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In the face of tragedy

A 'world-class' response by New Zealand police.

As soon as the reports started coming in on Friday afternoon, Police Association President Chris Cahill took the first available flight to Christchurch.

He needed to be there, on the ground, he says, with the members, “letting them know they were not alone and to offer whatever practical assistance I could”, with the emphasis on staff welfare.

That often meant acting as a conduit between members and management to ensure that in such a large, fast-moving response, where members are required to do whatever is asked of them, and are happy to do it, that they were also being looked after.

Overall, he says, he was very impressed with how police responded to all aspects of the aftermath of the tragedy. “While there will always be lessons to learn, it was clearly world class and our members stepped up without a grumble.

“The public response to police was pretty overwhelming too. There was an organic outpouring of thanks, which often took the form of home baking, flowers and hugs. I was gettting hugged too, and that was just crazy.”

He was touched to see “the little gestures”, such as an elderly woman giving a chocolate bar to a senior sergeant.

While Chris was connecting with and supporting members, he was also in demand with media outlets – locally and internationally – to comment on what became a major international story. His five days in Christchurch included a stream of interviews with newspapers and radio and television networks, in a variety of time zones.

New Zealand media worked tirelessly and with absolute dignity, Chris says. “International media considered our response as a country to be outstanding. They were complimentary towards Police in terms of managing all the briefings, and were taken aback by the genuine outpouring of empathy from across New Zealand. We, in turn, were moved by the messages, stories and images shown around the world.” Chris congratulated Police on how soon it arranged for support to arrive from other districts, while acknowledging that the challenge of responding to individual welfare concerns while still meeting business-as-usual demands is always difficult.

There were a few concerns that would need to be addressed in time. The most pressing was that officers who were first responders on the Friday then turned up for shifts on the Saturday.

“They were back at work with no immediate professional support around them. Their partners and families would naturally have been concerned about the safety of their loved ones returning to what was still widely thought to be a dangerous situation.

“Quite frankly, some of them looked pretty stunned by it all, so, going forward, there needs to be analysis of whether there is another way of addressing the immediate return to work requirements.”

There were other challenges, including the time taken to release the victims’ bodies, and that was incredibly difficult for the families. “Yet, in a crime scene of this magnitude, everyone worked above and beyond to reunite the victims with their families.”

One feature of the aftermath, he says, was the speed at which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern entered the gun debate.

“I was surprised that on the Saturday morning, she announced the firearms laws would change. It wasn’t my intention to go down that track so early, but once the PM had taken us there, the association had to be part of the debate, and we will remain there until we have meaningful change.”

In a long career in Police, Chris Cahill says he has attended some pretty horrific incidents, but nothing compares to what happened in Christchurch. “The shock, the look in the eyes of officers and, for the locals, asking, ‘Why us again?’

“There was also the extraordinary response from young people, supporting each other, hugging people, laying flowers, singing and vowing that their generation will not let this unravel them, that they will fix it. And schoolchildren sent a flood of much-appreciated cards into Christchurch police stations with messages of support and praise.”

There in times of crisis

Police Association staff know what exhaustion looks like. They’ve seen the “zombie look” on the faces of the Police staff who have been working tirelessly in Christchurch in the past few weeks.

There have been some extraordinarily long shifts being worked by members, 18-20 hours in some cases, and sometimes, day after day. Association staff in Christchurch have been making contact with members at police cordons and liaising with Police bosses and members’ families, seeing where they can plug any gaps in welfare for our members.

The advice to those who might be struggling has been to forget about the bigger picture and focus on the small things to get through each shift and each day.

And it’s not only the needs of the frontline that have to be considered. Comms, victim support, the DVI and antemortem teams, to name a few, have all been in the thick of it – and behaved heroically.

Sometimes, members have needed to take a break or talk to a psychologist. At other times, they have just needed a hug and a cup of coffee.

The pressure has been full-on for members – dealing with the public and families and the sheer awfulness of the situation. It’s in crisis situations such as this that the association is able to add value.

Welfare Fund manager Pete Hayes says the association knew it had to get support people on the ground quickly.

“We learnt from other serious incidents, such as the Bali bombings, Operation Phuket [in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami], the Victoria fires in Australia and the Canterbury earthquakes, that it is important to be there for members who are facing the most horrendous scenes, and to have the right people on hand, such as psychologists.”

In the longer term, he says, plans are under way for a structured and appropriate response for all members involved in this horrific event. That will include ensuring members can get a break away with their families at a time that suits them.

Media marathon

With the world’s attention turned to events in Christchurch, Police Association president Chris Cahill has been in demand for comment and interviews, not only with New Zealand media, but also international news organisations. Over the course of the week that followed the mosque attacks, Chris spoke multiple times to local media and to at least 20 overseas agencies, including The New York Times, BBC World, NBC, Xinhua News Agency, CBC Canada, Euro News, Al Jazeera and many Australian networks. Although it was daunting at times, Chris said it was important for the association’s voice to be heard on behalf of members.

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