Police suicide

     "I walked into the district house one morning. It was real quiet in there, which was odd because you had 70 or 80 officers there. I walked up to my partner and asked what was going on. He said 'Jimmie checked out last night.' I asked, 'What do you mean?' 'He blew his brains out,' my partner said."

     "I was never suicidal in a typical fashion. I never had any gun play and didn't want to slit my wrists. I developed health problems and there were times I would lay in bed for days on end hoping I'd pass in my sleep. That was my suicide."

     "Slick was a good solid guy. He was very loyal; loyal to the department and loyal to me."

     The stories of suicide among police ranks are as varied as the officers themselves, but they all have one thing in common: police work and the stressors that brings.

     According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31,600 Americans committed suicide in 2004. The National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation estimates 447 of these were police officers. And the numbers have increased. The foundation currently projects an officer kills him or herself every 17 hours. Unfortunately, an accurate number is hard to gather due to many factors, including researchers disagreeing over methodology and police agencies listing cause of death as accidental.

     "We've decided we don't need to come up with a number, but say, one is too many and we do have one," says Dr. Audrey Honig, chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) police psychology service sector. "And as long as we have any, we have too many, and we have to address the issues and reduce the rate."

The stigma of suicide
     In the general population, a stigma surrounds suicide. This stigma can be exaggerated when the victim is a police officer. "A lot of times, other officers think that officer was weak or had a psychological problem," states Dr. Thomas Gillan of the Central Florida Police Stress Unit (CFPSU) Inc. Allen Kates, author of "CopShock: Surviving Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)," supports this, "It is very common for the other police officers, especially the partners, to try and find fault with the officers who killed themselves. This is a natural reaction because if they can't find fault, it could happen to anyone." The stigma surrounding suicide often seeps into the department's response to the family of the deceased.

     Teresa Tate had been married for two years when her husband graduated the police academy. Six years later, he was dead by his own hand. Her husband's colleagues were told not to contact her and barred from showing solidarity at his funeral. "The chief of police called me the day before the memorial service requesting permission to wear his dress blues, which I thought was strange," Tate states. "Then he alluded to the fact word had gone out that they were not allowed to wear their uniforms. This directive came from his captain."

     Dealing with grief over the loss of her husband, Tate found no solace in his police family - no one contacted her. Then, around the first anniversary of her husband's death, a former coworker came to her house with a donation and a card. "They wanted to let me know they were thinking of me, but a whole year had passed without contact," Tate says.

     Since his death, Tate founded the support group Survivors of Law Enforcement Suicide (SOLES) and is active in Tears of a Cop (TOAC), which was started by Cheryl Rehl-Hahn, the sister of an officer who committed suicide.

Blue wall of silence
     Although many law enforcement professionals insist the blue wall of silence is not prevalent, or deny it exists, this term suits most officers' feelings about seeking mental health services. "In the old school, you don't give an officer up," states Renee Meador, who retired after 28 years as a Virginia police officer and is now the law enforcement in-service training supervisor at the Central Shenandoah Criminal Justice Training Academy. "You see someone who needs help and in your heart you know he is not OK. But, we are trained not to push it further. The blue wall of silence has allowed officers to spiral down."

     "There is a lot of peer pressure to keep your mouth shut, in departments, amongst officers, even with partners," adds Kates. "If a police officer is out with his partner and he is revealing all his feelings about his stress, his partner is going to wonder what will happen if they get into a really bad situation. He might ask himself, 'Will he save my life?'"

The psychologist is paid by the department
     Even if an officer acknowledges he or she needs to seek professional help, the choices might prevent him from actually making that appointment.

     Numerous departments offer an Employment Assistance Program (EAP), which allows officers to see a mental health practitioner for any personal problem. Although these can be good services, most officers are wary of sharing emotional information with anyone affiliated with the department. "They have a lack of trust," states Robert Douglas Jr., executive director of the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation and a retired Baltimore, Maryland, police officer. "If they thought they could talk to someone who wouldn't go to the agency and risk being placed on admin duty, they would talk to you. They are scared what they say will leak out because management owns EAP."

