I’ve been to a few funerals for officers killed in the line of duty. Whether killed by suspects or in traffic accidents, even 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” which no one wants to acknowledge or speak about. “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, refer to officers as “weak” who have killed themselves, and have no policies or programs such as stress reduction, wellness or counseling available to mitigate officer self-inflicted deaths.
Item: Recently an officer committed 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 committed 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 Lt. 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 have all heard that more police officer die by their own hand than are killed in the line of duty. That number is incorrect. According to the The Badge of Life website, www.badgeoflife.com “More cops commit suicide than are killed by felons. In 2011, there were 147 police suicides and 164 line of duty death, of which 65 were by gunfire.”
As reported in “A Study of Police Suicide from 2008 – 2012,” www.policesuicidestudy.com:
- 2008 police suicides: 141
- 2009 police suicides: 143
- 2012 police suicides: 126
- Average age, 2012: 42 years
- Average years on the job: 16
- Gender: Male 91%
- 63% of the 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, “police officers continue to experience the ‘residual’ of trauma after separating from police service.”
The Real Culprit?
Abuse of alcohol, availability of guns, stress about the “administration”, lack of support, the list goes on but many factors such as alcohol abuse may be symptoms or as a result of larger issues. According to The Badge of Life, the deeper problem may be PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, “Research remains to be done, although in 2012 three departments finally acknowledge that their police suicides were directly attributable to job stress or trauma.”
In “Stress and Health in Law Enforcement” a study of officers from the Buffalo, NY police department which was published by the CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by Baughman, Hartley, Burchfiel and Violanti (CDC, NIOSH Science Blog, August, 2012). The authors list a variety of results 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.