The dog in the dungeon – emergency services and trauma

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
ptsd
10 minute read

It’s easy to be entranced by Port Arthur. The old penitentiary and ancillary buildings – a church, the small homes of staff officers, “lunatic asylums” – stand amongst permanently lush hills that overlook a broad and tranquil bay. Standing on the shore looking out over the water, you see two small islands. One, the Isle of the Dead, is a cemetery for about a thousand souls, most of them prisoners. Today, ferries usher hundreds of tourists over there each week, departing from a freshly upgraded jetty.

Most of the buildings on the old penal site are ruins, but they’ve retained their shape. The stone church stands majestically, unembarrassed by the fire that gutted it in the late 19th century. Its walls remain, but it’s without its roof, floors or windows. Rich grass has replaced the wooden floorboards, and the large spaces once filled with stained glass now offer an unmediated view of the surrounding trees.

Most agree that the place is haunted, but have different interpretations of the word. There are paid “ghost tours” conducted at night, where credulous tourists hope to glimpse tortured spectres. A brochure reads: “Almost two centuries of documented sightings and reports of paranormal activity make Port Arthur’s after-dark atmosphere intense. Truth or myth? Either way, the silence and soft glow of the lantern can make those long-gone seem very close at hand.”

Then there’s the less literal interpretation of “haunted” – the sombre acknowledgement that Port Arthur was an intense concentration of human cruelty. Robert Hughes, in his famous Australian history The Fatal Shore, wrote that the Port Arthur penal colony’s reputation “was terrible right from the start. To have served time there was to receive an indelible stain … The shudder it reliably evokes in the modern tourist comes from the contrast between its mild, pastoral present – et in Arcadia ego – and the legends of its past.”

So there seems something tawdry about the former interpretation – a desire not to meditate on this atavism, or to silently absorb the twisted arcadia, but to literally view the past as ghouls and clanging chains. In the gift store, alongside The Fatal Shore, stuffed Tassie Devils and overpriced whisky, are self-published histories of the local un-dead.

There is another ruin at Port Arthur, nestled between the car-park and the shore. Like many of the other buildings, only the walls exist. It is small, perhaps only 10 metres wide, and very shallow. The floors are now gravel. On the back wall is an empty fireplace. Through the frames that once possessed the front door and windows, you can see the watchtower and main prison on the other side of the bay. It blends perfectly with the other ruins. But where the other buildings were largely abandoned in 1877, when the penal colony closed and was replaced by farms, this building was only abandoned in 1996. It is the Broad Arrow Café, the principle site of the massacre committed by Martin Bryant – a name you’re unlikely to hear from the mouths of locals.

For this reason, the place is haunted for many people. On Sunday, April 28, 1996 Bryant killed 35 people — 22 in the café alone. Mike Ryan was there that day. He has not been back since. Ryan joined Tasmania Police only the year before as a clinical psychologist and a consultant to police negotiators. He counselled police officers and was central to their recruitment. “We tried not to select a ‘police officer’,” he tells me. “We tried to select someone who was well-balanced, had a variety of interests, had good motivations, academic qualifications, IQ. If they came in and said ‘I want to catch bad people,’ that’s okay, but that’s not everything a police officer does. The majority is maintaining order and helping other people get on with their lives.”

That Sunday, Ryan got a call that a man had shot multiple people at Port Arthur. Details were still unclear – the magnitude of the slaughter unknown. Senior police requested Ryan get to the scene immediately, as “some folks weren’t doing too well.” By this point, Bryant had fled the scene. Ryan had never seen a dead body before, he tells me, and now was about to see many – including those of children.

“I joined the Superintendent in charge of the crime scene, and the coroner. It didn’t affect me at all. I’d never seen a dead body, but it felt like a film set. I objectified it. It’s quite interesting,” he tells me, “I saw one body sitting up in a car, looking like she was puzzling over something.”

Ryan is not cold or unfeeling. Nor are his descriptions boastful or tasteless. When Ryan says “interesting” in this context, he’s measuring his own responses – checking himself to see that he hasn’t been rendered callous by his experiences. Ryan believes strongly in a certain professional distance from horror.

“I was waiting to be affected. Admittedly a lot of the bodies were covered up. There were some still sitting bolt upright in the Broad Arrow, looking surprised as dead people often do. They were still sitting in their chairs, hit by high-powered rifles. I didn’t go into the bus, [but] there were a lot of bodies in there.

