“I was hunted on the side of the road.”
Ashley’s* voice cracks as she recounts the day her life and that of her offsider changed in minutes during a routine traffic stop (3T) just outside a small, rural town.
Nothing about the 3T was routine. “It was the polar opposite,” the experienced rural police officer says. It ended with the fatal shooting of a man who lived in her community.
Ashley is unable to describe explicit details of the critical incident because the investigation into it is ongoing, but the ramifications and effect on her are palpable.
Home life and her work became a living nightmare. “I went from having a laugh with my mate, cruising around, to my life changing within minutes and the next day completely petrified to be in my hometown.”
Ashley was terrified that the family or associates of the shot man – who lived only a couple of kilometres away – would find out she was involved and track her down. She was so terrified that she would stay out of town on her days off and asked people to pick up her groceries.
“I was really fearful for my safety. [To disguise myself] I didn't tie my hair up for weeks and instead wore a beanie. I would drive my dog 20 minutes down the road just to take him for a walk. I was hypervigilant and I had my guard up.”
Due to the harrowing nature of the incident, a critical incident liaison officer arranged for her to meet with Police’s Reintegration team, which is tasked with supporting staff in returning to operational duties safely following a police shooting or other on-the-job traumatic events.
Then and now
It was a 2015 fatal police shooting at an inner-city Auckland park that had the biggest impact on the way that Police deals with staff after critical incidents.
Two officers shot 21-year-old David Cerven after he said he was armed and moved to pull out a weapon. It was later discovered he was unarmed.
Assistant Commissioner Richard Chambers was the Auckland City district commander at the time. He says the aftermath of the event showed that the organisation needed to do more to support officers who were involved in fatal incidents – shootings in particular.
In 2016, he organised a workshop with officers who had been involved in critical incidents, asking what needed to be improved. Examples of the long-lasting impact of such events were laid bare, says Richard.
“Our uniform doesn't mask us from the emotion that's attached to these events… Policing is a challenge. It's traumatic [and] it can be confronting. At the end of the day, we're human beings trying to do a hard job.” Police Association senior legal officer Liz Gooch also attended the 2016 workshop and says hearing from the officers was a real wake-up call for Police.
“It was [the officers’] opportunity to really say, ‘This is how the process was for me, and this is the impact it had on me and my family’. And, back in the day, they were told not to tell anyone – not even their family – that they’d been involved. That had all sorts of trauma and psychological implications.”
Richard says a lot of ideas were put forward but a particular one was reintegration: “How do you get yourself back into a position where you're confident, back at work having to make significant decisions?”
Triggers and trauma
Tactical Reintegration co-ordinator Senior Sergeant Courtney Brunt agrees that the way officers were treated – especially following critical incidents involving firearms – was unfortunate.
“We isolated them, we didn't explain the process. In some cases we referred to them as suspects in a homicide inquiry. We took weapons off people in public. It was a terrible experience for our people and… was often just as bad as being involved in the actual event itself.”
He says the handling of critical events and supporting staff in returning to operational duties safely have come a long way in the past eight years.
After the 2016 workshop, Police contacted the Edmonton Police Department in Canada to gather information about its reintegration programme, which was launched in 2009.
The discussions morphed into a partnership and led to reciprocal visits in 2019, six months of remote collaborative work and reintegration experts from Edmonton holding facilitator workshops in New Zealand.
The two agencies keep in regular contact and continue to share learnings across the Pacific.
A core aim of New Zealand’s programme is preventing long-term psychological injuries to officers involved in a critical incident by addressing the residual stressors or triggers.
By addressing the complexities of the event through clinical care, peer support and traditional police training, officers can regain the confidence required to return to duty.
Reintegration is fully confidential, Courtney says. Nothing goes back to supervisors in terms of what has been done or talked about.
While reintegration is mandated for those staff involved in police shootings, he says it remains discretionary for other categories of critical incidents such as fatal pursuits. Referrals are regularly made by Wellness Advisers and supervisors for staff who have experienced a significant work-related trauma from events such as a serious assault or life-threatening incident.
Richard says there is "certainly scope" to extend the programme to other frontline staff such as call takers and Authorised Officers in due course.
By the time Ashley met with Courtney and fellow reintegration officer Steve Guy six weeks after her critical incident, she was exhausted. Police had undertaken extra checks to ensure her safety and security, which she says heightened her hypervigilance.
“I was also hesitant [about meeting with them] because it's just another person in the mix. It was another person I had to tell what had gone on.”
But she was relieved to find she could work through the process at her own pace.
“They started off [with short days] because they could tell that I was exhausted and they tailored the reintegration to my needs. They thought outside the box.”
After completing a scene walk-through, Ashley was taken to a firing range to slowly re-adapt to the sound of gunfire – one of her anxiety triggers after the critical event.
For Ashley, it was the first time since the incident that she felt like she had control over what was going on around her. “Any triggers that arose, they dealt with it, and they dealt with it in a way that was respectful. It may seem small to some people but to me [the gunfire] was what got my heart rate up and that's what I'd think about.”
Ashley was also reintroduced to her uniform and slowly eased back into operational duties such as driving a patrol car, pulling cars over, patrolling gang areas and working night shift.
An important aspect of the programme is that co-ordinators work closely with the officer’s psychologist, Courtney says, to ensure the person being reintegrated is in no danger of being further traumatised.
Based on her experience, Ashley says it’s imperative staff have support available after any sort of traumatic event on the job – and reintegration works. "[Otherwise] you lose them medically or lose them because they can't do the job any more.”
Courtney agrees: “We've had feedback from numerous staff telling us that if it wasn't for reintegration, they wouldn't be in the job any longer.”
* Name changed to protect identity