Politics — 17 August 2015

Some frontline police officers in the ACT have not completed a four-day mental health program despite the force pledging to train all officers within a year.

In 2011, ACT Policing announced all 530 frontline officers would complete the program designed to improve cooperation between police and mental health professionals.

According to a spokeswoman, only 480 frontline officers have completed the program four years after its launch.

“Training has been rolled out to members at a rate which would not disrupt ACT Policing’s operational priorities,” she said.

“The training will continue to be provided as new members enter ACT Policing for other areas of the AFP through new recruitment rounds.”

But Roderic Broadhurst, a professor of criminology at the Australian National University, said the force should be praised for having trained close to 90 per cent of frontline officers.

“One hopes it may be over time integrated and more embedded in the force training routine,” he said.

“It is a good attempt at learning from previous experience dealing with the mentally ill community and problems such as violence.”

As part of the training, mental health sufferers and carers share their personal stories and experiences with mental illness. When the program was launched, team leader Sergeant Greg Booth said the program would help officers handle difficult situations.

“It’s bad enough to be unwell, it’s worse to have the police turn up, and then if the police aren’t quite understanding what’s going on then it just compounds all of the issues,” he said.

Hayley Boxall, a PhD candidate at the ANU and analyst at the Australian Institute of Criminology, said ACT Policing should be proud of their progress but more work was needed.

“We know that traditionally police have not received adequate levels of training to respond to mentally ill people in the community,” she said.

“It is fantastic that close to 90 per cent of officers have been trained as that’s a huge proportion and definitely better than some jurisdictions in Australia.”

It was difficult to know exactly how many interactions officers had with people with mental illnesses, but the number was sure to be high.

“The role of police in responding to mental illness can be very different depending on the situation and traditionally, police have not always been adequately trained to respond.”

An ACT Policing spokeswoman said the training program had delivered many benefits to the 666 sworn and unsworn members who completed it.

“Since the program commenced we have seen a 40 per cent reduction in the number per month of emergency apprehensions, where a mental health consumer is taken into protective custody to be transported to a mental health facility,” she said.

Mr Broadhurst said most states and territories had similar mental health programs although training could be patchy, with limited evaluation.

“The danger is that these things can become a bit ritualised,” he said.

“Dealing with the mentally ill especially the psychotic is awfully stressful and confronting and police as first responders need as much help as we can give them.”

This article first appeared on ‘Canberra Times’ on 16 August 2015.

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