“The images stay with me. They’re graphic,” he says. “One thing that really stays with me, and this is bizarre, but five of us were crammed into this little car and it was the most perfect morning in Port Arthur; just the most beautiful, bizarre setting for this horrific institution. There were these mushrooms, red with white flakes on top – a whole row of them against this green swathe of grass. The sun was coming over. We just looked at it and said ‘It’s so beautiful.’ But there’s two kids up there dead, and others lying around. Dead. The coroner said something like: ‘You know, I’ll never come back here again.’ I’ve never been back, either. I don’t know why. I could. But I don’t want to. It annoys me. Port Arthur annoys me.

“This was my response to Port Arthur: it’s too nice. The contrast between the brutality and the beauty is quite profound. And it magnifies the horror, I think.”

*    *    *

Late last year, the head of the Victoria Police Association Ron Iddles – one of the state’s most respected homicide detectives – implored officers to “put their hands up and ask for help” after the suicide of a constable. She had taken her life with her service weapon. Just months earlier, an IT specialist for Victoria Police was issued a firearm the day before he fatally used it on himself in the foyer of a primary school. The circumstances of the death are currently under investigation by the coroner – as are three other police suicides. “An officer once told me that every fatal road accident takes a bit out of you and it’s the same with homicides,” Iddles said. “There’s not much I haven’t seen, but I would always talk about it with my wife, who’s a trained psychiatric nurse, which gave me a release valve.”

In late 2015, the chief commissioner of Victoria Police, Graham Ashton, announced an internal investigation into his members’ mental health. The principle emphasis will be on how to improve support for its men and women.

*    *    *

The job is an extraordinary one, and the consequences can be too.

On the evening of the Port Arthur massacre, Mike Ryan was directed to a police command post. Senior officers and the Special Operations Group (SOG) had surrounded Seascape, a small bed and breakfast, where Bryant was holed up with hostages. There were also two police officers pinned in a ditch after coming under heavy automatic fire from Bryant. The SOG team had freed the officers, and now were focusing on Bryant and whoever was inside. Police didn’t know it at the time, but there was only one hostage – Bryant had murdered the elderly owners of Seascape that morning.

“We had made contact, accidentally, with Bryant earlier that day. A cop by the name of Terry was on the phone to Bryant when I got there. Terry was white, realising he was talking to a mass murderer. But the negotiations went nowhere because his phone failed. Bryant then had a cordless phone in the Seascape, but the batteries failed and we lost contact with him. I remember he called himself something else when we spoke with him, he didn’t use ‘Martin Bryant’. But it was a non-event – the phone died too quickly.”

If as outsiders we often treat others’ grief with foul clichés, we are likely to completely ignore the trauma of our emergency and armed services. We perhaps take these tasks for granted, secured as abstractions in our imaginations. But the job is an extraordinary one, and the consequences can be too.

In discussing grief and trauma (diagnostically, these are separate things) with many psychologists and police, a recurring point was made: the toughest coppers could break when an event was personalised – or when children were involved. The perfect storm forms when the two braid.

Ryan once met a Victoria Police officer at a trauma seminar. He described to me a kind of cop that I had met plenty of times: rugged and efficiently pragmatic. Horror was not dwelt upon – neither used boastfully as a trophy, nor feared as a dog in the dungeon of their sub-conscious. The officer that Ryan met could compartmentalise his experiences. He was in control – a prized and necessary trait for police.

This officer had visited hundreds of car wrecks in his long career, but one morning, before he got to work, he got a call to attend a motor accident. “He was close and he attended,” Ryan tells me. “It was a girl who had been run over by a bus. When he got there he saw this 12- or 13-year-old girl whose head had been crushed by the bus. The girl had just the same colour dress on as his 12- or 13-year-old daughter, the one he’d just left at his door. He told me it was just like getting shot. He said ‘I dealt with it, did really well’ but he [later] collapsed, and then it brought everything else back. It still gives me goosebumps.”

What Ryan considered crucial to this officer’s story – beside the distressing resonance with his own daughter – was his lack of preparedness. This officer had yet to book in at work; he had been re-directed to the scene before he had “kitted up” – put on his uniform and equipped himself with the tools of policing.