     Marshall Frank retired as a captain after 30 years of service with the Miami-Dade (Florida) Police Department. He recalls that he sought professional help privately and paid for it privately when he needed some additional help. "I couldn't afford for my department hierarchy to think they had a nut job," he explains. "My bosses would have thought, 'we can't have Marshall in this job if he's seeing a shrink.' I couldn't let my employees think they were working for a crazy. When you are seeking help, people think you're crazy. This is still prevalent today."

Police work creates stress-related problems
     Several factors in police work create stress and many of the common coping mechanisms officers use intensify the problem. "Officers have been trained to make order out of disorder. They have been trained to take control of situations," says Dr. Lorraine Greene, manager of the behavioral health service division of Tennessee's Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, "If they hesitate, they put themselves or others in danger. They feel whatever their emotion is they have to put them on the back burner. The public expects that."

     Many elements of law enforcement contribute to stress reactions, including shift work, pending retirement, negative public perceptions, unsupportive management and physical ailments. When these are compounded or aggravated by personal problems, such as relationship, financial and substance abuse, police officers find themselves under immense amounts of stress.

     "Sixteen years ago, we started to train robo-cop. We messed up by telling them you can't be human," states Meador. "Officers began to deal with emotion like a junk drawer. You put things in that junk drawer as it happens. In a perfect world, you should be going through the junk drawer and tossing things but we keep stuffing that drawer until it busts the hinges." If an officer does not deal with stress in a healthy manner, depression, burn-out and suicide could be the result.

Critical incidents
     Any look at police work-related stress would be incomplete without addressing critical incidents. "Police departments need to become more aware and learn about certain mental disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," Tate explains, "When there is a critical incident; they need to have peer support and psychological counseling. You have to have the appropriate professionals helping the officers cope with what they witnessed and what they had to do in the performance of their jobs."

     Don Vine, a 24-year police veteran, was involved in two officer-involved shootings within one month. In the aftermath, he found himself fighting with himself internally and externally with his police agency. "PTSD affects your family and your friends. It can be devastating especially if you don't know what it is. You're frustrated with your family, friends and doctor. No one wants to help you," Vine explains, "Why do police officers commit suicide? Because their department didn't recognize it. The officer is left alone with no way out." It was only through seeking help privately and making several lifestyle changes that Vine began to heal.

Socialization and access to firearms
     "Ninety-seven percent (of officers' suicides) use their own service weapon," Douglas says. Officers have a special relationship with their gun. It is a source of control, of confidence and of comfort. In the academy, officers are taught to shoot with accuracy, how to clean their firearm, and tactics for maintaining control of it in a fight.

     Although some critics argue the high rate of using a gun in a police-involved suicide is due to accessibility, others disagree. "I don't know if it's as much accessibility, as it is familiarity," Meador says. "It's an old friend." Douglas agrees, "The weapon has a significance. It has an identity. It picks up the personality of a best friend. It becomes 'someone' who is trustworthy, reliable and 'someone' with a solution."

Intervention and prevention
     Most officers who commit suicide are not mentally ill or weak. Many have failed to cope effectively with their stress. Often afflicted with professional and personal troubles, an officer often feels trapped and out of control. When they see no way out, suicide is often the result. "Officers are trained to deal with people who are suicidal and to talk them down from shooting themselves or taking pills," Kates says of the irony, "They don't apply it to themselves. When they are in tremendous pain at the time of suicide, they don't use the skills." It is up to those around them to notice if an officer appears to be struggling and take action.

Peer support
     Departments around the country have taken action by implementing peer support units (PSUs). When the Metropolitan Nashville PD began its PSU in the late 1990's, officials didn't pick just anyone to be part of the unit. Instead they asked department personnel to submit the names of individuals they thought would be good support people. "They nominated people they felt confident and comfortable with," Greene says. After interviews assessing levels of commitment, each had to commit to initial and follow-up training. Eventually, Nashville's PSU expanded to support smaller departments.

     Meador states PSU's offer things traditional departmental mental health programs cannot. "There is a confidentiality that is born from within that peer group," she states, "It is a peer who has been through the same experiences you have. When they say they know how you feel. They do know how you feel."

