The Badge of Life (BOL) just released their initial report on law enforcement suicides over the past year. The good news is that the police suicide rate dropped in 2012 when compared to 2009 (the last time a study was completed). The bad news is it didn’t drop enough. 126 law enforcement officers committed suicide last year. Additionally, in 2012, 129 officers “died in the line on duty”. This is sad folks. Way too many officers are dying. And even worse, cops are killing themselves at the same rate as they do in the line of duty.
This national study of police suicides (NSOPS) has only completed two other studies related to police suicide, those were in 2008 and 2009. There were 141 suicides and 143 suicides respectively. So yes, compared, to 3 years ago there has been a 12% drop in the suicide rate. Whereas, the “in the line of duty” deaths dropped 22% in 2012 compared to 2011. I don’t know how many of the in line of duty deaths could have been deemed preventable. I do know that every single death by suicide by was preventable. The average age of the suicidal officers was 42 years, the average years on the job was 16.
Suicides can happen in any profession, but they occur 1.5 times more frequently in law enforcement compared to the general population. LEOs kill themselves at a rate of 18/100,000 vs. 12/100,000 of the rest of the US. Quite truthfully, the actual rate is probably higher as law enforcement suicides are more likely to be underreported or misclassified as accidental deaths. This misclassification usually occurs to protect the family, other survivors, or the agency from the stigma of suicide.
It will take us several months for the Badge of Life to evaluate all of their data and case profiles. But so far they are crediting the decreased suicide rate to an increase in the number of departments adopting peer support programs and the increased willingness of officers to seek professional assistance as needed.
A tragic example of a high profile enforcement officer suicide this year was the case of NYPD’s Sgt. Stephanie Moses. Moses represented the NYPD at numerous public events, including President Barack Obama last year at a Ground Zero ceremony. She was 40 years old, had been on the force for 18 years, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on December 12, 2012 after an argument with her significant other.
Factors Contributing to Police Suicides
Constant exposure to human suffering: death, destruction, disaster, ghastly accidents, and unspeakable crimes can take its toll on any officer. It is estimated that there are 125,000 US police officers who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For each and every police suicide (126 per year), almost 1,000 officers continue to work while suffering through the painful symptoms of PTSD. Obviously, PTSD is not the cause of suicide. Untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide. The CDC reports that one in ten Americans suffer with depression. Other suicide risk factors include:
- Relationship difficulties (also consistent with general population suicide research)
- Shift work
- Alcohol or other substance abuse (steroids or pain pills)
- Personal legal troubles
- Facing prosecution
- Negative public image
- Financial problems
- Physical pain/illness
- Inconsistencies in the criminal justice system
- Unrealistic expectations of self or by others
- Instant access to highly effective means of suicide (96+% use firearms)
Additionally, officers frequently become desensitized to violence. The thought of dying by gunshot is not shocking and strange; it is familiar and known.
What Can Departments Do?
- Endorse and develop superior peer support programs. Provide ongoing training to your support team.
- Remove the stigma that accompanies seeking help for mental health problems. Reiterate the fact that addressing issues takes strength and is not a sign of weakness.
- Provide officers with training on effective and healthy self care and coping strategies.
- Suicide is not a popular topic, and it may be difficult to talk about it, but command must raise awareness about the risk factors for LEO suicides so officers will recognize the symptoms in themselves or their partners.
- Have resources available: peer support personnel, mental health professionals, employee assistance programs, law enforcement related suicide and substance help lines, and chaplains
- Develop and a course of action for command to follow-up on a completed LEO suicide. How your agency handles the death of a completed LEO suicide will determine whether or not the next suicidal officer seeks assistance.
- Develop a course of action for chiefs following a completed LEO suicide, including recommended funeral practices. How an agency handles the death of a completed LEO suicide will set the tone that may well make the difference in whether or not the next suicidal officer seeks assistance.
What Can You Do If You Suspect an Officer is Suicidal?
I have never heard of an officer in briefing saying, “Hey Sarge, I feel like offing myself tonight. You might want to plan the shift accordingly.” If you have even inkling that a fellow officer is suicidal, ask yourself, is the person…
- Talking about suicide?
- Making statements related to hopelessness or helplessness?
- Does he/she have a preoccupation with death?
- Showing a loss of interest in things he/she once cared about?
- Making detailed arrangements related to insurance and finances?
- Giving away valued or prized possessions?
Notice what is going on in his/her life.
- Is he/she recently separated or divorced, did he/she lose custody of a child?
- Has he/she been involved in a critical incident or under scrutiny by an internal affairs investigation?
- Is the officer pulling away from others, is his/her job performance suffering?
- Is he/she having increased medical complaints?
- Does he/she leave work or miss work frequently?
- Do you suspect he/she is abusing alcohol, prescription pain killers, steroids, etc?
- Do you see any other red flags?
- Have you simply just wondered if they were thinking about it?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is time to get involved. Ask the officer what is going on in his or her life. Ask if they are okay and how they are handling a current stressor. Ask them if they feel depressed, and ask them about suicidal thoughts. Help them find and receive professional help if it is needed. If they won't seek help on their own go to a trusted supervisor with your concerns. Yes, this is one situation where you may have to break the blue code of silence. You can always talk to someone: the chaplain, your union rep, the department’s psychologist. Respond as you would to any “officer down” call.” Do something, and do it now, to prevent the loss of an officer by his or her own hands.
What If You are Considering Suicide?
The last thing that most people expect is that they will run out of reasons to live. But if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, you need to know that you're not alone. By some estimates, as many as one in six people will become seriously suicidal at some point in their lives. Fortunately, most people do not act on their suicidal thoughts - crises pass and problems are solved. But sometimes thoughts lead to self-harm.
Suicidal thinking is usually associated with problems that can be treated. Clinical depression, anxiety disorders, chemical dependency and other disorders produce profound emotional distress. They also interfere with effective problem-solving. But you need to know that new treatments are available; and studies show that the vast majority of people who receive appropriate treatment improve or recover completely. Even if you have received treatment before, you should know that different treatments work better for different people in different situations. Several tries are sometimes necessary before the right combination is found.
If you are unable to think of solutions other than suicide, it is not that solutions don't exist, only that you are currently unable to see them. Therapists and counselors (and sometimes friends) can help you to see solutions that otherwise are not apparent to you. Suicidal crises are almost always temporary. Although it might seem as if your unhappiness will never end, it is important to realize that crises are usually time-limited. Solutions are found, feelings change, unexpected positive events occur.
Reasons for living can help sustain a person in pain. A famous psychologist once conducted a study of Nazi concentration camp survivors, and found that those who survived almost always reported strong beliefs about what was important in life. You, too, might be able to strengthen your connection with life if you consider what has sustained you through hard times in the past. Family ties, religion, love of art or nature, and dreams for the future are just a few of the many aspects of life that provide meaning and gratification, but which we can lose sight of due to emotional distress.
Do not keep suicidal thoughts to yourself! Help is available for you through any number of resources. Find someone you trust and let them know how bad things are. This can be your first step on the road to healing.
Suicides are now America's leading cause of death by injury. Suicide is also the most preventable cause of death.
This article is dedicated in loving memory of the fine men and women, who had dedicated themselves to helping others and saving lives, yet tragically took their own. In the end, it is not about how you died, but how you lived that matters.