they were involved in yesterday or last week and so forth, then the answer most certainly will be ‘I’m OK’. It is a similar situation to the workers who removed asbestos in the late 1960s. It is certain that they never imagined that the ‘little cough’ that developed was actually mesothelioma (lung cancer), which would eventually leave them incapacitated and unable to work and, eventually, involved in a worldwide class action for workplace negligence.

Leadership decisions (during the Nixon and Overland periods) concerning job security have heaped even more strain on an already stressful environment. It was considered that police who were no longer able to fulfil an operational role should be terminated unless they could successfully acquire a non-operational position. The nail was then placed in the coffin by the allocation of nearly all non-operational jobs to public servants, ultimately due to costs including the need for more police members to be allocated to operational positions. Overlander also tried to initiate a process called ‘BOC’, by which whole departments were to be replaced by public servants or if the officer wanted to keep their job they had to resign from the force and reapply for their original position as a public servant. There is no payout or any benefits similar to the private sector.

How is this ‘valuing the members’? It is impossible to reconcile these leadership decisions with the 2007 promises of ‘providing members with more flexibility to balance their work and life’. Just as it is pointless to put bandaids on third degree burns, these decisions are equally inadequate and make a mockery of any attempt to the live up to OH&S responsibilities in the area of training and equipping staff to fulfil their employment roles. Decisions like these ensure that staying employed and supporting families becomes the priority ahead of quality mental health.

It is hoped that, in the wake of the resignations of Nixon and Overland, the new Victoria Police leadership will use its window of opportunity to make good leadership decisions and show true commitment to stress management policies instead of token solutions. It is recommended that every Victorian Police member receive the Psychological Health Program instead of just picking and choosing who is deemed to be ‘at risk’. The delivery of a stress awareness and management program would be advantageously delivered during the biannual OST (Operation Safety Training) program when officers are focused on learning and where mental health issues would be integrated into police culture—the same way that weapons and first-aid training have been.

Because such a program would be accessed by everyone, the term ‘mental health’ would lose any stigma attached and hopefully would be viewed with a level of importance in police life. The new leadership should also reverse the non-operational job restrictions living up to Victoria Police’s declared commitment to ‘flexible working conditions’. The new leadership should acknowledge its responsibilities whereby, if the conditions of employment have affected an individual’s mental health, a non-operational position should be provided. Victoria Police has demonstrated a full understanding of the need for stress management and thus it is thought to be highly inappropriate to make judgment calls on who it educates on safety matters and who it does not. Perhaps a new era of leadership will show a modicum of common sense—that society cannot function adequately where individuals specifically employed to enforce the law are not valued and where policies reduce employees to the level of disposable objects.

Selected further reading:

CISM Education and Collaboration: defining resilience available at: http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/ems/community/cism.aspx?print=1

Critical Incident Debriefing (CISD) brochure: life after a critical incident available at: http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/ems/community/cism.aspx?print=1

Huge sick toll for Victoria Police on the beat available at:


Managing cumulative Stress in fire personnel available at:


Occupational health and Safety Act 2004 available at: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/consol_act/ohasa2004273/

Overview of stress management available at: http://www.kingcounty.gov/healthservices/health/ems/community/cism.aspx?print=1

Police wife rape threat available at:


Police woman struck by hit-run driver on Geelong ring-road available at: http://www.geelongadvertiser.com.au/article/2010/12/14/232471_news.html

Post-traumatic stress disorder in occupational settings: anticipating and managing the risk available at: http://occmed.oxfordjournals.org/content/57/6/404.full.pdf

Emergency Responders and Military personnel- caring for our heroes available at: http://stresseducationcenter.com/blog/index.php/2009/02/18/ptsd-emergency-responders-and-military-personnel-caring-for-our-heroes/

The Police Regulation Act 1958 available at:


The role of occupational stress in the contemporary fire service: Psychological stress, its causation, identification, treatment, reduction and resolution available at:


The Way Ahead 2008-2013 available at:


Victoria Police Annual Reports available at:


Victoria Police Honour Roles available at:


Work Safe Victoria available at: http://www.worksafe.vic.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/wsinternet/WorkSafe/Home/Laws+and+Regulations/Occupational+Health+and+Safety/

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