Police suicide

Steps that can save an officer's life


     "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."

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