05/01/2007

Australia: 'Troubled' officer sparks police station siege

By Les Kennedy and Ben Cubby
Sydney Morning Herald

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA —The desperate officer arrived at Earlwood police station yesterday afternoon via a rear courtyard, got his service pistol, returned to his car and put the gun in his mouth.

But a crucial phone call saved him. Minutes earlier, the officer, a 39-year-old senior constable with the highway patrol, had phoned a fellow officer in despair.

This call, about 2.15pm, generated immediate confusion, as police prepared for a siege. Soon the area around Earlwood's highway patrol headquarters was cordoned off and swarming with about 50 police, including members of the State Protection Group and an armoured van.

Negotiators were brought in, as hundreds of onlookers crowded the Earlwood shopping strip.

After a "delicate and sensitive" stand-off lasting nearly three hours, the negotiators persuaded the officer to surrender at 5.05pm.

"The fact that there was some contact with another officer - perhaps it was a cry for help by the officer that has prevented this from ending tragically," a police official told the Herald last night.

The acting Assistant Commissioner, Frank Mennilli, confirmed the phone call had probably saved the situation, but could shed no light on why the officer, a married man who had been in the force for 20 years, might want to take his life.

At least seven NSW police officers have committed suicide since 2001, five of them in a police station. More police have died from suicide while on duty than any other cause.

Last month the Police Commissioner, Ken Moroney, expressed his concern at the rate of suicides and the need for commanders to recognise symptoms and intervene. He said senior officers would be trained to recognise psychological distress. "It may be that by taking an early intervention role we can lead people into the right programs," he said.

Mr Moroney added that many police had been reluctant to seek help about personal problems while coping with the pressures of their job.

Officers at Sutherland and Menai are still struggling to explain why a new recruit, Constable Greg Norman Lundberg, 29, fatally shot himself while working alone in the station at Menai in January. He left no note and did not appear depressed to his colleagues.

At Chatswood police station in November 2005, Detective Senior Constable Patrick Cleary shot himself dead before colleagues arrived for work.

And in August 2004, Detective Sergeant Steve Leach killed himself with his pistol at police headquarters at Parramatta.

Following yesterday's stand-off, Mr Mennilli said outside

Earlwood police station: "There was a telephone call made

to another officer and the police responded to that telephone call."

The officer was taken into custody and his health and welfare needs will be assessed.

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