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Cops: We’re not treated like humans

Many police said suffering from emotional disorders

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Features editor — Sunday thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, September 09, 2012    

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NO formal studies have been commissioned, but emotional disorders are reportedly rife within the ranks of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF).

"A significant number of members of the JCF exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder," a senior member of the constabulary admitted to the Jamaica Observer last week.

But that's not all. According to anecdotal information from other high-ranking insiders, many policemen and women who work the beats daily are also suffering from depression, have difficulty coping and often display inappropriate responses such as laughing or smiling when talking about sad events like shootings and death.

"No major psychological studies have been done on the members of the JCF to assess the effects of the challenges they face, but based on what we have seen, a number of them have complained. Some are always involved in shootings, some have cried about the stresses they are going through," another cop with over 15 years' service said.

He, like other policemen interviewed for this story, asked that his name be withheld because the Force Orders stipulate that all communication between the JCF and the media be done through the Constabulary Communication Network, or the force's director of communication.

The JCF is staffed by about 15,000 men and women. Their issues are many, varied and long-standing — 12/13-hour workdays, the distance they work from family, poor work conditions, having to purchase uniforms and uniform accessories, having to foot their own legal and medical fees in cases of indictment and injury, limited training at the recruitment stage coupled with the lack of routine in-service training, and the fear of making their families targets by being seen in public with them.

Having to wear many hats and switching from loving spouse and doting parent one minute to criminal hunter the next; and from shooter to victim empathiser within mere minutes, also take a mental toll on the cops. The worst part though, the cops say, is that the State doesn't adequately provide for their mental well-being.

A psychiatrist assigned to the JCF's Medical Services Branch is available, but he is based in St Catherine and therefore only serves the Kingston Metropolitan Area. Even so, policemen and women are hesitant to access his services, given the side effects of medication that may be prescribed. In addition to the psychiatrist, each of the eight geographical divisions has one chaplain, and there is at least one peer counsellor in each police area, but there is no psychologist.

"It is not adequate," a sergeant said. "I don't think they have enough people to offer the kind of service that is needed. The peer counsellors are doing well, but they are subjected to the same amount of stress as everybody else, so I don't see how they can help us."

In spite of that, however, he said they managed to do some good work.

Added a police constable: "Faith-based counselling doesn't cut it for some people because they don't want to be preached to. We need psychologists to work through the problems with counselling."

Last week, following the controversial slaying of a pregnant mother and the shooting of her sister in Yallahs, St Thomas, by a police corporal, Security Minister Peter Bunting said Cabinet had given approval for psychological services to be contracted for the JCF. He also announced that psychometric evaluations of police personnel would become mandatory at the time of recruitment.

Subsequent to the shooting also, Police Commissioner Owen Ellington reiterated that the use of force policy be revised and drilled into members for at least the next three months. He also said that policemen and women believed to be suicidal, or showing signs of other mental instability, should be relieved of their firearm.

The senior policeman quoted earlier regarding the post-traumatic stress disorder welcomed Bunting's promise.

"Some are apprehensive regarding the functions of the Chaplaincy Unit and shy away from utilising its services. The Government's intention to acquire private mental health services will go a far way in addressing this specific challenge faced by police personnel," he said.

For many of those on the ground, however, it's just another promise.

"Dem nuh really tek care ah wi welfare," a constable from the St Catherine North Division said, charging that the JCF hierarchy frequently reneges on its promises to assist with various situations.

Of the Chaplaincy Unit and the services presently available to address mental well-being, one of his colleagues asked rhetorically: "There's a Chaplaincy Unit? We hear 'bout it but we neva see dem man deh yet. Him neva come pon a parade and pray wid wi yet."

The chaplains, the police sergeant said, need to offer debriefings at least once per month to high-stress units. The current practice involves general debriefings led by the supervisor or team leader. The intervention of the chaplain in these sessions would significantly impact the outcomes, he told the Sunday Observer.

"The stress situation is widespread and it affects most, if not all of us... It's not easy for people to be viewing deceased with gunshot wounds to various parts of their bodies without some level of stress.

"What we need is more debriefings, even at the level of the station pastors. Some units, like MIT, should have them at least once per month whether the murder rate is up or down. This would add to the whole behaviour of the men," he said.

