Police to get post-disaster counselling

Government to fund debriefing sessions following pounds 1.2m court pay- out to Hillsborough officers
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The Independent Online
Counselling is to be offered by the Government to traumatised police officers involved in tragedies such as Dunblane, Hillsborough and Lockerbie.

The Health and Safety Executive is to fund two police forces - Strathclyde Police and the Royal Ulster Constabulary - to draw up the plan, which may also be adopted by fire and ambulance services.

The move follows the recent case of 14 police officers who were at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 people died, successfully suing South Yorkshire Police for pounds 1.2m for the stress they suffered. Police involved in the Dunblane massacre are also reported to be planning legal action for compensation.

The Government hopes that by drawing up a standard model, which incorporates best practice from forces around the country, it can limit the likelihood of such litigation.

Dr David Courtney, chief medical adviser to the RUC, said: "There are a lot of people doing what they believe to be the right thing, and there is conflicting evidence about the use of debriefing."

New research, revealed in The Independent in October, shows that instant counselling sessions, where disaster victims are encouraged to talk about what they saw and experienced, may actually be counter-productive.

Researchers in Cardiff and Oxford have found that such tactics may induce post-traumatic stress disorder in those who otherwise would not have had it. Most police forces still use a "hot debriefing" system whereby officers are encouraged to express their emotions, fears and anxieties in group therapy within 72 hours of the incident.

The new findings have been considered by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) joint working group on organisational health and welfare. The group's chairman, Sussex Chief Constable Paul Whitehouse, has warned senior officers in all forces that the hot debriefing method may not always be appropriate.

There is also concern over cumulative stress in the police service. Some 60 per cent of police retirements are now on health grounds. Stress levels in the police are so high that officers could face limits on the number of murders, rapes and fatal accidents they are allowed to investigate. Senior officers will consider the future introduction of annual stress audits to gauge the mental state of officers by tracking the number of critical incidents they have been involved in.

Operational police work has been ranked alongside bomb disposal work and piloting an airliner as the most stressful of occupations. It is considered twice as stressful as being a lawyer, bank manager or High Court judge.

Interviews conducted by researchers from the University of Manchester with Greater Manchester Police revealed that the officers who suffer most from stress are young, inexperienced constables and long-serving inspectors. A small minority of officers, (5 per cent), claimed never to suffer from stress while 70 per cent admitted that they felt stress on a regular basis.

Police officers ranked dealing with riots as their most stressful task, followed by fatal road accidents, rapes, sudden deaths and domestic disputes. However, long-term stress is likely to arise from more mundane problems like poor shift patterns, time pressures and disciplinary proceedings. Rare moments of low-stress were provided by filling out lost property reports and dealing with shoplifters.

Ian Westwood, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, welcomed the recognition in the police service of the pressures that officers were under. He pointed out that police had also developed their own methods of reducing stress such as the black humour which was invariably used when describing traumatic operations to colleagues in the police canteen.