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Police Covenant must have mental health at its heart

Policing is a job like no other. The levels of physical, emotional and psychological stress which officers are expected to go through on a daily basis are extreme.

As anyone who followed Dorset Police’s recent Twitterthon will have realised, the demand that is piled upon even a relatively small force like our own is immense. The constant trauma can – and sometimes sadly does – push people close to the edge.

That’s why I am extremely glad that the Home Secretary has announced the government’s intention to establish a Police Covenant demonstrating a recognition of the bravery and commitment of police officers.

I join many others across policing in praising this long-awaited recognition of the unique contribution our officers make to keeping people safe.

The Police Covenant – similar to the existing Armed Forces Covenant which covers military personnel and veterans – is an official acknowledgement that police officers hold an office of personal accountability and responsibility for the protection of life and property, and must abide by a code of ethics which sets the highest standards of behaviour.

Announcing the new move, the Home Secretary said: “This will be a pledge to do more as a nation to help those who serve this country. It will ensure the sacrifice made by the police is properly recognised.”

But while I can only welcome these words, we need to make sure the government follows this through with action.

A consultation is now taking place into exactly what the scope of the covenant will be, and I will be among those ensuring that looking after the mental health of our officers is placed right at the heart of any plans.

This is an issue which is of paramount importance both to myself and to Chief Constable James Vaughan, and I have made a £250,000 health and wellbeing fund available from my annual commissioning budget – earmarked for the strategic commissioning of services – to help boost the physical and mental wellbeing of officers and staff.

Our Mental Wellbeing Plan includes everything from making counselling sessions more widely available and training people to recognise the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems in themselves and their colleagues. It also includes schemes encouraging staff and officers to take part in meaningful activities during rest periods, giving them the mental capacity to recover from the stressful experiences they encounter in their work.

The referrals we have seen in Dorset Police from officers and staff asking for counselling and other forms of support have skyrocketed in the last few years. That means people are starting to talk openly and, even more importantly, managers are recognising the role they play in getting their staff the help and support they need.

But the numbers of officers across the country who are leaving the job because of mental ill health is an incredibly worrying trend, and is something the government urgently needs to grasp. The new Police Covenant is an excellent opportunity for them to do just that.

We also need to make sure that the plans take the needs of retired officers and staff into account. Much of the work dealt with under the Armed Forces Covenant is with veterans who have left the Forces. I will be watching with interest to see what support we can offer former police employees once they have left employment, particularly in the field of trauma and mental health.

It is also essential that police officers are given the right tools to keep people safe, and it is impossible to talk about that without talking about funding.

Talk of money for extra officers will always be welcome. However, over the coming months I will be making the case that, if the work that police officers do is to be given official recognition in the form of a covenant, that respect needs to be extended by making sure forces across the country are given suitable funding – in a sustainable way that goes beyond mere headlines.

I am glad to see the government paying tribute to the essential work our officers do on a daily basis. We now need to see these warm words are followed through with policies that will enable them to do their jobs properly.

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