Police officer suicide prevention

Officers kill themselves at higher rate than general population

By Richard Weinblatt

The seasonal spike in suicides during the Christmas/New Years holiday period is no secret to veteran law enforcement officers. What may come as a surprise is the high number of officers that, to use the old phrase, "eat their gun." The recent suicides of two New Orleans Police officers during the stresses of Hurricane Katrina brought the topic into the news and public view. The stressors of the holidays and police work form a deadly combination that leads some officers to kill themselves.

The concept of police suicide shocks the recruits that I teach in the police academy. I now incorporate this topic into their introduction block of instruction to stress the importance of awareness and I share a personal story to get their attention. The incident was from a few years ago and involved my chasing down a fellow officer whose wife had cheated on him. When I caught up with this officer, he was sitting in his car with his gun out and was contemplating suicide. I was able to talk him into tossing away his gun.

Back then, police suicides were swept under the rug even more than they are today. This officer resisted the idea of counseling for fear of being blackballed in the law enforcement profession. The negative connotation still persists.

More recently, after 9/11. psychologists and other mental health professionals in New Jersey saw a dramatic upsurge in New York City Police officers coming across the Hudson in search of confidential counseling services. They also feared the stigma of appearing weak in a macho profession.

Here are some sobering statistics: police officers and deputy sheriffs by any measure far surpass the National Center for Disease Control general population number of 12 per 100,000 people. Different studies have taken a stab at pinpointing the number. A New York City Police study revealed a rate of 30 per 100,000. Another study, by the National Association of Chiefs of Police, detailed that officers die at their own hands at a rate double of that from the actions of others while in the line of duty.

It is estimated that some 300 officers "eat their gun," or use some other means, to end their own lives each year. The figure is one that should get people's attention, but for the most part it hasn't. Police executives and instructors dedicated to officer survival issues need to address this issue as critical to an officer's survival.

Several factors contribute to officers being in the top rankings of suicide rate charts. Officers tend to see people at their worst. The developing cynicism lends itself to desperate acts. They do not regularly interact with the majority of the population that is good, hard-working, and law-abiding.

Officers also have rotating shifts that tends to also separate them from their family, friends and other areas of socialization. Alcohol and substance abuse become self-medicating methods used in lieu of dreaded mental health assistance.

And of course, there is the ever-present availability of that firearm on their belt. Many people can ride out the momentary impulse to kill themselves due to the not having a gun with them most of the time. Not so for law enforcers who, especially when combined with their unique job stressors, have that ever-present instrument of deadly force.

So what can we do? Be alert. Friends and family of officers should watch for changes in behavior and other warning signs. They should not be afraid to intervene and act when suicidal tendencies are suspected

Here are a few tips that could hopefully alleviate the problem.

1) Spot risk taking. Officers who have ceased to care about themselves may take unnecessary risks on the job.

2) A rise in use of force incidents. Officers under pressure may become overly aggressive and take out their anger on arrestees.

3) A rise in vehicle collisions. Similarly, officers may start to drive in a reckless manner resulting in more cruiser crashes.

4) Substance abuse. Stressed officers may resort to an increased intake of alcohol or engage in substance abuse in order to "numb" their pain.

5) Downsizes. Officers that suddenly downsize by giving away valued possessions are giving a red flag indicator.

With the stress of the holiday season contributing to suicide calls for all emergency personnel, it stands to reason that officer involved suicides would also rise during this time of year.

Editor's note: Watch for an upcoming Police1 column from the Force Science Research Center titled, "Should troubled officers take antidepressant medication?" [The answer: Yes. The article will explain.]

Related article: Depressed cops on meds: No cause to be ashamed

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