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To work for police is to stare into the abyss

Paul Coghlan |  16 February 2016

I have great empathy for Wade Noonan, who last week stepped down from his role as Victoria's Minister for Police to undergo counselling due to his exposure to traumatic incidents in this work.

Victoria police shoulder badgeHaving worked at Victoria Police for 25 years, I know that it is a strange environment, whether it be taking stolen car reports, where I started out, or writing business and strategic plans and reporting, where I finished.

Recording stolen car reports — at that stage about 28,000 a year on average — meant working at the Stolen Motor Vehicle Squad at Russell Street.

You were part of a squad along with four teams of detectives. You got to see what decent hard working coppers do best, and what motivates them: the hard grind that provides unseen good results for the community they work for.

Working at Russell Street also meant working with the Homicide Squad, the Armed Robbery Squad and the last of the hard men, the Major Crime Squad.

It wasn't some abstract business for these blokes, it was simply about solving crimes, catching those responsible and seeing justice brought upon them.

You got to be involved in things; to help investigate crimes that many in our society have the luxury of not even considering in their everyday lives. 

We ask our police to deal with the side of our community that we find distasteful; to deliver a community service by filling their lives with darkness so that we can live our own without it.

In darkness, fear breeds. In darkness, people seek comfort in fellow travellers and common understanding. In darkness, demons lurk and bad things fester.

At Russell Street I worked for a number of years on the same floor as the Homicide Squad. Unfortunately I sometimes found myself sharing a lift with some of their customers. If evil does not exist, something quite close to it does, in some of those individuals.

At least I got to get out of the lift. The Homicide Squad guys went back to work to deal with it all again and again.

Working at the other end of Victoria Police, on trying to measure and report to government and the community on the 'effectiveness' of the services police were providing, meant working in a truly bizarre world in which a 'good' outcome meant being 'less bad this year than last year'.

Homicides are up, but we solved more of them that's a good thing, right? Crime stats are up, but that's partially because more women are reporting family violence and assaults — that's a good thing, right? Road fatalities are only 300, down 2 per cent from last year — that's a good thing. Right?

I remember one year where everything we had promised the government of the day would be up was down, and everything we had promised would be down was up. I went and visited a very wise police inspector whose opinion I valued very much to ask him if he could help me explain what was going on.

'Tell 'em shit happens,' he said, 'and then tell them you know that, because if shit didn't happen they wouldn't need a police force to keep cleaning it up for them.'

Whether it be trawling through crime statistics or investigating crimes directly, police work means filling your soul with dark things. I have long felt that job advertisements for police should carry a health warning: This position may be dangerous to your mental, physical and spiritual health.

My heart and thoughts go out to Mr Noonan and his family — I wish him well. To work with police is to stare into the abyss, and unfortunately at times to have it stare back into you.


Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan is a writer, a recovering Victorian Public Servant and author of When You Stop Laughing Go Home: Impressions of a Young Nation — Timor Leste 2010-2013.



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Submitted comments

I have a neighbour who is a policeman and I often think of the very important, and often under-appreciated, role he plays in our community. When police investigate horrendous murders, traffic accidents involving fatalities, domestic violence (the list goes on) trauma stays with them. Little wonder burnout happens. Thank you for your 25 years of service, Paul.

Pam 16 February 2016

The Australian Police forces, both state and commonwealth, are probably right up there with the best in the world. Most police join for idealistic reasons. Like members of the Defence Forces, terrible things, both physical and mental, can happen to them in their line of duty. I am glad Wade Noon took time out. I hope that facility is available to ordinary police. If we don't support our police with their mental, as well as physical, health we do them a grave injustice. We need our police. A few bad apples should not obscure the essential decency and humanity of the vast majority of police.

Edward Fido 16 February 2016

Great article Paul and close to the truth; the paradoxes of policing. And who is there to guard the guardians of our community? Who is there to assist those left traumatised?

Michael 16 February 2016

My brother was a cop, and collapsed completely under it all and has never fully recovered. He was "one of the good ones" who cared. Too much to survive.

moira 17 February 2016

I am forever grateful for the police force and the role they play in making our community what it is. I am ever mindful of the fact that police officers are constantly required to do the sort of things I personally would never want to do. I am also very conscious of the demands that their work makes on every aspect of their lives and that they get very little support and less thanks for what they do. Articles such as this really should be made available to a wider audience.

Noel Kapernick 17 February 2016

Thanks for this reminder Paul of the clearly traumatic environment within which - and worse in some sectors of - you and others work to offer us a safe environment. We know about corruption - and the sections within which it most commonly occurs - we watch our nightly police dramas - or news programs or on-line forums alerting us to those who subvert the law for personal gain and/or power. It's like all work contexts - whether in the legal profession, in politics, in vested interest behind-the-scenes lobbying and influence peddling - for all the bad ones - most are ethical and motivated by true service. So the police. And the things they face - the car accidents, the "domestic" violence, the tragedies of natural disasters - of drugs and murders - yes, an accumulation of what we might call PTSD - and/or "moral injury" not necessarily the same thing but weighing down the individual with levels of disconnect from how things should be - is indeed a position which IS dangerous to mental, physical and spiritual health!

Jim KABLE 23 February 2016

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