Chaplain's Column: The Dark Epidemic of Law Enforcement Suicide

Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
--Proverbs 24:11 (New International Version of the Bible)

A group of twelve powerful knights lived during the 8th century. They were called the "Twelve Paladins of Charlemagne." One was so famous they wrote a song about him. It was called the "Song of Roland." It paints a picture of bravery and loyalty. Roland gave his life in the line of duty, holding back enemy forces to allow Charlemagne time to retaliate.

During the 9th century lived another group of brave warriors. Their skill in horsemanship quickly won the heart of the king. Each was given ornate and powerful armor, a shield with the crest of the king to protect their heart, and a sword to enforce the laws of the land. This was the age of knights as we know them, in shining armor riding noble steeds.

By the 11th century, knights took an oath of honor and to uphold the Code of Chivalry. They swore to protect the weak, to champion everywhere the cause of "Right and the Good," to always be honest and brave, and to serve God and king.

Today's law enforcement officers are of the same brave and noble breed as the Paladin Knights of old. They swear an oath of office to serve and protect. They are given a new uniform, and a shield over their heart with their department's crest. The sword has been replaced by a gun, and the "noble steed" is now a car or motorcycle.

The heart of a noble knight beats in the chest of every man or woman who becomes an officer. Unfortunately, too many of these brave men and women end up in a situation where they think they cannot go on. They turn to the "dark side" and take their own lives. There are many reasons for this, and the excuses are varied. The bottom line is they are enduring pain that they feel is intolerable, and death becomes a reasonable alternative to living with the pain. This pain can be real, or imagined. It can be physical, but it is more often emotional.

Statistics show over 1000 officers died by their own hand in the last three years. This number may be much higher, as these are the ones reported as suicides, and not "accidental discharge of a firearm," etc. Some experts believe the real number of suicides among officers is actually two to four times higher than actually reported. One survey said 300 to 350 people per 100,000 in the general population complete a suicide. The same report said 2,600 officers out of 100,000 will take their own lives. This is not a new problem. Reportedly, 94 officers of th New York City Police Department committed suicide in 1934.

Many departments have tried to address the issue of officer suicides. They set up EAP programs, bring in psychologists, and/or task the administration to deal with it. These all have their merits, but most officers will never trust them. They fear they may be put on administrative leave or "rubber gun" duty. No matter how irrational or misplaced these feelings are, they are still prevalent. The chaplain can often be the person to fill the gap. Chaplains can invoke confidentiality. They are there from a sense of calling, and because they care about cops. They don't report confidential information to the administration. Officers tend to trust their chaplains.

An officer contemplating suicide comes to the point where the pain of hopelessness is overwhelming. There usually has been a significant change in their lives, such as retirement, divorce, or the loss of a loved one. They don't know who they can trust with their feelings, so they end up on their knees, eating their own gun.

There are some signs to be aware of. First if they have recently broken up with their significant other, are going through a divorce, lost a close loved one, or have had some other significant loss, they are at increased risk. Other things to watch for include:

  1. A drop in performance in response time or rate, or a sudden increase in negative contact reports from the public
  2. Not wanting to talk to or be with friends
  3. Not wanting to participate in their normal activities
  4. Increased alcohol consumption, or drug abuse
  5. Verbal clues such as, "I'm just going to end it all." Or "I won't be around much longer."
  6. Finally, if they have gone through a period of depression and suddenly seem to just get better, a decision has been made.

I challenge every officer reading this article to ask a question and save a life. You have no difficulty questioning a suspect until you get to the truth. Yet, when we see our fellow brothers and sisters in blue obviously hurting, we ignore them. Or if we do ask, we immediately shrug it off when they say "I'm fine." If you suspect a person is suicidal, ask them if they are thinking about ending it all, or thinking about suicide. Don't ask if they want to hurt themselves. A suicidal person is not thinking about hurting themselves, they are thinking about how to make the pain go away.

If they have been thinking about suicide, don't judge. Be a friend and encourage them to talk about why. Just the fact that someone cares enough to ask the question, and is then ready to truly listen can be a huge step in the right direction. If they are suicidal, get them help. Don't leave it up to them to self-refer. Sometimes the greatest threat to an officer is themselves.

You've taken up a noble profession. Just like the Paladin Knights, it has a long history of heroism and bravery. It takes courage to ask difficult questions of our peers. When we do, we may very well be holding back those "staggering toward slaughter."