Sunday is National Police Remembrance Day, when we acknowledge the sacrifice of police who have lost their lives on duty with a ceremony at the Police Memorial on the St Kilda Road, where all their names are recorded on a wall. When a police officer is murdered there is generally shock and outrage in the community, but many more die from accidents and their loss is no less tragic.
In the 19th century, 59 police died on duty, 14 drowned and 16 in horse-related accidents. (Just the other day police jumped into Port Phillip Bay to try and rescue someone; coincidentally there are moves to drop the swim test as part of recruitment standards). So far this century 10 Victoria Police have died on duty – one murdered, seven in road accidents and two from natural causes.
Policing is an increasingly dangerous business with a growing number of offenders carrying guns, an unexplained jump in police vehicles rammed, a mental health crisis and an ice epidemic. With the increased terrorism threat police are being trained in active offender options – meaning first responders will be expected to engage with heavily armed offenders without waiting for specialist backup. There is now an expectation of heroism.
At least they are unlikely to die as Sergeant Leonard Fawssett did. He broke his leg after being hit by a stagecoach, and after the limb was amputated he developed a fatal dose of gangrene. That was in June 1880.
Trevor Given had been to a Navy Reserve function then slipped away for a sleep around 4pm because he was rostered on a nightshift. Shortly after he started work he was told to drive to the Essendon airport around 2am to pick up the four-person transplant team and the heart to be taken to the Alfred. They was a delay and just before 3am on November 12, 1989, he headed to the small terminal. At 3.25am he picked up the priceless package and the team.
His passengers were a research surgeon, clinical perfusionist (who operated the heart-lung machine) and team co-ordinator, cardiac surgeon and an operating theatre nurse. Despite being well within the time window, one of the team urged Given to “hurry”. This he did, reaching speeds of 140km/h on the Tullamarine Freeway, activating his emergency lights but not his siren on the near-deserted roads. The surgical team would later say they felt comfortable at the speed and Given was in control of his Ford Falcon marked police car. He had completed the high-speed police driving course and was confident of his own ability.
He slowed to 100km/h entering Flemington Road but his progress was blocked by a slower orange car and so Given moved right to go around a traffic island on the wrong side of the road. He misjudged by just a few centimetres, clipping the island gutter with one of the passenger-side wheels. The car slammed into a pole, seriously injuring the surgical team.
Trevor Given, 25, was killed on impact. He had been a probationary constable for 19 months. If only he hadn’t been told to hurry.
As soon as emergency services arrived the injured team was transferred to nearby Royal Melbourne Hospital and the rescued heart was taken to The Alfred, arriving at 4am. Ten minutes later surgeons began the transplant, successfully completing it in just over three hours. The recipient, a 53-year-old man, was gifted 20 years of life, surviving into his 70s.
Given’s older brother Peter was in bed when he received the call from the duty inspector telling him there had been an accident and Trevor was killed. The inspector told him they were heading off to his parents’ house to deliver the news. ‘‘He asked me if I wanted to be there and I went. That was extremely tough. Trevor was the youngest and was the last to leave home.
‘‘Trevor was 10 years younger than me and he followed me into the police force. He was driving as quickly as possible to The Alfred hospital trying to save a life. The car T-boned a pole right on the driver’s door and in those days without side airbags he was killed instantly.’’
Peter Given said his parents, two sisters and Trevor’s wife Helen were devastated. ‘‘She eventually moved to Queensland and now has a lovely husband and four lovely kids.’’
Trevor had planned to follow his brother into policing but first wanted to gain a tertiary qualification, completing a business studies course before entering the academy and graduating in May 1988. Everyone who knew him believed he was a natural copper and would have had a long and successful career. Except for those few centimetres.
The Transport Support Unit still transports organs and blood samples with about 50 runs a year. Over the years it has helped save hundreds of lives. Trevor Given paid with his.
While National Police Remembrance Day will be marked with formal marches around the country and a motorbike ride to the National Police Wall in Canberra, behind the scenes there is an ongoing controversy. Many more serving and former police are lost to suicide than to accident or murder and there is a strong push to have their names placed on the wall.
In NSW there are several cases where names have been added, with the cause of death listed as ‘‘Death from Suicide resulting from their duties’’. There is a push for the same in Victoria but there are concerns about how you can decide if suicide is due to the pressure of work or outside causes.
There have been far too many deaths involving marriage breakups, family violence, alcoholism and gambling debts. Who could know if the trauma of policing was the cause or the underlying problem?
Some senior police fear that they would add to grief by allowing some but not all names on the wall.
Yet there are some that seem beyond dispute. We think of Mark Wylie, a smart, funny and ultimately deeply troubled man. In 1986 he was assigned to lead a raid on a suspect connected to the Russell Street bombing.
By modern standards the level of safety preparation for the police on a dangerous mission was pathetic. The raiding party had not worked together and had no time to familiarise themselves with a rehearsal. They had three ballistic vests between 10 and while Wylie was trained to use a shotgun, he had not fired the type to be used for the job. He ‘‘practised’’ by pumping it three times in the Nunawading police station car park at 3am while the team met inside.
Wylie did not wear a vest and as the team ran through the house he saw the suspect in a bedroom. “He’s on his haunches … and he’s pointing a .45 revolver straight at me.” The suspect fired two shots and Wylie fired two before his shotgun jammed.
“He fired off his third and fourth, and basically I walked into the fourth and it went straight through me … It was bang bang, it was like cracker night, it was just on for young and old. There was lead flying everywhere,” Wylie told me. “I knew that I’d been shot. You know, unless you’ve been shot, it’s hard to describe. It’s just a weird, weird feeling.”
Seriously wounded, he finally recovered physically, but mentally it was always a battle. He became obsessed with security and would check window locks several times before going to bed.
While on sick leave he started tertiary studies and though he returned to the armed robbery squad he soon knew he had to leave policing.
In July 2014 Mark Wylie, 61, took his own life, leaving a wife, three sons and a daughter from a previous marriage. Wylie died from wounds he received on duty – the mental ones no one could see or cure. Surely his loss should be recognised.
There is a push for a separate wall to name police suicide victims. That would seem to be a valid compromise. The greatest challenge is not to mourn the ones we have lost but to find ways to save those who remain.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au; Lifeline on 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au.
John Silvester is a Walkley-award winning crime writer and columnist. A co-author of the best-selling books that formed the basis of the hit Australian TV series Underbelly, Silvester is also a regular guest on 3AW with his “Sly of the Underworld” segment.