This ex-police officer was on the frontline for years. Now off the force, the scars still run deep

Looking at the picture of himself, dressed in uniform, with blood running down his face, former NT police officer Nick Carter feels different now than he did when the photo was taken in 2016.

The photo was released by the NT Police to the media at the time as a public reminder about the daily dangers police officers face in the line of duty.

Back then, Mr. Carter’s scars were highly visible: the painful result of being punched in the face by a drunken gambler on Darwin’s main party street, Mitchell Street.

Now, they run much deeper.

“The thoughts going through my head now are very different from when it happened,” said Carter, who left the force last year and now lives in suburban Adelaide.

“Now that I’m not in the police anymore, you have memories of that kind of thing, and that’s one of the things that I know could have ended a lot worse.”

The former officer has decided to speak publicly about the mental health issues he has to deal with on a daily basis, triggered, he has no doubt, by nearly a decade on the police front.

“You see things and you hear things,” Carter said.

“You can’t sit in a restaurant with your back to people anymore. I haven’t been able to sit in a restaurant unless my back is against the wall for quite some time.”

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Nick Carter looks at the camera standing in his living room.
Carter calls for an investigation into the police’s mental health.(ABC News: David Frearson)

Mr. Carter is among a cohort of former and current NT police officers who have chosen to come forward and speak out about mental health issues on the force, during and after their employment, and what they see as inadequate services available to them. help them cope.

“When you go to a critical incident, and obviously that happens on a regular basis, the lead member is supposed to refer you to a critical incident briefing team,” he said.

“And when that reference is made…it seems to be a box-ticking exercise.

“There’s no follow up on that. No one gets back to you after that.”

“Not by email, not by phone…you just stay [alone] after.

Poster of the Maningrida Police Station.Poster of the Maningrida Police Station.
Former NT police officers have raised concerns about what they say is inadequate mental health support on the force.(ABC News: Matt Garrick)

ABC Radio Darwin interviewed five current and former officers on the issue, some on the record, some forced to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.

Many ask for the same thing: a public investigation, similar to a recent royal commission which investigated the suicides of defense force veterans.

“Regarding a commission of some kind, those are the kinds of things I’d like to see them focus on,” Carter said.

“People are definitely going to leave the force with PTSD… [so] not only during work, but also what support mechanisms are there after work?”

The NT Police Association (NTPA) has backed the former officers’ calls for an investigation into the mental health of the police.

“We have been lobbying the government for some time around an independent review into the support and welfare of police officers here in the Territory,” said NTPA Chairman Paul McCue.

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NT Police Minister Nicole Manison said in a statement that the government was working on a review of the issue, but did not specify whether any of that would take place publicly.

“Work is already underway to conduct an independent review of the mental health and welfare of NT police officers and this will start early this year,” said Ms Manison.

Nicole Manison (2)Nicole Manison (2)
Ms Manison says the government has started work on a review.(ABC News: Callan McLaughlin)

Tyranny of working remotely

One of those who has felt the immense mental strain of working in the NT police force is former Sergeant Derek Hartshorn.

It was the tyranny of remoteness – a small team required to work long hours in a small Gulf of Carpentaria township – that brought Hartshorn to its lowest point.

Former NT Police Sergeant Derek Hartshorn takes a selfie while on duty inside a car.Former NT Police Sergeant Derek Hartshorn takes a selfie while on duty inside a car.
Mr. Hartshorn left the force in 2020. Since then, he has suffered from severe depression and PTSD.(Supplied)

“You’re overworked,” said Hartshorn, who left the force in 2020.

“[Me and one other officer] he slept four days in a row with three hours of sleep during those four days, and they were in half-hour intervals.

“We just couldn’t function anymore.

“And that’s when I had the big meltdown.”

Mr. Hartshorn’s mental health problems reached an alarming height during this period, he said, which saw him on the verge of suicide.

He said he came very close to pulling off the act, two or three times.

The former member said he loved being a police officer in the Territory, particularly working in indigenous communities and learning more about the culture and life in the NT bush.

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But he said he believed there was not enough mental wellness support for those on the ground.

“I would like to see a lot more support and a lot more contact base, just in general wellness.”

Both Mr. Hartshorn and Mr. Carter recognized the importance of self-referral to in-house police psychologists or outside professionals to help deal with the daily pressures of the job.

Stock image of NT police officer in remote location.Stock image of NT police officer in remote location.
Mr Hartshorn says police working in remote areas are particularly in need of more mental health support.(Supplied: NT Police)

NT Police say they are ‘committed to reviewing’

NT Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker did not respond to a request for an on-camera interview.

Instead, Acting Deputy Police Commissioner Janelle Tonkin responded in a statement released by NT Police Media, which listed current services.

“The agency has a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, social workers, occupational rehabilitation counselors, health and wellness officers, support peers and chaplains to provide support services to staff,” he said.

“More services are provided to staff through external clinical referrals as the need arises.”

Acting Assistant Commissioner Tonkin also said the force was “committed to undertaking a review of its structure to ensure services are fit for purpose and meet the needs of its personnel”.

He also defended the availability of services offered to members who have left the force.

“NT Police are being offered the opportunity for an exit interview to raise the issues that contributed to their resignation,” Acting Assistant Commissioner Tonkin said.

“There is a provision for continued access to wellness and support services six months after retirement/resignation for NTPFES staff.”

Police officers are also looking into a provision for the future, he said, that would see an additional officer at remote stations, to allow more opportunities for officers to rest between shifts.

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