"They call It 'the job' because it isn't a job. That's the joke." Resilience among police in South Australia"

Author: Andrew Paterson

Paterson, Andrew, 2018 "They call It 'the job' because it isn't a job. That's the joke." Resilience among police in South Australia", Flinders University, College of Business, Government and Law

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This thesis, fuelled by original and expansive qualitative interviews, probes how fifty police officers in South Australia keep well and “bounce back” from duty-related traumatic experience in the absence of practical, accessible and timely organisational support. This research investigates mechanisms police officers presently use to “normalise” their duty related traumatic experiences to preserve the delicate professional balance between “coping” and “psychic numbing” and avoid the much publicised perils of a PTSD diagnosis, while being appropriately responsive to colleagues, victims and survivors in their daily work environment. Recent advances in Post Traumatic Growth and resilience theory will be considered, which set out to re-interpret exposure in a positive context, as well as preventative experiences in Australia and internationally.

It is now an expectation that police officers and other first responders “when exposed to enough trauma” (McFarlane, 2011) will succumb to a PTSD diagnosis. Such an expectation assumes that even the most resilient of individuals will lose the capacity to bounce back after challenging tasking’s outside of their normal operational experience. The intrusion of the diagnosis into areas such as policing constitutes a challenge to executive management to dispense with traditional, cultural expectations that their members will tough it out and maintain their well-being without departmental intervention and support.

My original contribution to knowledge is to provide a deep and clear intervention in these accepted and normative expectations. By revealing how police officers manage trauma – outside of the expectations of mental health professionals, union representatives and police leadership – innovative approaches and recommendations are offered to support first responders in moving from assumptions of posttraumatic stress and through to post traumatic growth.

Interviewees, who are serving and retired police officers, were invited to outline their careers, with reference to when they first joined the service, memorable incidents, achievements and frustrations. The researcher asked clarifying questions, based on the PTSD checklist and the Post Traumatic Growth Inventory. Emphasis was placed on how resilience has been maintained, including departmental assistance or otherwise, family and relationships, recreation and self-care. The common themes that emerged from the interviews were analysed and formed the structure of the doctoral research. An embedded literature review was deployed throughout the chapters to provide an international context to the interviews. Key topics emerging through the interviews included management and leadership culture in the South Australian Police (SAPOL) and its contribution to the well-being of those in lower ranks, the history, role and impact on SAPOL of female officers on tradition “macho” policing culture. The impact of managing frequent deaths, bodies, injury and the difficulties delivering death messages and the strategies officers adopted (often self-taught or culturally transmitted) to maintain resilience were also significant themes that were a feature of the interview conversations. Regular themes also included the ability to ask for help when experiencing unwanted reactions to trauma and the culture that discourages such actions, as well as the need to cultivate the ability to maintain sustaining sleep patterns despite traumatic exposures and shift work. How officers maintained resilience through optimism, camaraderie and humour, their knowledge of PTSD, the history of the trauma diagnosis through war and disaster and the reality of possibilities of growth and positive development (often underplayed in the trauma and policing literature) were also features of the interviews with both officers and the clinicians interviewed. Psychologists and Psychiatrists in private practice known to offer trauma-related treatment or assessment to serving and retired police officers were interviewed to establish issues around diagnosis, treatment and recovery as well as their view of SAPOL management’s role in the well- being of their officers. These framing interviews create powerful resonances with lived experiences of police officers revealed and investigated through this doctoral research.

Keywords: Trauma, Resilience, policing, posttraumatic growth in policing, police suicide, death and policing

Subject: Social Administration thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Business, Government and Law
Supervisor: Professor Tara Brabazon