Your emotional survival: Links and resources to help prevent officer suicide

We have met the enemy and he is us.
                          – Pogo (Walt Kelly)

You have the right to your own opinions. However, you do not have the right to your own facts. I hope that the hyperlinked studies and data here might help you discover some facts you may not have been aware of. This article is intended to help you in forming opinions that are based on empirical, evidence-based data and through the hyperlinks, it contains a wealth of useful information from many people other than myself.

In October of 2008, Police1 Senior Editor Doug Wyllie wrote about something that law enforcement often minimizes. Wyllie’s column, Confronting police officer suicide is another 21st century step in an increasing effort to bring the issue of law enforcement suicide into open discussion. If you have not read the Wyllie column, please use the above hyperlink to do so. You do not have to be a sociologist or psychologist to know that it is impossible to prevent or reduce a problem until you admit it is a problem.

I have also found the December 2008 article, To domestic violence trainers: We get it by Chief Joel F. Shults, PhD to be right on target. I suggest that any domestic violence intervener who works with the criminal justice system should use the above hyperlink and read it.

At the end of the Chief’s article is information about Street Survival Seminars. The issue of street survival is taken seriously by law enforcement officers and their agencies. If you are not aware of the seminars I suggest you find out. If you are one of the few who do not recognize the importance of these seminars you should look at the Officer Down page.

A Not So Clear and Present Danger
Suicide is a problem most law enforcement agencies and officers are aware of but often refuse to think or talk about. Suicide is most often acknowledged only when it cannot be ignored and then most often it is quickly tucked in the corner, in the back, and in the dark until its reoccurrence forces law enforcement to once again acknowledge the danger it presents

The National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation (NPSF) reports that the numbers of officer deaths due to suicides are two to three times the number of line of duty deaths. In some years, suicides occur five times as often as felonious line of duty deaths. Studies that argue police suicides are more likely, similar, or less likely to occur than in the general population are little more than red herrings.

What is an indisputable reality is that far more officers will take their own lives compared to line of duty accidents or having others take life from them. Suicide prevention and education programs need to become a major concern and priority for law enforcement administrators and an integral part of academy and in-service training. And approximately one of every three suicides involves a homicide/suicide. Hence, the link to my area of expertise as suicide prevention programs for officers may not only save officer lives they might save the life of a spouse or intimate partner.

Another stark reality is the fact that there are few suicide prevention programs for officers. The NPSF reports that only about two percent of the nation’s law enforcement agencies have in place suicide prevention or education programs. It appears that Pogo may have had it right.

There is growing acknowledgement among street survival trainers and a small number of domestic violence interveners that problems in the streets and those at home can sometimes be intertwined. Hence, my interest in the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) and a recent report by the CDC, “Surveillance for Violent Deaths – National Violent Death Reporting System, 16 States, 2005” (SVD), which documents that approximately 30 percent of suicides are precipitated by intimate partner problems.

Suicide Reduction and Education
Kevin M. Gilmartin, the author of Emotional Survivial for Law Enforcement, writes: “Helping officers keep their personal lives intact is not a priority for many law enforcement agencies.” And, concerning suicide, the above NPSF data certainly supports Gilmartin’s claim. You also may click here for a number of free online articles by Gilmartin.

The Badge of Life website appears to be an excellent resource and the majority of their board of directors are present or retired law enforcement officers. The Law Enforcement Personnel section of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) is also an excellent resource.

From my layman’s perspective, I believe that a recent CD-ROM entitled Preventing Law Enforcement Officer Suicide: A Compilation of Resources and Best Practices might be the single best suicide educational resource for law enforcement officers and agencies. This interactive CD-ROM is the result of an effort by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Police Psychological Services Section.The CD contains a wide variety of resources – videos, power point presentations, sample policies and procedure – for suicide prevention and intervention. It also contains resources designed to assist agencies and family members after a suicide has occurred.

Law enforcement agencies may obtain a copy of the CD by emailing Tia Young at If your department does not have a suicide intervention policy and procedure in place I suggest you obtain a copy of this IACP-CD and ensure that they do. The CD is also available from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

Intimate Partner Problems (IPProb) and Suicide
While approximately twice as many females as males attempt suicide, the rate of completed suicide in the SVD report is nearly 4 times greater for males than females. Studies suggest many people who commit suicide suffer multiple risk factors, some are clinically depressed and others have other mental health disorders or face life altering stressors. Studies also document that many of these same risk factors are among the multiple causes of domestic violence homicides.

Table 9 of the SVD notes of the 16 states reporting in 2005, intimate partner problems (IPProb) precipitated 2,031 of the male and 439 of the female suicides. An IPProb is defined as a problem with a current or former intimate partner that appears to have contributed to the suicide. Some of the IPProb’s are a divorce, break-up, argument, jealousy, conflict, or discord.

In 2005, there were a reported 32,637 suicides. The SVD reports 30 percent of the suicides reported were IPProb-related. Hence, nationally it is possible that in 2005 there could have been approximately 7,832 male and 1,958 female suicides there were precipitated by intimate partner problems. These intimate partner suicides exceed the number of intimate partner homicides.

In 2005 the Utah Department of Health (UDH) reported 65 domestic violence-related deaths. The UDH reports that there were 44 suicides and 21 homicides. The UDH includes the IPProb deaths as being domestic violence-related.

The following year the Utah Domestic Violence Council (UDVC) did not report the majority of IPProb deaths and only reported the domestic violence-related deaths that appeared in public sources; largely newspapers and the electronic media. Perhaps the UDVC believes that the NVDRS "Utah Profile" that is coordinated and funded by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a “confidential source” or that the IPProb suicides are not domestic violence-related deaths.