Ryan explained to me his model for predicting, or evaluating, the emotional impact of events upon police. “It’s not an original of mine,” Ryan tells me of the model, “I got it off a colleague about 20 years ago.”

The model is comprised of three elements: demand, control and predictability. Demand is what’s expected of you professionally. Control is self-explanatory, and enabled by training, weapons, sworn powers, and the individual temperament. “Predictability,” Ryan explains, “is simply: is this going how I thought it would?”

In the police training he conducted, he used an old episode of The Bill to illustrate it. The episode first aired in 1989, and was called “Fat’Ac” – police shorthand for “fatal accident”. The episode opens with genial beat cop Yorkie patrolling his patch of London. He stops to admire a parked Ferrari, hovering lovingly beside it. A mother wheels her child’s pram towards a nearby deli. It’s a modest patch of earth, in the shadows of a housing estate, but the sun is shining. There is a sense of peace. And then: squealing tyres, a crash, a jammed car horn. The idyll is smashed.

“He’s not prepared for anything,” Ryan tells me. “Suddenly there’s a screech of brakes and he turns around and sees a car with an elderly lady, and a mother and baby have gone under a truck. The mother and baby are decapitated. The old woman is lying on the road, injured. So he goes from zero to bang! The level of demand is very high. Like any good cop, he radios for backup. And they say ‘We can’t give you back up because there’s a fire and the roads are blocked. Deal with it.’ So you can see his control diminish. The driver’s drunk and tries to get out of the car. A witness tries to fight the driver. Yorkie sees the decapitated mother and baby. A woman’s bleeding to death. He forgets to take notes. Using my model, there’s low control, high demand, and low predictability.

“So when he finally gets back to the station, the sergeant says ‘You really cocked that up, didn’t you? You didn’t take notes. You let witnesses get away.’ He goes into the crib room to have a meal, and sits by himself and someone says ‘What’s wrong with Yorkie?’ and they respond ‘Oh, just a fat’ac’. So they look at the content, but they don’t look at his experience. But the good sergeant calls him over and asks ‘What happened?’ and lets him talk about it. We use that in training, and we ask: ‘Which sergeant do you want to be?’ What buffers this stress – the high demand, low control, low predictability – is the level of personal support and value. Coppers are a very insular group, so it’s important to get support from your colleagues. Being told your experience was okay by another police officer is very important.”

According to Ryan’s model, there are certain incidents that will be more damaging to an officer’s psyche than others. We may tremble at the thought of fatal accidents, but Ryan says there are much worse situations for police. “Motor vehicle accidents are less traumatic than people think because they’re predictable. Coppers have a fair idea of what they’ll encounter. Might be bodies decapitated, bodies flayed going through a windscreen – it might be awful. But it’s predictable. They close off the area, they get witness statements. They have a preparedness. But domestics, it could be anything.”

When dealing with a domestic violence call, the situation can quickly turn from one of low demand, high control and high predictability to “fucking lot of demand, no control and huge unpredictability,” Ryan says. One of Ryan’s police friends told him of once attending a house where, after knocking on the door, he was met with a man holding a shotgun in one hand and a sawn-off .22 in the other.

Ryan gives me another example. “I had one client who was part of some officers called to a melee at a mall, which is fairly usual. So they go down there, this officer gets involved and suddenly slips over. He doesn’t have his gun properly secured, so he loses his Glock. He’s on the ground, and he told me later that in an instant he thought ‘I’m gonna die. I’m gonna be killed.’

“Within a few seconds he regains his gun, gets back on his feet, sorts a few people out – perhaps a little more vigorously than he should have. But that micro-second of thinking he was going to die, that’s what stayed with him. And he couldn’t understand it. He thought ‘it was sorted out’. And police are results-oriented. He says that he goes back to the station and the sergeant says ‘good job: you arrested the guys, good result’. But this chap was thinking – and he couldn’t say it to anyone – that he could have died. Good sergeants, they ask: ‘Tell me what happened’ not ‘How do you feel?’ because you get more of the story.”

rationale

*    *    *

Then there is the trauma of veterans, and the despicable discrepancy between our worship of military legend and the lack of services for modern veterans. More than $300 million dollars has been spent on commemorations for this year’s centenary of the ANZAC landing in Turkey. No expense has been spared on parades, commercials and even a TV series. Remembrance is important, but there will be nothing subtle about it this year and the pomp and patriotism will eclipse practical care for our recently returned. Thousands of veterans are homeless, many are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the federal government is still not keeping an official record of returned servicemen and women who commit suicide. It is a staggering failure.

