IT’S a small town in Gippsland but Morwell could be one of the most dangerous places to be a police officer.
About 80 per cent of people they face are aggressive, violent and unpredictable — all because they are drugged up on ice.
So who are the remaining 20 per cent the police are dealing with?
They are people with mental health issues or who are involved in family violence disputes — both problems still often driven by ice, according to the Police Association’s Wayne Gatt.
The ice pandemic is nothing new and the drug’s destructive clutches are well known.
Police have fought to combat it but the problem is especially rife in regional Victoria.
The Victorian Crime Statistics Agency found a 21 per cent hike in crime in the La Trobe area, which includes Morwell, since 2011.
It was the highest jump in Victoria’s eastern region.
There were 3031 crimes in Morwell alone between July 2010 and June 2011.
That number has shockingly risen to 4571 as of June this year — an increase of about 30 per cent.
There were 328 drug use and possession offences in 2012/13 but that number jumped to 484 in the 2013/14 period — a 47.6 per cent increase.
Sergeant Gatt said the association surveyed police officers across the whole state earlier this year and 94 per cent said dealing with people who were doped up on ice was more prevalent in their work than it was three years ago.
Alarmingly, 83 per cent said it made their job more difficult and impacted on their work significantly and 91 per cent said violence towards police had increased in the past three years.
Just over 70 per cent were assaulted at least once in the past three years by somebody on ice.
“We were obviously shocked to hear how difficult work for our members has become but we are also concerned that the already tough job members have to do is made tougher, often by a lack of frontline resources available to help local police deal with growing issues like ice, domestic violence and mental health,” Sgt Gatt said.
The Federal Government recently announced a $300 million strategy to tackle the ice addiction and while Sgt Gatt welcomed the funding, he said there was still no short-term solution.
“What are needed are more resources for police on the front line to deal with calls for assistance in the community,” he said.
Sgt Gatt said Morwell police were losing the equivalent of 20 shifts because of a lack of resources in the Victorian town.
Officers were required to provide security at Morwell court, preventing them from working the beat.
“It’s an enormous amount when you consider where these police officers should be — out responding to calls for assistance from the community,” Sgt Gatt said.
“They are effectively performing the role of a security guard and their skills and training could be put to far greater use.
“They need to be out there dealing with the sheer volume of calls they receive and the follow-ups that come from each of those.”
Sgt Gatt said police were also forced to spend up to two hours at a time at the hospital, responding to mental health issues.
“Police members could be better utitlised,” he said.
“The more police on the street, the safer the community is.”
Youth Support and Advocacy Service director Peter Wearne is all too aware of the ice epidemic. Picture: YSAS
Youth Support and Advocacy Service director Peter Wearne is not surprised by the shocking number of people consumed by ice in Morwell.
“It’s been the same for about two years. About a third of young people presenting for treatment in the state have ice as their major drug of concern,” he said.
“Half of young people we see are using ice on top of other drugs.”
Mr Wearne said ice was obvious in regional areas like Morwell because the impact was much greater.
“The biggest issue they have is managing their interpersonal behaviour and social interactions,” he said.
“It’s like they’ve acquired some mental illness but that’s typical when you abuse the drug.
“You might not see it in people who use it once a fortnight but it disorientates people who use it regularly and they become aggressive and angry, which becomes really noticeable in a small country town.”
For 40 years Mr Wearne has worked with people battling drug issues but he said it had never been as prevalent as it is now.
Through his work, he has discovered ice addicts often have a traumatic childhood in common — people who have suffered from abuse or neglect.
“There’s always a reason somebody gets into trouble with the drug — it’s not just the drug — the drug is the least important part of the equation, it’s about a person and their history and experiences,” he said.
Mr Wearne said a lot of his clients became afraid after they became hooked on ice.
Not of the drug itself, but of what life would be like without it.
“If it makes you believe you are better for it, you’ll keep doing it,” he said.
“If somebody feels terrible when they aren’t on the drug, they fear they will feel like that all the time when they don’t take the drug.
“Basically they can’t imagine life without it.
“Ice is like rocket fuel.”
Mr Wearne said people felt in control when they started using ice but they quickly found themselves in a dark hole unable to dominate the drug.
The drug worker had seen people have psychotic episodes and said people heard voices, were insecure and suffered severe anxiety.
“All those feelings of safety and security are compromised,” he said.
Mr Wearne said there was a danger in so many people needing help when there weren’t the resources available.
“We’ve never been busier as a treatment service and every year we get busier,” he said.
“If the government is serious about providing more money for resources then that’s the most important thing because the earlier people can get help the better the outcomes will be.
“We’ve got up to 60 people waiting to get into withdrawal beds and we are booked up two to three months ahead.
“People who want treatment and can’t get in risk losing their motivation to change, you need to strike while the iron is hot.”