If you thought the Federal disability pension was a rort what about the police medico payouts in NSW. Crikey’s expert Jack Upton reports.

Under the medical discharge system, a police officer certified as unfit for duties is retired from the service and receives early access to superannuation. If the injury is deemed to have occurred in the line of duty, the officer is eligible for an extra payment called a “Special Risk Benefit”.

At first glance, the scheme seems fair enough, but in practice it can be used to remove officers seen as liabilities (especially “whistleblowers” and other malcontents). For the Police Service it has become a simple answer to the question: “Who will rid me of this troublesome policeman?” The potential for corruption is clear. A critic, or any thorn in the service’s side, can effectively be ‘bought off’.

The benefit for the Police Service is obvious. But, on the other side, the malcontent gets a golden handshake, while being free to pursue a new career. Such cases are essentially a sweetheart deal at the taxpayers’ expense.

In the course of their work, many police have experienced bodily injuries and traumatic situations. But most are by no means incapacitated. By a legal technicality, however, officers are required to be fit for “full operational duties”, i.e. walking the beat, pursuing suspects over fences, attending accidents etc. This enables officers who have been coping for years in less demanding roles to be suddenly declared unfit and be medical discharged.

Furthermore, anger and frustration with the police hierarchy can easily be dressed up as a psychological condition which renders the officer eligible for medical retirement.

Admittedly, a police officer’s medical discharge is always backed up by medical opinion, but it is largely an internal process. The hazards of police self-regulation are well-known. In past decades, medical discharge was granted on the recommendations of Police Medical Officers (PMOs). PMOs are police employees and have no independence. The system has now been changed, so that police are certified unfit by the NSW Government Medical Officer. However the NSW Government Medical Officer is paid for this by the Police Service and is supplied with copious reports from PMOs and the officer’s own doctors supporting medical discharge. And long-serving officers are still medically discharged under the old dispensation, i.e. on the recommendation of PMOs.

It is crystal clear that the scheme is wide open to abuse, both by the police bureaucracy and by individual police. To make matters worse, the whole process is hidden behind the veil of medical expertise and medical confidentiality. It is both beyond reproach and beyond scrutiny.

A few examples that are on the public record can be cited without breaching medical confidentiality.

Terry O’Connell is a case in point On 13 June 2000 the Sydney Morning Herald gave him a front page send-off, complete with a large portrait in colour. The day before he had received the Order of Australia for his innovative policing. (Similar territory had been covered by ABC-TV’s Australian Story on 18 May in a feature entitled “And Justice for All”.) The Herald article was dominated by O’Connell’s criticism of the police hierarchy, particularly Deputy Commissioner Jeff Jarratt (who incidentally is now suing the Police Service for wrongful dismissal). O’Connell expressed his frustrations working on a “behavioural change program” in the wake of Wood Royal Commission into police corruption. Buried in the article was the fact that he had not resigned in disgust, but received medical discharge for a hand injury. Clearly this injury would hardly have hampered his police career if he’d got on better with his superiors.

The case of celebrated “whistleblower” Tim Priest is similar. Priest finally quit the Police Service in March this year, citing conflict with the NSW Government and in particular Cabramatta MP Reba Meagher who had famously (and aptly) described him as a “disgruntled detective”. Premier Bob Carr was quoted as telling parliament, “I regret the resignation of Tim Priest.” However Priest had not resigned. Yes, once again it was medical discharge!

The discharge procedure here is a medicolegal fiction. Workplace grievances, or even serious issues of malpractice, are being whisked behind clinical curtains. The examples mentioned are merely the tip of a huge iceberg. In January 2000 the NSW Audit Office reported that every month 62 constables and sergeants were leaving through medical discharge or resignation. Of course a lot of those discharged are genuinely incapacitated, but there can be no doubt the system is being routinely abused.

Peter Fray

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