Acknowledging the problem
     Along with implementing PSU's, agency management must be willing to acknowledge the problem of police suicide and support changes. "We need leadership willing to take responsibility for the rank and file not transfer the responsibility nor deny the responsibility," Douglas says, "We need leadership who are not just willing to steer the ship, but to chart the course."

     Gillan agrees support must come from the top. "The chief or sheriff has to say it's alright to talk about it and ask for help," he says. "He has to be the one to be at the academy talking to recruits and saying we feel good about this. We have people you can talk to and feel comfortable with. Then the officer will remember the chief, and say, 'Yep, I can talk to someone about it.'"

     Another important aspect in the fight against police suicide is training. Officers require all the information they need to fight stress. "When we train at the trainer academy, I try to stress that they might have trauma symptoms," Greene states. "Whatever mechanism they have used to try and overcome is overwhelmed."

     Greene notes the major educational piece is spending time teaching police about mental health in general. "We need to get the word out about how to respond and support each other," she says.

     Honig suggests supervisors be trained to identify and respond to officers in need. Families also need to be included in department suicide prevention, adds Gillan. "Family is the No. 1 support," he stresses. Meador agrees that anyone of importance in an officer's life must have an understanding of what an officer deals with on a daily basis and know how to get them to open up.

     However the training is constructed, the main thing is that officers need to feel comfortable talking to someone, somewhere, if they need to. Also, officers must be trained to recognize symptoms of stress and indicators of suicide. "If you see someone struggling," Gillan says, "reach out to that person. And if you don't have the skills or tools, find people to help that person."

     Fellow officers must be willing to get involved, Kates emphasizes. He says officers can take a number of approaches in this effort. They might take the onus off themselves and relate an instance where they were having problems and talked to their priest, therapist or wife. Or they might say, "I noticed you're not quite on your game and what you went through was pretty big. Do you want to talk?," he says.

     Like most problems, a little communication goes a long way. Supervisors, coworkers and family members must be trained and willing to talk. Supervisors must be encouraged to deal with solvable stress-related problems at an administrative level. Resources should be offered and followed up on, but unless an officer commits an act contrary to his oath, disciplinary action should be avoided. This is especially important if a department wants to quell officers' fears of seeking help and losing their job.

     Even though quantification of police suicide has divided many professionals, they all have one thing in common: saving lives. "We are killing ourselves faster than the bad guys are," Meador says, "It's such a tragedy. Just open your eyes and heart for just a minute."

     The IACP is putting together a clearinghouse of best practices for prevention and intervention. "A lot of agencies around the country have terrific programs and everyone is kind of reinventing their own wheel," Honig states. "We need to refine it and make the information available to all agencies."

     Many police suicides can be prevented with awareness and access to accurate information and support services. Unfortunately, as Gillan points out, "Until we can talk about this in an open form, sit down and talk about what is going on in our family, we won't be able to resolve any issues." If breaking through stigma and old ways of perception can save the life of just one of our brothers or sisters, it is worth the effort.

Additional written resources
     "Death with no Valor" by Robert Douglas

     "Police Suicide: Tactics for Prevention 2003" by Dell Hackett and John Violanti

     "CopShock: Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)" by Allen R. Kates

     "Police Suicide: Epidemic in Blue," 2nd Edition, by John Violanti
-All books listed are available online at www.amazon.com.

Additional online resources
     Central Florida Police Stress Unit

     International Critical Incident Stress Foundation

     Love a Cop

     National P.O.L.I.C.E Suicide Foundation

     Police Families.com

     Police Wives.Org

     Tears of a Cop

     The Heavy Badge

Warning signs of suicide
     The following are some signs of suicidal intentions from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

  • Threatening to hurt or kill oneself or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself.
  • Looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, pills or other means.
  • Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person.
  • Feeling hopeless.
  • Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge.
  • Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities - seemingly without thinking.
  • Feeling trapped - like there's no way out.
  • Increasing alcohol or drug use.
  • Withdrawing from friends, family, and society.
  • Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep or sleeping all the time.
  • Experiencing dramatic mood changes.
  • Seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life.

- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

     Michelle Perin is a freelance writer who worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (Arizona) Police Department for eight years. Currently, she is working on her M.A. in Criminology from Indiana State University. For more information visit www.thewritinghand.net.