One policeman complained that two years ago he made a request to meet with the chaplain but has not been successful to date.

However, yesterday, the police chaplain, Assistant Commissioner of Police Bishop Gary Welsh said there is absolutely no excuse for any police officer not to have emotional care right where he is.

He said that there are more than enough trained counsellors and mental health professionals within and outside the force as part of the chaplaincy outreach services.

They include 1,000 para-professional counsellors, 150 station counsellors, 40 peer counsellors, and the eight chaplains. In addition, JCF members have access to the Association of Christian Peace Officers who number just under 1,000, plus the Medical Services Branch consisting of a consulting psychiatrist supported by a regular psychiatrist, three psychologists and a medical doctor, plus four social workers.

"We facilitate psycho-pastoral care," said Welsh who acknowledged that police officers have elevated levels of stress, even outside of combat.

But according to two Spanish Town-based cops, the job itself is not the only stressful thing about being enlisted in the JCF.

"Police stress nuh only come from work; it come from the fact say wi haffi tek money outta wi pocket fi buy shoes, fi buy uniform, everyting, 'cause di Government nah play dem role neither. My vest expire 'bout three years now. Mi not even know if it can stop a knife stab," one of them said.

"Our stress cyaan stop," the other added. "The only ting yuh can do fi save yuhself is tek yuhself outta di country... Di most yuh can do is nuh put di work pon yuh head."

As for the conditions of work, lawmen in St James pointed to operating from under a guinep tree in Granville, others referenced the unfinished building with zinc sheets at the windows and no bathroom that serves as the police post in Gravel Heights, Spanish Town, and others in St Andrew spoke of the breadfruit tree in Cassava Piece under which they are stationed in the days, acting as a buffer between warring factions.

"When we waan use bathroom, wi call a unit to come for us and they take us to the station," one of them told the Sunday Observer.

"These are things we face every day and we are still expected to be highly functional, professional and to operate at the maximum," a member with almost 20 years' service from St Thomas said. "They don't treat police like humans. They treat us like machines; like we are without feelings and emotions."

A colleague of his agreed. "There is little emotional support. We are not allowed to show emotions around our colleagues (for) if you behave 'soft', you are sent to the guardroom or to the cells; you won't be assigned to the patrol team; you won't be promoted, and everybody wants to be part of the team so nobody is going to appear to be affected."

Showing emotion also makes them targets of ridicule from their peers, the policemen said.

The cop with nearly 20 years' service alleged that many of his colleagues who have been elevated to senior ranks were "badman" police whose very names were, and in some cases still are, feared in certain communities.

"They had to be badman police. Sometimes it's necessary to get things done... So we become caustic, we become harsh, but it's a coping mechanism," the policeman said.

"Coping" is necessary because of the frequent exposure to traumatic incidents.

"If you work in a division like Hunt's Bay, for example, you are guaranteed to visit at least three murder scenes in one week... We are reminded every day by our supervisors and by our team leaders that no offence is committed against us, it is against the State. That is supposed to help us detach ourselves from the incidents, but how do you do that and remain human?

The same cop related stories which, in his words, showed that he and his colleagues were "sick".

In one case, he said, a fellow member was rehashing an incident in which he "neutralised a threat". The colleague, he said, was cheerful to the point of bragging as he told how he chased the suspect, shot him as he climbed over a wall seeking to escape, climbed up after him and saw his body lying on the other side of the wall with a weapon next to him.

In the other case, he said he overheard some colleagues making jokes about a corpse as they waited at a crime scene.

"It's morbid," he told the Sunday Observer.

A constable, who graduated from the Police Academy at Twickenham Park in the 90s, said four of his batchmates were killed in the first four years of leaving the academy.

"By the fifth year, we were so scared because we kept on asking ourselves 'who's next?' The bond we developed was so close. These were people you slept in the same room with, who you shared oats and milk with, bun and cheese with... When my squaddie get killed nobody called me in to ask 'how are you feeling? Are you sad? Are you hurt?' There needs to be one-on-one counselling," he said.

Without that intervention, he said, and with the range of problems plaguing the overworked cops, cases like last weekend's tragic killing of 25-year-old Kayann Lamont could be repeated.

"It's a possibility because with the absence of adequate interventions... The force has a history of these events and there is a high level of incidents among young police," the policeman said.

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