In January 2015, I took charge of a siege. A 50-year-old man had barricaded himself inside his parents’ house, was armed with a knife and threatening suicide.
We call the address and get the parents to leave. Then we shut the whole street down. Neighbours start to gather on the footpath and in each other’s yards.
“I’ve had enough,” the man says through his bedroom window, “And I’m ready to die.” He has a knife and will kill anyone who tries to get him out.
The critical incident officers arrive and take over the cordon, then their negotiator tries to talk to the man. They get more of the same. “I’m not coming out,” he tells them. “You’ll have to shoot me. Fuck off, you dogs. I’ll stab anyone who comes in here.” This goes on and on for about the next six hours.
Someone discovers the man is on facebook and is posting live updates to all his friends. “Come on down and see a bloodbath,” he boasts at one point.
What an age we live in.
Just after 9.00 PM, after hours of fruitless negotiations, the critical incident guys decide to force entry. The man has been silent for about an hour. Please don’t let this be another death in custody, I can’t help thinking, as I watch them move into position.
They break through the man’s bedroom window. He’d tried to block it with a chest of drawers so they smash through that too. They empty a canister of capsicum foam into the room, enter and make the arrest. Then they escort him outside to a waiting ambulance.
I enter the house to take some photographs and find four knives in the bedroom. A large carving knife is wedged in the door frame, clearly intended for the first officer who tried to enter through the bedroom door. It is simply not possible to see something like this and not think about the things that could have happened. Policing is full of moments like these.
The incident is viewed as a success. My supervisors are pleased. I’m pleased. We all did exactly what we were trained to do and nobody got hurt. The aim was to get the man to hospital and that’s what happened. We did good, right?
Wrong. About an hour after the arrest we find out that the man is in the ICU, having been sedated and intubated soon after his arrival at hospital. Apparently, he’s suffering respiratory distress.
Respiratory distress? I’m sorry, but who gives a shit? He’s alive. His parents are alive. The police who attended are all alive. Is this now all completely irrelevant?
But the questions start. Why? How? What else could you have considered? What else could you have done? The inference being that I had failed.
You know when someone begins a sentence with, “This isn’t a criticism…” and then the very next thing they do is criticise you? Well, I got a lot of that. Why bother to preface it?
He’s in the ICU for two days, recovers and is transferred to the psychiatric unit. That same day I get a phone call from his father and for one insane second, I actually thought he was ringing to say thank you. Thanks for looking out for us. Thanks for your professionalism and your patience. Thanks for trying to help my son.
But what he actually said was, “I assume you’re going to pay for the damage.”
His words made no sense to me at first. “I’m sorry?”
“When your people forced their way into our house, they damaged some blinds and a chest of drawers. Are you going to pay for that?”
“Um, you’re going to have to repeat that, you’re still not making any sense to me. Are you really ringing about the damage to your son’s bedroom right now?”
“Yes, I’m not at all happy about the way you people handled it. My son ended up in intensive care, don’t you think you were a little heavy-handed?”
“Heavy-handed? We spent seven hours trying to talk to your son. Seven hours. Twenty-six police officers were involved and your street was blocked off for the entire afternoon. Are you going to pay for that?” I probably shouldn’t have said it, but I was pissed-off. “There is no other emergency service, no organisation and no medical professional on this planet who would’ve dealt with your son while he was armed and barricaded. And I can assure you, we tried everything to convince him to go to hospital and we gave him every opportunity to do so peacefully.”
“Well, my wife and I could’ve handled it.”
“Then, in future, handle it. And don’t bother ringing us.” I hang up on him.
This was the day I felt something give way. The day that all the positives of the job became officially outweighed by all the negative bullshit. I was tired of the criticism I had taken over my career. I was tired of the abuse. I was tired of being called a pig and a dog and having doors slammed in my face. I just couldn’t shrug it off anymore.
I once had a motorist slam his car door on my arm while I was handing him a fine for talking on his mobile phone. And this wasn’t even a crook, it was a middle-aged man in a business suit. I was a trainee at the time, so I didn’t make a big deal of it but it was kind of frightening. I only lost some skin from my elbow, but it could’ve been a lot worse.
Another time, we were called to a roads authority branch to deal with a customer causing trouble. Tired of waiting in line, this man decided to make a rather subtle statement by unzipping his pants and urinating on the electronic “take-a-number” system. We arrived and escorted him outside (yes, he was still waiting to be served), at which time he decided to remove all his clothing. Every last stitch. Clearly, getting his car registered was not this man’s only problem in life.
As he stood there, naked and shivering in the car park, we called for an ambulance and pleaded with him to put his clothes back on. Just at that moment, a woman walked past, took one look at what was going on and loudly complained, “This is absolutely disgusting, you people should be ashamed of yourselves, treating him like this. Was it really necessary to make him strip?”
This woman and the car door-slamming arsehole are the same people who then decide that all police are pricks. Then they tell all their friends and family how all police are pricks and post on their social media how all police are pricks. Cops are corrupt, they’ll rant. They’re dishonest, they’re stupid, they’re lazy, they bash people. Apply this kind of attitude to any other group of people and it’s discrimination. Apply it to a particular race or religion and you’re a bigot. But the police, they can take it. They deserve it.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard the words, “It’s no wonder you people get shot at.” They don’t teach you how to prepare for stuff like that in the academy.
It’s strange, but I spent a lot of time thinking about the siege and trying to work out what it was that bothered me most. It wasn’t the situation itself. Nothing that happened that day had any lasting effect on me, emotionally or mentally. It was the fallout that took its toll and it brought with it a whole new feeling for me. Defeat. Complete and utter defeat.
I did everything that was expected of me that day, everything I had been taught to do, and it still wasn’t enough. There was nothing else I could have done. Nothing. How do you bounce back from that?
I keep asking myself, why did it take 18 years for all this stuff to get to me? I’ve attended some pretty tough jobs right throughout my career, so you think something would’ve got to me before this stage.
I do know that feelings of burnout started to appear as far back as 2010, at which point I realised that no matter what I did, no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t really making a difference. By close of 2015, I suspect I was completely worn-out and beaten-down and incapable of taking any more.
So who knows? Maybe in my case, burnout provided fertile ground for PTSD.