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The Sad Incidence of Police Suicide

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.

The numbers

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.

We accept that stress is an integral part of the J.O.B. “Stresses in police work occur because of the nature of the work experience itself. Further, stress is a function of police organizations, and the traditional subculture and “politics” of every police department, everywhere,” says Dr. James T. Reese, CEO of the National Center of Crisis Management.

Likewise, my friend and police chaplain Bob Denton believes that, “Stresses within the department account for about 93 percent" of police suicides, versus stress from the street which accounts for about 7 percent of deaths.

Stress is different than trauma. Trauma and developed PTSD can happen after just one call. Maybe it's an officer involved shooting, murder scene, traffic fatality, death of an infant or toddler. The officer may also accumulate trauma/PTSD over a number of years (called “residual trauma”) which may be a continued experienced, even after retiring, according to Dr. Violanti.

Getting Help

“Pain shared is pain divided. Joy shared is joy multiplied.” —Author unknown

Police officers like to think they are big tough guys and gals who “can take it,” whatever “it” is in that equation. However beneath all that blue polyester is just a man or woman subject to the same frailties as any other. Consider for a moment that a common statement after an officer’s suicide is “We didn’t know he was having problems,” or reference to the fact the officer, “slipped under the radar.” Flying under the radar, hiding your problems, trying to dull feelings of loneliness, anger, sadness, depression—particularly with alcohol—just makes things worse.

The toughest part of reducing these deaths is getting officers the help they desperately need. One interesting strategy recommended by the folks at Badge of Life is a yearly mental wellness check with a qualified therapist. This is kind of a unique recommendation as traditionally law enforcement officers are skeptical of “shrinks.” But the site equates the mental health checkup with physical health checkups, which have been recommended for decades.

Certainly law enforcement needs to include more education about the topic in basic academies. Over the last few years training has focused on the “special needs” of certain segments of society, and time in basic programs has been dedicated to the health and welfare of others. Yet my state’s basic academy curriculum includes nothing about police suicide and coping strategies.

If agencies focused more on mental health and wellness programs, including stress and trauma, they could significantly reduce officer suicides.

A suicidal officer should be referred to a professional immediately. But having plans and systems in place prior to an emergency is one heck of a lot better than reacting in an emergency. These plans and systems include what to do after a suicide so that morale is not adversely affected by stupid comments by a boss such as “He took the coward’s way out.”

Over the course of my career, which has had its share of twists, turns, stress, trauma and attempts by some alleged brothers in blue to insert sharp pointy blades in my back, I have sought the counsel and advice of my police chaplain. A reserve officer himself, we have “talked of many things,” and most of those conversations have little to do with religion, per se. I have come to value his wise counsel and support, as well as his occasional “kick in the ass.”

Having someone to talk to about this job and life in general, especially a professional in these areas who doesn’t judge, can keep you sane in an oftentimes insane world.

There are people who care about and depend on you. Never forget that!

Be well.

This column is dedicated to James, Howard, Kenny and Dave.

 

Kevin Davis is a full-time officer assigned to the training bureau where he specializes in use of force, firearms and tactical training. Davis is a former team leader and lead instructor for his agency’s SWAT team with over 500 call-outs in tactical operations.

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