In the United States, a police officer dies in the line of duty roughly every 58 hours. At the time of originally writing this in 2014 the total had reached 100 – a 22% increase over the same time the previous year. Firearms-related deaths were up by 68%, while traffic-related deaths and deaths from other causes (like training accidents, etc.) remained relatively unchanged. All of these statistics are readily available on websites for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (www.nleomf.org) or the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org).
But you’ll almost never see any statistics reported on the “other” line of duty death – police suicide.
This taboo subject is rarely talked about. For better or worse, police officers need to maintain the appearance of “having it all together.” The sad reality, of course, is that many police officers are not only struggling with the same stresses that non-officers struggle with, but they are also trying to process the ugly side of human life that they shoulder during every shift. Depending on the source, you will find that the suicide rate among active duty police officers is as much as 50% greater than the rate in the general population, and that anywhere from 150 to 300 active duty police officers complete a suicide every year; 85% of them use their service weapon to complete the act. With these types of numbers in front of us, we should be ashamed if we don’t talk about it, don’t expose it and don’t overcome the myths that surround cops ending their own lives.
Law enforcement professional Peter Volkmann notes that in a survey of 500 police officers, 98% said they would consider suicide for reasons like the following:
- Death of a child or spouse
- Loss of a relationship (spouse/child) due to divorce
- Terminal illness
- Responsibility for a partner’s death
- Killed someone out of anger
- Loss of job due to conviction of a crime
MYTH #1: Suicide in Cops Usually Occurs Without Warning
The truth is that most suicidal people plan their self-destruction in advance and then present clues indicating that they have become suicidal. The signs are often there but there is very little in the way of training in law enforcement to help cops recognize them in their fellow officers. Among the many warning signs to watch for: the individual shows lack of interest and motivation and stops confiding in anyone; is turning more and more toward alcohol or other substances to drown out their problems; suffers from frequent injuries or is “accident prone”; has written letters to close friends outlining their wishes “if something were to ever happen”; is no longer concerned about physical appearance.
MYTH #2: Asking cops if they are suicidal might plant the idea in their head
If you see warning signs like the ones mentioned above, there’s no reason (and perhaps no time) to be subtle. You should ask the person you are concerned about: “Have you thought about hurting or killing yourself?” If the answer is “yes” or if you believe the individual is being intentionally vague in answering, you should address whether the individual has the “means, motive, and opportunity” to complete the act of suicide. And offer to stay while encouraging the individual to seek professional help. We never want to leave a fellow officer behind and we must be willing to lay ourselves on the line for them as much, if not more, than anyone else.
MYTH #3: When cops joke about suicide, they won’t really do it.
What if you have heard an officer jokingly talking about suicide? Talking about suicide (even jokingly) is often a clue or warning about a person’s intention. Every mention of suicide ought to be taken seriously. Around your department, you will get to know each others’ sense of humor. Be aware of how the tone of that may change for someone either over time or after a particularly critical incident; is what they’re saying different than it used to be? Is how they are responding to your humor changing? Just because someone makes a joke about suicide doesn’t mean they aren’t contemplating it.
So, why are police officers at such a high risk for suicide? Because of the effects of different kinds of stress association with the profession:
- Internal (departmental) stress (poor supervision, lack of communication, etc.)
- External (community) stress (relationship between police and community; media—–)
- Critical incident stress (events that overwhelm normal coping mechanisms such as a line of duty death, serious injury of an officer, horrific crime scene, etc.)
- Cumulative stress (suffered by veteran officers due to an accumulation of unresolved issues)
- Family stress (officers develop dysfunctional skills to survive the law enforcement profession, and the family suffers stress because of it)
When the effects of these kinds of stress become too much for an officer to bear, he or she may view suicide as the only means of getting relief. That is why police suicides can rightly be referred to as the “other” line of duty death.
Help for officers is available from many sources, including one’s own spiritual support system or faith community, the department chaplain, a peer support group trained in critical incident stress management, or groups trained in PTSD and suicide prevention like Under the Shield (http://www.undertheshield.com). More information and assistance is also available from the National Police Suicide Foundation (www.psf.org). In the case of an impending suicide attempt, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: (800)-273-TALK (8255).