Legislative Council: Wednesday, June 28, 2023


South Australian Police

The Hon. L.A. HENDERSON (16:43): I move:

1. That a select committee of the Legislative Council be established to inquire into police support and mental health services with particular reference to:

(a) exploring whether the services provided by the Employee Assistance Program and other mental health services offered to police, former police and their families are sufficient;

(b) determining whether an annual psychological review is sufficient for employees in roles where there is higher psychological demand;

(c) assessing the Early Intervention Program to ensure its suitability for psychological injury;

(d) determining whether additional mental health support for police officers and their families is required;

(e) exploring strategies of boosting police morale to make sure police have the support they need to perform their duties;

(f) exploring resourcing and recruitment within SAPOL; and

(g) any other relevant matters.

2. That this committee permits the select committee to authorise the disclosure or publication, as it sees fit, of any evidence or documents presented to the committee prior to such evidence being presented to the council.

Around 12 months ago, I stood in this place and delivered my maiden speech. In that speech I highlighted my support for our frontline workers and my hope that the work we do here in this place can mean that they can do their job with greater safety. I committed that throughout my time in this place I will champion for all those who serve our community, those who put on a uniform every day to make sure they keep Australians safe, at times to the detriment of their own safety.

I committed to champion to ensure that they are given the best support possible so that they are able to do their job safely and, importantly, are given the support they need after they finish their service. I committed to champion for the support of their families, who themselves make many sacrifices to support their loved ones through the challenging times they face. Today, I stand in this place to do just that.

The establishment of this select committee acts to check in with our police and their families and to ensure that they have the support they need to fulfil their duties safely. Decision-makers taking a moment to check in with our frontline workers to ensure that the systems that are in place are still sufficient for the ever-changing nature of the work they do is crucial.

As the terms of reference indicate, this committee will look at the resourcing and recruiting within SAPOL. I note SAPOL has been a topic of the media in recent months from reports of a lack of support for the police department's district policing model, with 81 per cent of the 1,349 officers who took place in the Police Association's workplace survey saying they did not support the model and 78 per cent saying they believed it should be abolished. In reports from The Advertiser, the Police Association contends the district policing model does not provide sufficient resources to meet both the demand for police services and ensure the health and safety of its members.

There have been reports of severe resourcing issues due to poor recruiting and high attrition rates, reports of severe staff shortages and reports that they are now at the stage where police simply cannot meet community demand when police call for assistance. There are just not enough police to cope with the daily workloads, they say.

There have been reports of the toll of the combined effects of chronic understaffing and additional duties enforcing COVID restrictions and the effect this is having on the wellbeing of SAPOL officers. A survey of 1,037 officers revealed that 71 per cent have had their daily tasks impacted and many were experiencing mental distress because of fatigue caused by understaffing, being forced to cancel plans with family and friends because of last-minute shift changes and working excessive amounts of overtime.

A Police Association survey found that 65 per cent of officers' personal lives have been negatively impacted, and more than half reported their relationships with family and friends had suffered as a result, according to an article in The Advertiser. Earlier this year, we saw reports from a whistleblower of, allegedly, crimes going unsolved for not being properly investigated, emergency calls not being answered on time, while officers were resigning in droves from a toxic SA police force—that was in another Advertiser article.

Additionally, this committee will look at police support and mental health services. In January this year, the Western Australian Police Union managed to document 484 suicides of serving and former police officers across Australia. As the report highlights, it is among the largest collection of statistics about Australian police officer suicides ever collected.

The nature of police work means that police are likely to be exposed to traumatic events on a regular basis, which may impact their mental health. Research indicates that exposure to traumatic stress and critical incidents may put police and other emergency services personnel at a greater risk for adverse mental health outcomes, including increased rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout, stress-related anxiety and suicide. This is in addition to them experiencing workplace stressors such as excessive workloads, inadequate resourcing, workplace conflict and staff levels, which may affect worker morale.

'Answering the call', Beyond Blue's national mental health and wellbeing study of police and emergency services, surveyed more than 21,000 police and emergency services workers and volunteers in 2017 to 2018. In relation to the prevalence of mental health conditions, key findings included:

that 10 per cent of employees have probable PTSD. The prevalence of PTSD in the general Australian population is estimated to be 4 per cent;

21 per cent of employees have high psychological distress and 9 per cent very high psychological distress. Among the general population these figures are 8 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively;

39 per cent of employees reported having been diagnosed with a mental health condition by a mental health professional at some point in their life, compared to 20 per cent of the general population;

51 per cent of employees indicated that they had experienced traumatic events which affected them deeply; and

the risk for psychological distress and PTSD increased with the length of service: 2 per cent of employees with less than two years of service have probable PTSD, while 12 per cent of employees with more than 10 years of service exhibit signs of probable PTSD.

In January this year, the ABC published an article online of a report on police officer suicide in Australia that combined data from the National Coronial Information System, news reports and other sources. The research found that a total of 123 Australian police officers had died by suicide since 2000, with most occurring since 2015. The research also found that while suicide rates in the general population have remained stable between 2000 and 2022, this is not the case for police officers.

Rates of suicide of serving police officers in Australia have nearly tripled, from 5.9 deaths per 100,000 in 2000 to 14 per 100,000 in 2022. The report found that since 2007 the rate of deaths by suicide had surpassed the rate of officers killed on duty. New South Wales recorded the highest number of suicide deaths, while Tasmania and South Australia 'had a highly disproportionate number of victims considering the size of their police forces'.

We must continue to acknowledge the services of the police force for the invaluable work that they do. We in this place must always strive to do all that we can to ensure that they can undertake their duties safely and with the support they need. With that, I commend the motion and reiterate my support for our police who sacrifice so much to keep us safe.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. R.B. Martin.