If you get hurt at work there’s an expectation you’ll be covered by some form of workers’ compensation.
But not if you’re a police officer in Western Australia.
That’s because WA is the only state that doesn’t have a workers’ compensation scheme in place for injured police officers!
WA is the only state that does not have workcover for injured police officers!
Call for workers compensation for WA police forced to retire due to work-acquired illnesses
By Lucy Martin
A group of medically retired police officers is calling on the State Government to introduce a workers’ compensation scheme but for many, it will come too late.
Trevor Dolan loved everything about being a police officer but the job nearly destroyed him.
For years, he bottled up his emotions while attending horrific crime scenes.
“You didn’t want to let the guys down,” he said.
“It was a very team-oriented job and you didn’t want to be seen as a weak link so you went into work mode and you just dealt with the trauma or the incident or whatever it involved.”
Eventually he developed a crippling case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It’s a great job, a hugely satisfying job but one that comes with a cost,” he said.
“I have nightmares and flashbacks, it really affects my family.
“If I wake up, my wife wakes up. If I get sick, she gets sick. I didn’t used to drink a lot of alcohol but now I do.
“You might go to a barbecue and just a smell can trigger an incident in your mind that you’ve dealt with.”
Trevor went on stress leave and was judged unfit to serve.
He was medically retired on September 24, bringing an abrupt end to a 25-year career.
“All of a sudden you’re no longer a police officer,” he said.
“You’re a civilian… who’s not appreciated for what you’ve done in the past.
“All (WA Police) wanted to do was free up my position so they could replace me, which is understandable because they are running short on the front line.”
Trevor’s story is not unique.
As a fresh faced 24 year-old, Heather Wellstead blazed a path for other female police officers.
She attended dozens of suicides, murders, sexual assaults and fatal accidents during her time as a detective.
“There was rarely a break from it,” she said.
“It was rare that you felt you were off duty.
“But we just got on with the job and it wasn’t until I moved down to Perth to do detective training that I started to notice my issues of not coping seemed to be more pronounced.
“I would have tremors when attending traumatic scenes, heart palpitations, get very red in the face, just feeling sick.
“I had no idea what was wrong with me.”
Heather sought help from her superiors but they told her all detectives got like that in the end and it was nothing to worry about.
By the time she was diagnosed, Heather had been suffering from PTSD for at least 15 years.
“One of the things that makes me so angry is that at no time through my training at the academy, at any stage of investigative training or education since, have I ever been told anything about PTSD or the fact I might get it,” she said.
“So for me to be told I had it was quite a shock.
“(WA Police) failed on so many levels. This isn’t an issue that happened overnight, this has been going on for over 20 years.”
In July this year, Heather was judged unfit to serve and medically retired after almost 30 years in the force.
At just 53 years of age she doesn’t think she can cope with working anymore but like others in her situation, she was entitled to just one month’s wages and holiday pay.
Since 2001, more than 200 officers have been medically retired on psychological grounds.
A further 88 were retired because of physical impairment.
Former police sergeant Dave Bentley has taken up the fight for compensation on behalf of those officers.
He started his career on the same day as the Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan.
“I knew that I’d be beaten up, I’d be spat on, I’d be involved in crashes and there would be the very unpalatable things I’d deal with,” he said.
“But nobody ever ever suggested I’d lose my mind or that I would suffer a nervous breakdown.
“It looks very nice on the TV to see all the glossy police programs and adverts but the reality is different to what you actually do.”
It’s hoped these newly-graduated police officers will eventually have access to better worker’s compensation. Photo: It’s hoped these newly-graduated police officers will eventually have access to better worker’s compensation.
Dave saw things too horrific to describe during his time as a crash investigator and he too was medically retired in 2009.
He helped start the Medically Retired Police Officers Association to provide support and advocacy to others in the same position.
He doesn’t blame the force for his condition but believes more can be done to identify and assist officers who are struggling.
He wants a compensation scheme to be introduced as a matter of priority.
“There is no dignity in the way we are retired,” he said.
“We’re just forced out the door.
“(WA Police) espouse very clearly in their advertisements that (people should) join the ‘police family’.
“Well, families don’t treat people like they’ve treated me.
“(Families) support you, they stay by you for the hard times, they provide support, they provide guidance, they provide comfort.
“Sorry, the police do not do that.”
Dave is calling for an immediate moratorium on medically retiring officers until a compensation package is put together.
The Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan also believes a compensation scheme is needed.
“If you happen to have a high profile and the media are interested in your particular case, it’s likely the government will pay you some sort of compensation,” he said.
“But if you don’t, you don’t get anything at all and we have to resolve that.
“We’re also very keen in being able to connect officers who are no longer able to work in the front line with other types of jobs and employment so they can constructively continue to work, but not necessarily in policing.”
But any compensation scheme would involve a trade off.
“If we’re going to go for worker’s compensation it would require the (police) union to agree that police generally are no longer entitled to 168 days of sick leave a year,” the Commissioner said.
“That has been a sticking point in all of the negotiations up to now.”
The Police Union has made no secret of it’s desire to retain its hard-won sick leave entitlement but says it strongly supports a compensation scheme too.
“The Union has already been in discussions with the Police Minister and Commissioner, to ensure that all police officers are looked after when they are no longer fit for duty,” Union President George Tilbury said.
“Due to the complex nature of policing, there is no quick solution to this matter and we need time to research and develop a sustainable scheme that will protect all police officers.”
While the former police officers wait for progress, psychologist Doug Brewer is helping them move forward.
Dr Brewer runs a treatment program for emergency services personal at Hollywood Hospital.
He’s seeing an increase in the number of police officers coming to him with the PTSD.
“PTSD is really a failure to recover from experiencing a traumatic event, which we would describe as something that is life threatening or likely to severely damage us,” he said.
“Policing increases your vulnerability too, in that not only are you frequently exposed to traumatic events, but you have to block those out in order to do your duty.”
Dr Brewer says the longer PTSD goes undetected, the more damage it can do.
The Hollywood Clinic’s treatment program aims to give sufferers ways to cope and help them move on with their lives.
Heather Wellstead and Trevor Dolan asked WA Police to pay for them to participate while they were still serving.
Both were knocked back, receiving near identical letters from the WA Police Health and Welfare Service.
They were told that WA Police’s consultant psychiatrist had reviewed the program and decided it would offer them “no significant improvement”.
In Trevor’s case, WA Police eventually relented, paying almost $8000 for him to take part in a three-week program.
“Being allowed to go on the course gave me a sense of value again and that alone is worth more than dollars because you’re more than just a number,” he said.
Heather was also able to complete the three-week program, but her private health insurance, not police, footed the bill.
They’ve both appealed to the State Government for an ex-gratia payment.
It could be their only chance of some financial recognition of their work-related illness because even if a compensation scheme is introduced, it’s unlikely to be retrospective.
“Within a month or so I’ll have nothing so what does that mean?” Heather said.
“They actually have to make this a top priority and they have to get off their butts and do something about it.”
Things are looking up for Trevor – he’s just been told he’ll receive an insurance payout through his superannuation fund.
He’s slowly returning to the man he once was.
“There’s a saying, ‘once a police officer, always a police officer’,” he said.
“You’re still out there representing the community and you see something that’s wrong and you try and rectify it.”
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