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Group: Police Suicides Down; Work Left to be Done

A that group focuses on mental wellness and suicide prevention within law enforcement recently completed its 2012 suicide study, and while the number of cases are down, one of the group's leaders says there is still plenty of work left to be done.

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The National Study of Police Suicides by The Badge of Life found that a total of 126 active law enforcement officers took their own lives during 2012 -- down from 143 in 2009, which is the last time the group did the study.

"It's a fairly significant change," Ron Clark, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of The Badge of Life and a retired sergeant with Connecticut State Police, told Officer.com. "As we've looked at this very closely, we said: 'What's going on here? What's happened?"

Clark noted that it will take several months for the group to complete the final report, which is expected to be ready in April.

One of the big changes -- aside from the total -- was the age and years of service of the officers included in the study.

The average age of officers when the first study was completed in 2008 was 38, while the number of years on the job was 12. In 2012, the average age was 42, while the number of years on the job was 16.

"It represents to us a demographic shift as younger officers come into law enforcement with possibly less bias towards mental illness," he said. "We're seeing more and more peer support programs all over the place."

The Badge of Life was founded in 2007 by Andy O'Hara, a retired sergeant with the California Highway Patrol, and has seven board members -- a majority of whom are law enforcement officers who have some form of PTSD.

"We started to look very closely at the aspect of suicides because we had heard so many different discussions about how many there were in law enforcement -- anywhere from 400 to 800 to whatever," Clark said.

"The numbers didn't add up. People were going around making comments about how many -- and the focus in law enforcement was right on suicides and we took a different spin on it. Ours has always been on the focus of mental wellness."

The group looked for studies that had been done, but couldn't find any. They then decided to do one of their own.

The group's first study was done in 2008 and found a total of 141 police suicides in the U.S. for that year.

"This was all calibrated with all sorts of statistical aspects so that the numbers are fairly accurate," he said.

Clark added that as far as he knows, the group's three studies are the only ones out there focusing on police suicides.

"We're a small group with no budget hardly at all and we've taken on this massive undertaking in law enforcement," he said.

Over the last several years, Clark said that his group has observed a "sea change" in the law enforcement community.

"Twenty years ago at debriefings, you wouldn't have seen a cop at it, they wouldn't have been there. You would have seen EMS, would have seen fire, but no cops. Now you are seeing them all the time," he said.

"The progress, in the beginning, was zero. The progress in the last two years has been, from our perspective, astounding."

He spoke of the importance of officers getting an annual mental health check by a licensed therapist to talk about the critical incidents that officer was involved in over the course of the year.

"We're beginning to see more officers who are doing that," he said.

Clark said that one day he hopes to see a national conference focused on mental wellness and suicides in law enforcement.

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