Levin Police Station support staff, from left, Jo Hagger, Kane Humphries and Deb Bilton, who are highlighting the varied and important work they do for Police.
From making sure there’s enough milk in the kitchen to handling surrendered firearms; from raising the Police flag at the front of the station to checking on prisoners; from processing lost property to returning gang patches to their owners; from preparing court files to dealing with people on bail reporting to the station; from organising the catering to talking to sexual assault victims and people with mental health issues, and being abused and spat at.
That’s a snapshot of the workload of Police’s station support officers (SSOs, FSOs, FMSOs), which can range from prosaic to dreadful in the space of an hour, whether it’s at the front counter or behind the scenes.
These staff embody the meaning of the word “support” and although they are small in number – about 130 nationwide – they hope to be the Police Association equivalent of the mouse that roared.
They started to find their voice in June, in the Horowhenua town of Levin, where four station support staff – Deb Bilton, Joanne Hagger, Kane Humphries and Rachel Potter-Burbery – challenged their association reps about inconsistencies in the level of remuneration they receive for the work they do.
They also sent an email to support staff colleagues around the country asking for feedback on the issue.
They got an avalanche of it – a collective outpouring from a segment of Police employees who feel overlooked and undervalued. The stories they tell in their responses are remarkably similar.
Here is some of the feedback from around the country.
“We get abused on a daily basis; we take it with a smile. We deserve to be remunerated accordingly.”
“I have had one man so desperate and angry about having received information that his daughter was going to commit suicide that he smashed the safety glass I was standing behind to ensure he received immediate attention.”
“Last week, I was asked to stay with a female prisoner while the officer went and had a chat with the sergeant.”
“Both parties of 1Vs presenting to the station, resulting in verbal and sometimes physical fights where we have had to attempt to defuse the situation until officers were present.”
“I have dealt with angry persons who have then hung around outside the station, resulting in me having to wait later than my shift ends because it is unsafe for me to go back to my car.”
“A part of my daily duties is managing prisoners when they are in our cells. I am often the only one looking after prisoners evaluated as ‘frequent’.
I am expected to check them five times an hour as per policy, but also undertake front-counter duties.”
“As an SSO in a rural station, I am the only non-sworn member assigned to the station. Our station does not have a station sergeant or similar, so I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the station. I am often the only person in the station and regularly deal face-to-face with upset and angry victims and offenders.”
“I also go out into the community and to businesses to download their CCTV footage for incidents that have occurred… This has included a murder case, stabbings and assaults.”
“There are so many things that we as SSOs do that are outside our job description, and I don’t feel we are given much credit for that.”
“Band C doesn’t cut it for the workload and the department’s expectations of all FSOs and SSOs on this band.”
These support staff are in Band C, with no prospect of moving up a band. Within their band, it would take them 20 years to progress from $50,000 to $68,000. Only 10 per cent of Police employees are paid less than them.
Deb says SSOs love their jobs – “the variety, the great people we meet” – but want fair pay for the risks and responsibilities.
How galling it was for one support staffer to be told by a supervisor that “a school leaver could do your job”.
And how disappointing that, as the minimum wage has increased over the past three years, it is now possible for a school leaver working in a supermarket or fast-food chain to be paid the same hourly rate as an SSO.
They say that classifying their roles as “office administration” or “clerical” is a poor categorisation of the work they are required to do, and that it’s clear the risks they face and the responsibilities they assume do not now align with their pay band.
These are people who show new sworn staff the ropes of the station and make sophisticated judgment calls about the people and situations they deal with at the front counter – from having bottles of hand sanitiser and other objects launched at them to people threatening to commit suicide – which takes a certain level of experience and maturity.
They prepare prosecution files and look after all Police exhibits, which can include disposing of bloodied clothing and items from homicides, serious assaults and rapes, plus returning property to next of kin and victims.
They ensure that stations run smoothly, ordering all uniforms, prisoner meals, stationery and police equipment. They complete monthly audits of exhibits, property, first aid and Covid-19 pandemic supplies. They ensure all forms are readily available for sworn staff, keeping records of trespass notices, phone lists and any other admin duties required.
Some SSOs are frequently left to work alone in smaller stations and are the last ones there at lock-up time.
Not afforded the benefit of Police mobile devices, they must use their own cellphones to take photos of 1Vs, found property and victims after taking statements.
One story illustrates very well the frustrations SSOs feel about their employment status.
After the terror attacks in Christchurch in 2019, all police stations were at their highest alert levels, which meant that all sworn staff had a sidearm on their hip when they were at the front counter. There were no such precautions in place for non-sworn staff attending to front counter duties.
The experiences described by one member are representative of much of the feedback that Deb and her team received.
She switched from a CRL (Crime Reporting Line) call taker job to a front counter role. “On the phones, you could just press the button to go for a break; at the counter, you have people in front of you, you can’t just press a button and leave.”
The front counter was also emotionally draining, dealing with angry people or those in crisis, she says.
“We also had, more than once, people running in being chased by someone; and had fights break out on multiple occasions. We have had to administer first aid and call ambulances, once for a young woman who was barely conscious and a man who had been assaulted.
“Once, a woman walked in carrying some firearms and one was pointing directly towards me. They belonged to her dead husband. She didn’t have any knowledge of firearms and didn’t know if they were loaded or not. She had called comms and the call taker told her to bring them to the station. A mistake from a new call taker, but one that could have potentially ended fatally for me.”
On another occasion, an agitated man said he wanted to speak in private, so she took him into a side room. He said he wanted to report a crime, but after she questioned him, it became clear he was handing himself in. She later found that the crime in question was a serious, possibly sexual, assault on a woman. “The guy was dangerous and had ‘assaults police’ alerts. It crossed my mind how lucky I was that nothing had happened in that room. I would not have been able to defend myself.”
The issues of personal protection and training are top of mind for many SSOs who have found themselves having to make it up as they go along, for example, when assessing the needs of people with mental health issues.
It is clear, as one SSO points out, that “the vast knowledge, time pressures and careful attention to detail that the job requires is immense and is the reality for every SSO across the country. The job involves a lot of skill to be efficient at juggling numerous tasks at once and prioritising time pressures”.
The discrepancy between their pay bracket and those of other Police employees has not gone unnoticed, nor, according to one SSO, the “blasé attitude of management towards the front counter staff who represent Police to our communities”.
Meanwhile, in Levin, Deb, Joanne, Kane and Rachel are delighted and overwhelmed with the strength of the response and camaraderie from their colleagues.
Now they are teaming up with the association to pursue their case with Police management.
National secretary Greg Fleming says that repeated efforts by the association to get the position properly evaluated have fallen on deaf ears.
“HR have simply played pass the parcel with this file with at least six HR staff moving on or out of Police before we could gain any traction on the issue. Then we had to start all over again.”
The irony, he says, is that the position, formerly known as “watch house assistant”, was originally Band D, but upon being renamed as SSO was swiftly “re-evaluated” by Police down to C, “which made no sense whatsoever”.
“A good number of the responsibilities and dangers of the role were never factored in. Hopefully, this time, Police will start listening to and valuing these staff – they are the heart of any station.”