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A Beaten Officer, Stuck in His Beat

23 Dec 2006

By Tamar Kahn

TAMAR KAHN tells the story of a traumatised policeman's desperate fight to be declared unfit for duty.

The policeman's wife stares through the car window across the steamy township to the derelict house where her husband shot his first suspect almost a decade ago. The teenager was the first of a half-dozen people to die at the policeman's hand, killings that permeate his every waking moment, seep into his dreams and poison his mind.

For the past five years he has struggled against recurrent breakdowns and fought an increasingly desperate campaign to get his superior officers to accept that the horrors he experienced at work have rendered him unfit for duty.

In the cowboys-don't-cry world of the South African Police Service (SAPS), mental illness is a barely acknowledged shame, a condition that elicits derision and denial rather than care and support. For many of its employees, the limited psychological counselling on offer comes too late; 89 police officers committed suicide in 2004-05, the safety and security minister told Parliament last month, equivalent to a suicide rate of 60 per 100000, triple the rate for the general population.

The middle-aged officer has sought the help of a psychiatrist, who has treated more than 1200 policemen in his 17 years of private practice. He diagnosed the policeman with severe post traumatic stress disorder and told him he was a "ticking time bomb", a danger to himself and the public. But the SAPS has deemed him fit for duty and has stopped his salary and medical benefits until he returns to his job.

In an effort to explain himself to his wife, the policeman drives her around the township in the heavy afternoon heat, showing her for the first time the macabre landmarks of a career spent confronting brutality. The tour begins with a visit to the site of his first killing, where late one night a frightened young housebreaker fled across a weed-choked yard, shooting wildly until a bullet from the officer's gun left his body crumpled against a fence.

That gun still haunts the policeman's wife. At night she dare not close her eyes until her husband has drifted off, afraid he will take advantage of the brief respite offered by her sleeping pills to hunt down the place where she hides the safe keys. She's lost count of the number of times he's pointed a gun at her and their children, threatening to kill them before turning the weapon on himself. She's already returned his official firearm, but her terror of intruders overrides her fear of his threats, and she cannot relinquish their personal weapon, nestled with the family's valuables.

Her nights are lonely, so too her days. Although many of their friends in the police force battle similar demons, she has confided only in their pastor's wife. She loves her husband, she says, and cannot leave him in his suffering. The psychiatrist who has treated him for the past five years has helped her to try to accept the changes she has seen.

Yet still she grieves for the handsome man she met in church more than 20 years ago, who gently began a long courtship that eventually led to marriage and children.

Now he is distant, moody, prone to fits of anger and forgetfulness, and battles a host of physical complaints more common to older men.

He swallows dozens of prescribed pills each day for his chronic ailments, more still for his stress and depression.

The policeman's sense of hopelessness is compounded by his bureaucratic battles. His wife wrote to the safety and security minister more than 18 month ago, asking that he be medically boarded, a status that would allow them to claim their insurance policies, and seek support from the labour department's workman's compensation fund, which provides payouts to people injured at work. To date the only response to her petition are letters acknowledging receipt of her correspondence, and another referring her query to the national police commissioner's office.

According to SAPS spokesman Selby Bokaba, the national police commissioner does not deal with such requests, and a letter should have been sent to the couple within days directing them to the SAPS Medical Boards Section. Last year the SAPS received 285 requests from police officers asking to be retired on medical grounds, he says; 19 were granted.

The policeman - who has been repeatedly booked off work by his psychiatrist- is now embroiled in a bitter row with his commanding officer over whether or not he was recently served with an order to resume his duties. His wife says his superiors told him to return to work, but never sent him documents spelling out the instruction to do so; such papers would have stipulated that his salary and benefits would be stopped if he remained at home, and would have given him a five-day grace period in which to lodge an appeal.

The policeman discovered to his shock that he no longer had an income when his pharmacist refused to provide the family's monthly medication, as their medical benefits had been frozen. For the first time in the couple's relationship, they were forced to borrow money from her parents to pay their mortgage and buy essential medicines. They are baffled as to why the SAPS has seemingly ignored his psychiatrist's reports, and angry at what they perceive as an attempt to bully him back to work.

Bokaba says written instructions must be issued if the SAPS considers a policeman fit for duty after being assessed by doctors, as proof must be kept on file. Differences of opinion do occur, he concedes, in which case a police officer can lodge a grievance or appeal to the Medical Boards Section.

The policeman's wife believes he has been betrayed by the SAPS. Her man spent the best part of his youth patrolling the streets of the crowded township, sacrificing evenings and weekends with his family to risk his life fighting crime. He survived the violence that swept the township during the dying days of the apartheid regime and the escalation in crime that accompanied the new democratic order.

The SAPS has established an Employees Assistance Services programme staffed with social workers, psychologists and spiritual counsellors offering support to police officers and their families, but to date the policeman has seen little of it. Counselling after traumatic events became mandatory only in 2000, and many officers are sceptical of their employer's assurances that seeking support from a psychologist will remain confidential, perhaps in part because such visits were previously marked on officers' files and hampered promotion prospects.

The first time the policeman was offered a consultation with an in-house psychologist was a year ago, after he pointed his gun at a colleague in a fit of uncontrolled rage. The initial meeting was a disaster, says his wife. The policeman felt insulted by the briefness of the psychologist's 15-minute assessment, and refused to go back.

Perhaps by then the damage ran too deep. His psychiatrist, who has successfully treated hundreds of policemen with post traumatic stress disorder and helped many of them to return to work, says her husband is so severely injured his condition has become permanent, despite his commitment to treatment. The mere sight of a gun, or the sound of a firearm being cocked could trigger an outburst, another complete loss of control, says the doctor.

The policeman is unlikely to be able to maintain anything but the most undemanding job, and then only if it is guaranteed not to trigger traumatic memories, says the psychiatrist, who does not want to be named for fear of prompting a flood of queries to his already overloaded practice.

The couple's sense of isolation is deepened by their fear of disciplinary action from the police force should the policeman reveal his identity. He is tempted to shout his frustration to the world in the hope that this will embarrass the bureaucrats into considering his case, but he holds back, worrying that such action will trap him in years of legal wrangling he cannot fund.

As the shadows lengthen, the policeman drives faster and faster around the township. He points out the intersection where he killed several men in a car, over the hill is the drinking hole where he killed another, here is the spot where another nameless criminal bled to death in a crowd of late-night revellers.

The edges of his stories begin to blur, he repeats random details over and over again, barely pausing as he wheels the car through the sites of his nightmares. He's feeling sick, he tells her, he's never driven through all these places in one go before, just closed his mind if he happened to pass one on patrol.

His wife grows silent, her hands tight around the silver handbag in her lap. Her gold and diamond crucifix heaves against her chest, her breath shudders in her throat, as he abruptly turns the car around, in a squeal of slipping tyres. He flees the pressing shacks, the unflinching stares of the shebeen drinkers, and points them home.

The policeman's wife cannot support the family with the meagre wages she earns at her part-time job, and her parents' largesse is not infinite. How long will it be, she wonders, before her husband complies with his superior's orders, and risks everything to return to work?

Copyright 2006. Used with permission from Business Day.

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