“This year an ANZAC festival begins, a commemorative program so extravagant it would make a sultan swoon,” wrote James Brown in his 2014 book Anzac’s Long Shadow. Brown was an Australian military commander in multiple tours of Iraq. “But commemorating soldiers is not the same as connecting with them.”

For Brown, our fixation on the Anzacs over our current troops is a preference for myth over understanding. And increasingly, those myths are affirmed vulgarly – a contrast to the injunction inscribed on Sydney’s Hyde Park’s war memorial: “Let silent contemplation be your offering”.

This proud circus of commemoration has practical repercussions: it distracts public attention from immediate concerns of trauma. We flatteringly cloak ourselves in a sense of history, and neglect the less glamorous present. “Our government,” wrote Brown, “is spending at least $30 million more on commemorating soldiers who fought in Europe long ago than the mental wounds of soldiers returning from Afghanistan today.”

silent-contemplation

Our fixation on the Anzacs over our current troops is a preference for myth over understanding.

*    *    *

Dr Meaghan O’Donnell is an expert in trauma. In the waiting room of her research centre is a stack of military newspapers, produced for serving officers and veterans. As I flicked through them, I came across an article on a recent Special Air Service Regiment’s (SAS) sniper contest held in the West Australian outback. The names of the snipers were redacted – as befitted their position – but a competition table, composed of pseudonyms, sat within a write-up of the day and photos of the competitors in balaclavas. The military newspapers are here because so many patients who come through these offices have served in the armed forces.

O’Donnell explains the conditions of trauma for me. It can arise from situations “where an individual is at risk of death or serious injury, or they witness someone being killed, or they see something very grotesque,” she says. “Or you witness something happening to a loved one where you think they’re going to die.”

There is also another set of conditions, which is experienced regularly by emergency and armed services. This other “sort of witnessing,” she says, “is the repetitive witnessing of something awful. Emergency services would fit into that perspective.”

This trauma can become cognitively fixed, transfiguring into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is not unique to emergency services personnel, but remains a dreaded occupational risk. “The main thing about PTSD,” O’Donnell says, “is obtrusive memories of the event. You feel like you’re back there.

“Most people who recover from a traumatic experience, those memories will fade over time. And while they might be quite visual, the emotional component of those memories isn’t there. You can look at that experience and know, cognitively, that it was an awful event but you don’t experience the emotion as intensely as you once did. That’s a normal way of processing memory.

“But for people with PTSD, they’ll have the memories and the emotional component is still really strong. It doesn’t lessen over time. That’s the main feature of PTSD – this intrusive phenomena.

“With trauma generally, we know that lots of people are exposed to it. At least 60 to 70 per cent of the general community will be exposed to at least one traumatic experience in their life but only a small proportion go on to develop any mental-health problems. A lot of people adjust. It’s not easy, but many recover.”

ptsd

*    *    *

Police services these days have a sophisticated awareness of trauma, and are filled with experts. The difficulty lies in connecting members with that help. It can be an insular and monolithic culture, one that preferences control and stoicism, and members themselves may not be aware for some time that they are affected. And there’s another problem: officers might pretend to themselves that they are okay, underplaying their trauma, because of a belief that admission of mental illness would be the death of their career.

“There’s PTSD for the non-police officer as opposed to the copper,” Mike Ryan tells me. For police officers, he says, there’s a belief that, “Well, you get PTSD and your career’s stuffed”. This creates a situation where police officers coping with trauma may not even admit, to themselves or to others, that they need help, so they can go back to work.

For veterans’ trauma, there must be an improved government response – the fact that suicide statistics aren’t compiled is evidence of a strange neglect. For police it isn’t sufficient for there to be mental health services, there must exist a culture that encourages its adoption. This may come down to the sergeant – a mid-ranked officer, but one often spoken of as the most influential in police culture. It is the sergeant that oversees a police station, and the one that can best help a member seek the help they need. As Mike Ryan asked: “Which sergeant do you want to be?”

And it is for the rest of us to realise that our respect and commemoration for those who serve is often self-indulgent – glib, patronising and impractical. The subjects of our rehearsed sympathies deserve more.

Latest