I’ve been to a few funerals for officers killed in the line of duty. Many of these officers were killed by suspects or in traffic accidents, or even suffered heart attacks while trying to control a resisting offender. But I’ve attended two times as many funerals or memorials for officers who have killed themselves.
This is not an easy subject to talk about. In law enforcement it is the “elephant in the room” that no one wants to acknowledge or speak about. Instead, the collective attitude seems to be, “Don’t look. If we avert our eyes and don’t do anything to admit it exists and is a real problem, maybe it will just go away.”Like anything positive ever happens when you just pretend there’s not a problem and don’t take steps to deal with it. Even worse are those administrators who deny there is a problem at all, and refer to officers who have killed themselves as “weak.” Some administrators have no policies or programs such as stress reduction, wellness or counseling available to mitigate officer self-inflicted deaths.
Item: An officer commits suicide in the parking lot behind police headquarters.
Item: A police chief writes an email stating, “These suicides were about personal choices, selfishness and weakness,” after three of his officers commit suicide in two years.
Item: A police officer battling depression shoots himself at the scene of a car burglary in front of his partner and the car’s owner.
Item: Two officers from the same agency commit suicide within two months. Over the past five years this agency has had four officers take their own lives.
Item: A lieutenant who was publicly excoriated after a use of force incident involving a mentally ill subject who died from a fall after he was Tasered commits suicide. The lieutenant had his badge and gun taken away and was removed from his assignment.
Item: Less than two weeks after a recently retired officer commits suicide, the retired officer who wrote his obituary takes his own life as well.
Having survived violent encounters on the streets, only to die at your own hand, is truly a sad statement.
We've all heard that more police officers die by their own hand than are killed in the line of duty. According to the The Badge of Life website, “More cops commit suicide than are killed by felons. In 2011, there were 147 police suicides and 164 line of duty death, 65 of which were by gunfire.”
As reported in “A Study of Police Suicide from 2008 to 2012”:
2008 police suicides: 141
2009 police suicides: 143
2012 police suicides: 126
2012 Average age: 42 years
Average years on the job: 16
Gender: 91 percent male
63 percent of suicide victims were single
The website and study does a lot to debunk many of the myths of the causes of police suicide—alcoholism, divorce—as unsupported by available data.
Police suicide researcher Dr. John Violanti is quoted on retiree suicide numbers as saying, “Police officers continue to experience the ‘residual’ of trauma after separating from police service.”
What's the real culprit?
Alcohol abuse, readily available guns, stress about the “administration,” lack of support...the list goes on, but many factors like alcohol abuse may be symptoms of larger issues. According to The Badge of Life, the deeper problem may be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In “Stress and Health in Law Enforcement” a study of officers from the Buffalo, New York Police Department, published by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) by Baughman, Hartley, Burchfiel and Violanti, the authors list a variety of reasons why members of this profession may be at greater risk for suicide, including: “The prevalence of depressive symptoms was nearly double that of the general population,” “officers had up to six times the poor sleep quality of the lowest stressed officers,” “increase in certain types of cancer,” “reduction in brachial artery flow," and more.