Police suicide: What you need to know & what we as police officers need to do

By Jay Quinlan

PDF version with photos: Police suicide: What you need to know & what we as police officers need to do

Cold rain drizzles on the small silent group as the coffin is lowered into the ground, each person with their own thoughts and sorrow for themselves and the person they once knew as a warrior, a police officer. No pageantry for this fallen officer, no pipes, no presentation of a flag, no support for the survivors because this officer died by his own hand; the cultural stigma of a police suicide.

How is it that when one of our own falls prey to the pressures of life and the job their life and death becomes all but ignored by those they worked for and with? The irony is that the culture that produced this fallen officer is the same one that often cannot recognize the resulting emotional pitfalls that are created by involvement and immersion in the job.

To acknowledge these issues may question or unearth personal fears, concerns and shortcomings that could possibly reflect on some blame for not recognizing the signs of a disturbed colleague and friend.

It is very hard to get true statistics on police suicide because they often aren’t reported as such. Slowly, attitudes in administrations are changing but the prevailing one to date is that police suicides are not an issue because the officer taking his life did so for reasons outside of the job, due to domestic situations and many are just reported as accidental deaths.

A confirmation of statistics going back to 1994 in which New York showed that 137 officers died in the line of duty (54.7 percent in shootings), however, that same year 300 deaths in the department came from suicide. This comparison statistically appears to be typical on a year-to-year basis.1 Current data is hard to find.

One website reports that a police suicide happens every 24 hours. But, generally, the suicide rate for officers is at least double that of the general population. Why are law enforcement officers killing themselves? And what can we do to prevent it?

First of all, we need a complete and thorough recognition and acceptance that these tragedies are happening within our own ranks. With that acknowledgment we can engage in a process of prevention training, post-actions for survivors and information gathering to better determine who is at risk and how to recognize these officers sooner.

To get a better understanding of how to cope, we need to consider the epidemiology of suicide.

Suicide is often described as the intentional taking of one’s own life as the solution to a problem in life that the individual believes will only become worse and more unbearable. The truth is, it is rarely one event that is the causal factor, but instead a series of events that promote an intolerable psychological pain for that person, whereby death is seen as the logical escape.

Generally, our culture views suicide as a weakness in one’s ability to deal with daily stressors and problems of life. If you survive an attempt at suicide, seen as an illogical act and requiring a period of mental health attendance, the individual still faces problems with the added stigma of guilt and failure. For the police culture, suicide is seen as weak and dishonorable. For a profession that relies on honor as a mainstay for other values to be built upon, suicide is almost considered by the survivors as a betrayal of faith in those who work closely with the officer.

Administratively, suicide is considered a non-employment problem in most jurisdictions. This attitude is reflected in the relatively low considerations given to training and awareness in this area. While some departments provide employee assistance programs that address the issue, few get information at the recruit level, and mostly it is a reactionary process for the survivors.

An associate professor, Gale Scott of Columbia University New York, lists the causes of police suicide as personal problems, depression and substance abuse. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that these events are symptoms of a larger unadvised series of issues that create self-destructive behavior.

Two general areas contribute to the mindset of the suicidal officer.

The first and foremost aspect is that of control. Officers are taught to take charge, be in control and make decisions under high levels of stress. They do this on an almost daily basis and develop various coping mechanisms to deal with situations the general public couldn’t and don’t want to deal with. One such mechanism highly relied upon is that of the black humor officers share. What happens, when the humor doesn’t help and the situation jeopardizes the very sense of control the officer is used to exhibiting? A sense of loss of total control about the event initiates.

Sometimes the officer will generalize this new thought process to other aspects of the job and his personal life and soon they begin to believe they cannot cope. Many people outside of law enforcement experience this, but for the officer who is not used to this new experience, it can become paralyzing. If the series of events culminating in the stressor event takes on this effect for the officer he can fall victim to what Dr. Martin Seligman refers to as learned hopelessness. In this hopelessness phase, the sense of loss of control is complete and continued feelings of hopelessness grow to create an insurmountable negative motivation toward the feeling of suicide as an acceptable conclusion to the problem.

This chronology of thinking is described by Jules Loh as:

“Graduate frequently exposed to blood, gore, and danger. Does not unburden these horrors on spouse. Spouse wouldn’t understand. A few drinks with the guys after work to help unwind. Fellow cops don’t understand. Can’t trust civilians. Can’t admit troubles, even to fellow cops; would be considered a wimp. Can’t trust fellow cops. Drinking increases. Spouse takes off. Gun is handy.”

So what do the statistics tell us about our hurting officer? Generally, the officer who commits suicide is a male, white, 35, working patrol, abusing alcohol, separated or seeking a divorce, experiencing a recent loss or disappointment. Typically, a domestic dispute is involved. What else do we need to know to recognize these traits in each other?

• Has he had a close relative (like a parent) commit suicide? There is a 50 percent higher chance of this being acceptable to the officer if this is true. The same can be said of surviving cops kids.
• Has he talked or even joked about suicide?
• Does he have mood changes either gradually or suddenly happening recently?
• Does he have obvious changes in behavior?
• Has there been a rise in citizen complaints about aggressiveness?
• Has he began having a high number of off-duty accidents?
• Any noticeable gain or loss of weight?
• Any lack of interest to events previously holding a strong interest, things like sports and hobbies?

In addition to these changes, is the person making arrangements as though he is going away and/or talking about himself in the past tense? If an officer presents these behaviors, a concerned friend must challenge him immediately and coerce him to seek help. This might go against attitudes previously held, similar to ratting out a friend to the administration.

However, the reality is-can you live with the inaction and the possible horrific results? Our normal “ignore it, things will go back to normal, just give them time” will not work. Only the effective use of time, with appropriate counseling will help. So what is left for us to do?

We have to reevaluate ourselves and think about how we currently deal with ongoing stressors. We need to recognize that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but one of reestablishing our ability to control, because we are seeking to actively take charge to promote our own healing and well being. We need to remember that the only ones we should love are our loved ones whomever they are! We cannot love the job, just enjoy it-because the job will not love us back!

Suicide awareness training should be mandatory in academies and officers should know from the beginning that strength comes in many forms and one of them is to know when to ask for help. To assist with this, administrations need to be trained to recognize officers in need and support them by providing adequate confidential employee assistance programs, without penalty or loss of image. Finally, it is a reality that some poor souls will fall through the cracks of our protective net. Then, we must have appropriate post-intervention processes in place to help the survivors cope with the tragedy of a fallen hero. P

About the Author

Jay Quinlan is president of Global Learning Solutions, Inc., and is a police consultant in Canada. He is responsible for Confrontational Management and Use-of-force training programs.

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