They save our lives, so we must safeguard theirs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 November, 2008, 12:00am

For the second time in 18 months, a coroner's inquest has lifted the veil on the workplace culture of the police force. The two cases are not comparable. One involved killings of policemen by a rogue constable, and the other the suicide of a senior officer. But in different ways, each raised questions about the state of mind of the policeman concerned and whether matters should have ended in such tragedy.

Yesterday's verdict by a coroner's jury of suicide in the death of detective senior inspector Michael Chan Kung-wai from a gunshot wound in his office was expected. The verdict threw no light on why a 40-year-old family man described as being in very good physical shape for his age should have taken his own life. That leaves unanswered the question of his mental state. The jury made no finding concerning evidence of chronic work-related stress. Nor did the jury recommend action to tackle it. As we report today, a leader of the Local Inspectors' Association and his widow have called for measures to prevent similar tragedies.

Chan enjoyed the confidence and respect of fellow senior officers. His career contrasted with that of the rogue constable, a loner blamed for the killings over a period of time of a bank security guard and two fellow officers, one of them in a Tsim Sha Tsui underpass shoot-out in which he, too, was killed. But the two tragedies raise similar issues. With the constable, it is the need for psychological profiling and retesting of recruits. With Chan, it is the need for a safety valve to release the pressure of overwork.

A career in law enforcement can be very stressful. The link between stress and psychological disorders is well recognised. Untreated depression is not uncommon among senior and junior officers alike. Entry-level tests of physical fitness and integrity are not predictors of psychological suitability or mental resilience under the pressures to be expected in the years ahead. The inquest on Chan's death heard evidence that he was stressed and upset at having to perform the duties of three officers, including a superior who left and was not replaced for 10 months, and share responsibility for security for the Olympic equestrian events. He said he felt unappreciated.

The police force now provides five clinical psychologists to counsel about 30,000 officers about work pressures and personal problems. Unfortunately, the initiative to seek help often has to come from the officers, and Chan never asked for counselling. Had he done so, a psychologist may have been alerted to an underlying problem if he had revealed a suspicion he voiced to a close colleague - that he was being 'set up'. An American study of police suicides has, not surprisingly, found that policemen tend not to seek counselling because they see it as a sign of weakness. They are good at pretending to cope. Resentment at the way they feel they are being treated can often mask depression.

Because the jury made no recommendation, it is up to the force's administrators whether or not they look into the issues raised in the evidence. It should seriously consider a suggestion by the Local Inspectors' Association that it hire more clinical psychologists. It should also work with representatives of the ranks to change a culture in which officers are reluctant to discuss their problems. This tragic case shows that it is time for a more proactive system for dealing with the stresses of police work, without the perception of prejudice to an officer's career. The cost is no object compared with the value of a life, or the peace of mind of the people who make sacrifices in the interests of preserving law and order.