Harassment and PTSD drove a former Wollongong police officer out of her career

Sandra Mullaly is cheerful in her police photo but her time in the force was anything but.
Sandra Mullaly is cheerful in her police photo but her time in the force was anything but.

It was tough enough coping with the demands of being a police officer in Wollongong in the 1990s without also having to deal with sexual harassment and bullying by those who were supposed to be by her side, actions that Sandra Mullaly says made her contemplate suicide. CYDONEE MARDON tells her story.

When Sandra Mullaly joined the police force she had her heart set on working with the dog squad but her ambitions were muzzled almost instantly.

‘‘The sergeant in charge told me that wasn’t going to happen, I can still hear him ringing in my ears all these years later,’’ she said.

‘‘There will never be any bitches in my kennels, two legged or four legged; that’s what he told me.’’

It was the first of many harsh realities for the female officer who joined the NSW Police Force at the age of 28 to ‘‘help save the world’’.

‘‘I fought for my life, my partner’s life but instead of coming back as a hero I was stonewalled, no-one would work with me. I sort of lost it after that.''

In the ’90s women had to work twice as hard as men, be twice as smart and run twice as fast to be considered half the cop a man was.

But what really shattered Ms Mullaly was the treatment she received after coming forward with claims of sexual harassment.

Speaking up against a male superior divided Wollongong police station and left her feeling isolated – and alone when her life was on the line.

‘‘I was the victim [in a] massive sexual harassment claim and that’s what punch-started the whole thing,’’ Ms Mullaly, now 53, said.

‘‘The guy got sent to Sydney, there was a massive internal affairs inquiry, it broke the station up.’’

Sandra Mullaly tends to a child during her time as a member of the Wollongong police force.

Sandra Mullaly tends to a child during her time as a member of the Wollongong police force.

Ms Mullaly was transferred to the transit branch.

‘‘They didn’t want me there, they would do things like leave me on a train with no radio, desert me when I was in the middle of an arrest. They would set me up time and time again, change the rosters so I was turning up late for shifts. Eventually the sergeant got wise to it all.’’

In 1994 the isolation reached dangerous heights when a drug-crazed man attacked Ms Mullaly and her partner on a Wollongong-bound train.

‘‘My partner asked him for a ticket and he got crazy. The radio didn’t work that well so he lent out the door to get a better signal to call for help. The offender pounced on him.

‘‘They’re both hanging off the train, my partner holding on by one foot, his fingers ... I dragged them back in and next thing I knew this offender is throwing windmill punches and my partner is copping lots of heavy hits.

‘‘I was racing up and down his back like a squirrel up a tree, poking him in the eye, punching, he had no idea I was on him, I held the gun on his back but no reaction, he was just crazy.

‘‘I pulled my baton out, hit him between elbows, his fingertips, the techniques we were taught and still nothing happened.

‘‘He had no idea. I broke his leg under his knee, it didn’t slow him down.

‘‘The train driver came to help, so we’re all hanging on to the baton, and he fought the three of us off and took it off us. He smacked me over the head with it, beat me with it. We managed to get him down, the train driver got the emergency brake on and we got to Wollongong station.’’

Sandra Mullaly, with  Jedi, now deals with dogs, rather than humans. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

Sandra Mullaly, with Jedi, now deals with dogs, rather than humans. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

Ms Mullaly has undergone five operations to reconstruct her face and jaw and doctors say she requires further surgery.

Four months after the train assault, Ms Mullaly was at breaking point. She was back at Wollongong station where she was considered a dobber in a culture where ‘‘big girls’ blouses’’ were not welcome.

‘‘I truly believed that when I got back after time off with my injuries I’d get a medal. I still get offended now,’’ she said.

‘‘I fought for my life, my partner’s life but instead of coming back as a hero I was stonewalled, no-one would work with me,’’ the mother of two recalls.

‘‘I sort of lost it after that.

‘‘I decided that I would kill myself. I went upstairs to my locker, got my gun out, put it to my head, then I started thinking about my kids. That’s the only reason I didn’t do it.

‘‘So I put my gun away, locked it up, then I went into the scientific department where all the dead people pictures are all over the walls, the house of horrors.

‘‘The next thing I remember I was found under the desk, curled up in a foetal position, just crying. I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing.’’

Ms Mullaly spent the next two years under the blankets at home ‘‘looking after my kids as a single parent’’.

‘‘That can be translated to my children looked after me. I couldn’t function, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t do anything.’’

Ms Mullaly was medically retired in 1997.

She received $5000 compensation. She didn’t have the energy or the mental stability to fight for anything more.

‘‘I joined in 1989 a couple months after the new insurance system started. I was hounded and harassed and spied on and interrogated by the insurance companies trying to prove I didn’t have stress or injuries.

‘‘They sent me to quite a few psychiatrists ... I missed a lot of appointments, I couldn’t drive, couldn’t function, just existed.

‘‘Then I couldn’t fight for myself or advocate because I didn’t have the strength.’’

Ms Mullaly said the hardest part to accept was the lack of support from the organisation she had once been so proud to join and the ‘‘appalling culture’’ it was breeding.

‘‘I actually did work with some really good guys, some really supportive guys but some of them were ostracised for supporting me, some were helping me in secret,’’ she said.

Today things must be better, she surmised, considering the increase in the number of females in the job, but the culture was still worrying.

‘‘There needs to be a better welfare system, better support, someone you can actually go to to report what a boss is doing to you, or someone that’s not your boss,’’ she said.

‘‘You would never ever say you’re not okay. If you show any sign of compassion you’re weak.

‘‘It’s not okay to feel anything, but how do you go to a cot death, where you take a baby out of the arms of the mother who is convinced her baby is still alive,  how can you not feel that?

‘‘If guys show anything it’s even worse.’’

Ms Mullaly has called on the police force to encourage team building for officers that doesn’t involve drinking beers together at the pub after a shift.

‘‘I was a single mum who couldn’t wait to get home to my children after a week of night shift. I didn’t drink. That certainly doesn’t help you fit in.’’

Today Ms Mullaly, who can’t watch the news or anything involving police, has found another way to help people - and be around dogs.

Her Naughty Dog School helps dog owners cope with troublesome pets.

‘‘I did a lot of work on myself to get out of my hole,’’ she said. ‘‘I couldn’t go to train stations, see police in uniform, I was a recluse for two years. But I worked on myself to get better.

‘‘I understand how dogs feel, how to desensitise yourself to fear and anxiety because it’s something I have had to do for myself.

‘‘When you are paralysed with fear you can’t do what someone tells you to do, doesn’t matter how logical it is.

‘‘I understand what animals are going through and I can explain it to their owners in a way they understand. 

‘‘So I guess I’ve come full circle, joining the police and wanting to help people, getting into the dog industry.

‘‘Now I’m looking forward to the future, despite the panic attacks and the days where I feel like I’m going a little bit backwards.’’

For help and counselling: Lifeline 131114; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 65946 

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Editor's note: PTSD in the police and other emergency services is an important issue that we believe merits debate in the community. While we encourage passionate and robust argument, we must ask respondents to stay on point. Comments that fail to do so, or which degenerate into personal abuse, may be edited or not published.