Never-the-less, the council decided not to report the IPProb deaths as domestic violence-related. Ignoring the NVDRS data will prove to be detrimental for the UDVC if it intends –as the UDVC report notes – to explore the, “broad scope and tragic impact” of domestic violence-related deaths.

Domestic Violence Reduction and Education
While suicides are lethal events, my column Exploring law enforcement's response to "intimate partner violence" reviews the study Police Officer Perceptions of Intimate Partner Violence (POPIPV). The POPIPV data supports my personal and professional perception that most of the IPV incidents law enforcement respond to are minor incidents or incidents where there appear to be a mutual responsibility for the incident.

The Morrison Institute of Public Policy (MIPP) report entitled "Layers of Meaning" notes that 66.7 percent of law enforcement officers perceive that the majority of the IPV incidents are minor or verbal arguments. Although I do not always agree with the conclusions they reach, there are a number of very interesting reports on the MIPP website. The POPIPV and other MIPP studies support officers – and my – perceptions about the number of minor incidents. In fact the POPIPV reports that only six out of 100 of the IPV incidents involved an aggravated assault. And despite claims to the contrary, the Sourcebook of criminal justice statistics documents that a suspect’s relationship to a victim rarely affects an officer’s decision to arrest in aggravated assaults.

A Complex and Multifaceted Issue
There is general agreement among domestic violence interveners that intervention programs for females need to be tailored to fit their needs. This is true regardless of the severity.

Why then is there logic in continuing “one-size-fits-all” interventions for all males? The “Duluth Model” is replicated in its entirety or in part for each and every criminal justice domestic violence intervention. One reason for continuing this “one-size-fits-all” intervention policy might be the fact that if the Duluth Model is not replicated that agency is in danger of losing or not being able to apply for funding from the Violence Against Women Act.

A more multifaceted intervention could be used to supplement but not necessarily replace the Duluth Model. The problem with the Duluth Model is that it is founded on the belief that all intimate partner violence (IPV) incident, regardless of severity should be treated the same because all incidents will escalate and all IPV incidents are caused because all males act abusively to maintain societal male patriarchal power in intimate partner relationships.

One of the founders of the Duluth Model, Ellen Pence, understands that not all intimate partner violence is the same. In Re-Examining Battering: Are All Acts of Violence Against Intimate Partners the Same? Pence and Dasgupta write, “Grasping important differences in partner violence is crucial for researchers, practitioners and advocates for developing effective interventions for victims and perpetrators.”

The problem with contemporary “zero tolerance” policies and “one-size-fits-all” interventions is that they demand we ignore the differences. The differences are almost always ignored by law enforcement, domestic violence interveners, public policy makers, and many researchers. The majority of criminal justice interventions are not individualized or tailored to fit the different needs of law enforcement officers or the diverse needs of some law enforcement families.

The Duluth Model ignores the fact, as many experts now recognize, that people who are not the specific victim of severe trauma, but who simply witness severe trauma, over the long term, can suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hence, PTSD needs to be a central concern for every law enforcement agency. And for some officers who are also experiencing trauma, self inflicted or otherwise, in their spousal or intimate partner relationships, this stress can sometimes be overwhelming. This is not to excuse any abusive behavior, but to help explain it.

For either IPProb suicide or IPV prevention, the most proactive approach law enforcement can implement is to ensure that it uses pre-employment psychological screening for all its applicants. I prefer the Inwald Personality Inventory (IPI) testing process because it appears to be more law enforcement oriented and includes specific questions about domestic violence. Regardless of what testing process is used, it is important that a competent qualified psychologist choose and interpret the testing and also consider other indicators such as previous job performance, academic performance, letters of recommendation, etc. Law enforcement agencies that do not use pre-employments psychological screening may put themselves and their community at risk.

Concerning IPV the leading domestic violence experts agree that females suffer more from lethal and injurious domestic violence assaults than males. There should be “zero tolerance” for all law enforcement officers that injure and batter their intimate partner, and if convicted after due process, those offenders should be fired. There is no room in law enforcement for batterers.

However, the United States Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) does not define domestic violence by its lethality or injury, nor do any of the domestic violence laws state by state. The OVW defines domestic violence as follows:

Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injury, or wound someone.

Many of the above OVW definitions of “violence” seem to better represent SVD “intimate partner problems” rather than violent physical assaults or chronic psychological abuse. Males as well as females can be intimidated, manipulated, humiliated, coerced, blamed, hurt, injured and sometimes killed. Males often respond differently than females when they are abused. The data documents that males do respond with injurious or lethal violence more often than females.

The SVD also documents a problem that professionals must recognize and explore. The SVD documents that many males – most law enforcement officers are male – are killing themselves because of “intimate partner problems” at a rate far greater than they are killing female intimate partners or other family members.

While interveners understand the issue of victim-safety, they also need to understand that officer-safety programs can also produce victim-safety. Again, to accomplish this it is vital that all interveners recognize the difference between family conflict and battering behavior. Domestic violence presents a myriad of problems that need a myriad of responses. One-size-fits-all interventions have resulted in far too many unintended negative consequences.

First and foremost, IPProb suicide and IPV prevention and interventions need to be proactive for law enforcement families and they must be ongoing for officers, spouses, intimate partners, and in fact, all family members. IPProb suicide and IPV prevention and intervention will not succeed if they are primarily reactive and purely punitive.

When officers are hired law enforcement must reach out to officers and their spouse or intimate partner and inform them both about the punitive “zero tolerance” battering polices. More importantly from a preventative perspective, they need to inform the officers and their loved ones that private counseling is available to all family members for family conflict.

And for this to succeed, someone in the agency or the private counseling service needs to be held accountable for keeping in touch with every officer and every family on a yearly basis. An ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of intervention. Perhaps if we educate we can help eradicate the twin demons of intimate partner suicide and homicide.

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