A woman's failed negligence case raises questions about police support services

A NSW Police psychologist told a female police officer who sought help after traumatic work incidents that the “best course of stress relief” was to “go home and have sex” with her husband, a court hearing a Hunter woman’s police negligence case was told.

“I called him an idiot and I left,” said former police officer Joan Raper after describing the Police Employees’ Assistance Program in 2006 as “useless, completely useless”.

Ms Raper was one of two former Tuggerah Lakes command female officers to criticise the assistance program in evidence after former colleague Melanie Sills, from the Hunter, sued the NSW Police Force for negligence.

Ms Sills was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder in 2006, only three years after joining the service aged 25.

In a decision last week District Court Judge Phillip Mahony accepted medical evidence Ms Sills’ psychological injury caused by traumatic work events until she left the service in 2012 was so severe that “she is incapable of returning to any type of paid employment”.

But the 40-year-old former officer’s case against NSW Police failed.

I called him an idiot and I left.

Female police officer to male psychologist who recommended sex with her husband as 'best stress relief' from work.

Judge Mahony found it was reasonable for NSW Police to “do nothing” despite two psychologists in 2006 recommended treatment following the PTSD diagnosis, after Ms Sills understated her psychological problems in an effort to return to work.

When she was identified as an officer at risk in 2009 after attending five serious critical incidents in six months - including a fatal car crash involving a 17-year-old girl and a fatal house fire involving an elderly man – Ms Sills said she was “seeking outside help” in response to a senior officer’s emailed welfare check.

But Ms Sills did not undergo counselling or use available support services, despite being aware of the Employee Assistance Program, a peer support program and police chaplain, Judge Mahony said.

Ms Sills told the court she was directed to attend the EPA in 2004 after the death of a child in a Doyalson house fire but “felt worse after seeing the psychologist”.

The court heard that by 2011 when Ms Sills last worked a shift at Tuggerah Lakes command there were 28 officers unfit for duty because of trauma-related incidents.

On her first day as a police officer, on May 6, 2003, she attended a highly traumatic suicide, only months after telling NSW Police she wanted to join the service “to try and help people”.

Ms Sills said she started drinking after becoming “scared to go to sleep” following the Doyalson fire and a cot death involving a drug-addicted mother.

In 2005 she was involved in an unsuccessful resuscitation of a drowned young man and in 2006 responded to the death of a man in a burning car.

History: Psychologist Roger Peters has treated more than 4000 police and other emergency service personnel in the past 35 years.

History: Psychologist Roger Peters has treated more than 4000 police and other emergency service personnel in the past 35 years.

Tuggerah Lakes Chief Inspector Ken Sorenson said Ms Sills was a “bubbly, happy personality, a lovely girl to have around actually”, when she started work in 2003 but there was a “gradual slide” and “her sick leave became a bit of a concern”.

Inspector Sorenson agreed excessive sick leave could indicate someone struggling with a mental health problem.

Judge Mahony found NSW Police had no way of knowing in 2009 and 2010 that Ms Sills “continued to suffer a psychological reaction to her exposure to traumatic incidents” because of absences relating to the birth of a child and her failure to report increasing problems to senior staff.

But a former female colleague, Patricia De Riviere, said Ms Sills repeatedly and regularly broke down in tears and expressed severe anguish to her despite working reduced hours and being transferred to work in the exhibits room.

Ms De Riviere, who left NSW Police in 2011 after a PTSD diagnosis, criticised the Employee Assistance Program and said she “would not have recommended it to anybody”. She told the court a senior male officer in a position to respond to welfare concerns would “look at my breasts” when she tried to speak to him.

Judge Mahony criticised a report by psychiatrist Professor Christopher Tennant which was “replete with opinions which clearly were not medical opinions” about Ms Sills and which “amounted to advocating” the NSW Police case. His report “could not be regarded as the impartial assistance required of an expert witness”, Judge Mahony said.

He noted NSW Police conceded Ms Sills was “a committed police officer attending to her duties diligently from 2003 until suffering a psychological injury in 2006”.

Judge Mahony accepted Ms Sills’ evidence that for low ranked officers in the NSW Police “there was a stigma attached to disclosing mental health problems”.

Newcastle psychologist Roger Peters, who has treated more than 4000 police and other emergency service personnel, said NSW Police were “doing some things better these days, but they’re also doing some things worse”.