A week has passed since the airing of Four Corners expose on children’s detention in the Northern Territory.  The programme showed a range of confronting images, of which the one above was an example.

In coverage of the issue we are starting to see the sense of outrage which people understandably  felt give way to reflection.  What were potential causes and what could we do to ensure that this will not happen again?

Let’s look at the role of an authorised officer.  Typically authorised officers are expected to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all concerned – inmates, staff, the general public.  They are also expected to ensure that the law, and the policies of the institution, assuming that they are lawful, are upheld.

As a psychologist one of the things I noticed was that the actions of the officers often seemed to be driven by personal anger and aggression.

We saw a child physically lifted off the floor by the neck by an officer and then thrown across a cell onto a mattress.  We heard officers saying things like, “I’ll pulverise the little ****er.” Another officer was heard to say “I don’t care how much chemical (teargas) you use,” on the children in custody.   The amazing thing is that the officers were clearly aware that these actions were being recorded, so they must have believed that they were perfectly appropriate.

In response to concerns raised the authorities have said that the officers were not properly trained, and I have no doubt that good training is extremely beneficial in ensuring appropriate behaviours, but it is nowhere near enough.

Four Corners asserted that a number of the staff involved were recruited with a background in combat sports such as cage fighting.  I’m sure that there are people with such a background who might be perfect for authorised officer roles, but there may well be a risk that people who are attracted to such sports are intrinsically aggressive.  Here are some things you should bear in mind to avoid these kinds of dangerous behaviours in role where safe behaviours are crucial:

  • Trait anger. Is the person I am considering for the job a naturally angry person? This characteristic is easily measured and is an excellent indicator of the likelihood of bullying, violent or aggressive behaviour.  I have no doubt that the behaviours of the children in custody can be very challenging, which is why it is very important to recruit officers who are unusually slow to anger.
  • Self control. Is the person able to self regulate – manage their own emotions?  This has also been shown to be a key to the avoidance of inappropriate behaviours. Once more easily measured by the personality characteristic of “prudence” – a lack of impulsiveness.
  • Concern for others. A key characteristic of the extraversion dimension of personality is “sociability”. This is the degree to which a person likes people and therefore tends to care about them.  In our research we have found that people low in this characteristic tend to be much more likely to bully colleagues. This is also an indicator of psychopathy.  Psychopaths are very often low in this characteristic.

SACS undertakes psychological assessment for many clients seeking to avoid negative behaviours in potential hires.

Andrew Marty
Managing Director

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Andrew Marty