George Hamilton insists he’s fully behind his staff... as deputy reveals assaults on officers are committed every three hours
Exclusive: Chief Constable admits he handed ‘dry your eyes’ Twitter row poorly while second-in-command says force is investing heavily in help for officers battling stress
Chief Constable George Hamilton has spoken exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph about the "dry your eyes" Twitter row that has rocked the PSNI - and insists he is completely committed to supporting his officers and staff.
Furious rank-and-file officers accused bosses of failing to support them after Mr Hamilton told one who complained about the pressures of the job to "dry your eyes" during a late night social media spat at the weekend.
Mr Hamilton also told the officer to "stop wallowing in self-pity" or "seek another job". He later apologised for his outburst.
The exchange has led to a wider debate about the role of police and the support provided to those who have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph today, Mr Hamilton concedes that his use of language was inappropriate and says the debate was "poorly handled on my part".
He adds: "I am whole-heartedly committed to supporting my officers and staff. We are here to serve our community and we need people to be engaged and fit to do that."
Meanwhile, Mr Hamilton's deputy revealed there was an attack on police in Northern Ireland every three hours, but insisted that the PSNI was doing all it can to support its policemen and women.
Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris, whose police officer father was murdered, said: "I can 100% identify with and understand the pressures that affect officers.
"The terrorist threat places additional stresses and strains on officers.
"Every year officers are having to move because of the threat to them. They are dealing in far more prevalence with instances of child abuse etc. Even just look at the number of assaults on police. We have assaults on police every three hours."
In the last financial year there were 2,900 assaults on officers. The level of attacks on police in Northern Ireland is around double that of England and Wales, Mr Harris pointed out.
More than 60 of these attacks included attempted murder, assault occasioning actual bodily harm or assault occasioning grievous bodily harm.
Mr Harris said the PSNI spent £2.4m on occupational health and welfare provision each year to support officers.
"That is clinical, expert medical assistance for officers. It is bespoke to the profession we are in and is around early intervention and early identification so that should an individual avail of sick absence we can mitigate the length that might be, and more and more prevent people going sick in the first place," he said.
Mr Harris added: "We invest a lot in that and we provide a very comprehensive service. We probably provide the best service in the public sector in the UK. Other organisations come to us to look at how we provide our occupational health service."
However, he admitted that in terms of psychological help for officers suffering from PTSD and mental health problems due to the job, some were waiting 18 weeks to see a counsellor.
Mr Harris said he can identify with officers who have been affected by traumatic incidents they have had to deal with as part of the job. "I have almost 33 years of service in the police and I have seen a lot of unpleasant things and some of these things can't be unseen, and so you have to be very mindful of your own health and wellbeing," he added.
"Now we do more and more about identifying stresses and strains, making sure that there's peer support immediately available to officers and flagging up immediately an issue we think needs dealt with, like post-traumatic incident management.
"Policing is by its nature stressful and difficult at times and we have little control over what comes through our door. I have seen awful things, awful things. All of us are different and our ability to deal with things are different. That's just the reality of the human condition. I think, probably, when I look back at some of the instances which were truly dreadful I have been always able to find a way through. I would have looked for something positive in the days that followed, got support from my family and friends."
Asked why an officer felt the only way his concerns could be addressed was by tweeting a message to the Chief Constable, Mr Harris said: "There are lots of routes for an officer to raise concern. They can raise concern with their own line managers or the federation. What the police officer was identifying on Saturday night was around the ever-widening role of police.
"It is something we are acutely aware of as well. More and more we have to prioritise our work towards vulnerability, harm and risk because those are real things that are happening out on the ground."
He advised officers with concerns: "If you are feeling in a position where the organisation has abandoned you then you must speak to your supervisor. If you are not happy about doing that, speak to your fed rep. Come forward and seek assistance because there are lots of routes into that assistance."