We often hear of officers who die in the line of duty. National organizations, like the Officer Down Memorial Page or the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, as well as news media coverage, are quite prolific in their coverage of such tragedies. However, officers who take their own lives don’t get the same public attention, and their names aren’t memorialized either.
Twenty years ago, in 1994, there were twice as many officers who committed suicide than those who died in the line of duty. In 1999, Robert Douglas, the executive director of the National POLICE Suicide Foundation, said, “We are losing about 300 officers a year to suicide” and “If a jumbo jet with 300 people went down every year, do you think the FAA would ground the jumbo jets and find out what was going on? You bet they would.”
Keeping track of the number of police suicides is no easy task, but Ron Clark of the Badge of Life, a police mental health organization, has done extensive research. Because of the difficulty in gathering accurate numbers of officers who commit suicide is so time consuming and challenging, only three years of data has been collected at this time. This study—the most extensive study ever done on the number of police suicides—was called the National Study of Police Suicides. The study included just three years: 2008, 2009, and 2012.
For these three years, line-of-duty deaths average 138 per year, while police suicides average to about the same number, 137 per year. In other words, there are as many police officers who take their own lives each year as there are killed in the line of duty.
Law enforcement trainers often focus upon officer safety, specifically firearms training. Over the last few decades, a lot more has been done to lessen the number of injuries and deaths involving police vehicle accidents.
Tactical training and traffic safety training is crucial and much needed. But, given the high number of police suicides, is the training lopsided? Training isn’t the only thing that’s needed to address this critical issue, of course. Greater awareness and administrative changes are also needed throughout most every department in the nation. Is there enough being done to address these highly disturbing statistics? We talk about mindset and survival, but do we address emotional survival enough?
Thankfully, books like Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, by Kevin Gilmartin, have helped raise greater awareness of the need for mental catharsis and emotional balance within the realm of police work.
Recognizing and Getting Help Soon
There is no doubt that the law enforcement profession can take a great emotional toll on individuals and families. Unfortunately, most cops are skilled at concealing emotional challenges and personal difficulties. Cops rarely ask for help. No one wants to be seen as weak.
Rubbing some proverbial dirt on an emotional wound and trying to “suck it up” and “tough it out” can cause wounds to fester over time. While speaking with a retired SWAT officer from a large city a few years ago, he said that since retiring, the two officer-involved shootings he got into began to really weigh heavily upon his mind. Retirement and rest can bring up old memories and have harmful emotional effects of past traumas once endured.
Psychologists have seen an increase of Vietnam veterans who came home from war and got into a lively profession, like law enforcement and/or firefighting, and then later retired. They didn’t seem to have problems until they retired. The intensity of emotions faced in these professions can give a continual “fix,” like the pill to the addict, for those who need or like adrenaline. But stop the rush and things can come crashing down. Masking problems for years isn’t healthy.
Sometimes we may not even recognize that we need help. Often, others see the change in us first. It’s difficult to see our own emotional wounds reflected in the mirror, since any weakness at all is an image that tough, stereotypical “warriors” aren’t supposed to reflect. With careful introspection, however, the warrior with 7 to 10 years on the job may soon begin to realize that a great emotional change has occurred.
Mental Health Counselor
Hardening happens to every person who deals with “stupid” people who have or may try to harm them. We go from not trusting others to feeling numb to becoming apathetic. Emotional survival brings dark humor, but isolation, withdrawal and a lack of sympathy for others (even ourselves), can ruin relationships and injure careers.
This may be just one of the reasons why the founder of the Badge of Life—the same man who conducted the National Study of Police Suicides—suggests that every officer should go see a mental health counselor annually, whether they feel they need to or not.
An officer from a large police department confided that after losing a friend on the force, and after being involved in multiple police encounters over a decade, including a critical incident, that he felt overwhelmed. The public scrutiny, the Internal Affairs investigations, and the daily grind of police work became mentally and emotionally fatiguing.
He went from constantly being on alert and buying extra rounds and a back-up gun after a justified shooting where he felt he had run out of ammo, to not wanting to shoot, fight or hurt anyone anymore. He lied to everyone and said he was fine, but he started hiding out in church parking lots, just to avoid any encounters with the public that could forever be second-guessed and publicly scrutinized.
He didn’t trust the department psychologist, so he lied and said everything was OK following his critical incident. But he knew he wasn’t doing well. The emotional toll also began to negatively affect him physically. Fortunately, he decided to go see a private counselor.
He continued to work for at least five years following his justified shooting, but he was completely stressed out. He just needed a break. A different job assignment within the department, had it come sooner, might have helped. But instead, one of the most squared away officers in the department got out of police work altogether.
Training and awareness are not the only things needed to curb what could be called an epidemic of police suicide. Administrative acknowledgment and, perhaps more importantly, a compassionate understanding of such stresses, are badly needed. Officers need to feel comfortable enough to get help without feeling like they’ll lose their jobs or be ostracized from their peers. Of course, that is no easy task.
Thankfully, there are peer support groups in many departments. Unfortunately, other officers are bereft of that. Regardless, there are programs and people that will help. Yet still, the most critical tool for the law enforcement officer’s emotional toolbox is courage. It takes an extra amount of courage to step forth and get help.
Karl von Clausewitz, the father of modern warfare, “Courage, above all things, is the first quality of a warrior.” When it comes to suicide or taking one’s own life, officers need courage to not pull the trigger; courage to not drink oneself into further despair; courage to avoid rage and violence at home; courage to believe that it isn’t cut-and-dry career sabotage to get help, but that even if it is, that no career is worth more than one’s own life.
It may be easy, by comparison, to run into a gunfight. Getting emotional help is entirely another story. This is the crux of the whole matter. Officers who take their own lives are stuck between getting much-needed help and feeling like their career, their relationships, and their lives are completely over.
Feelings of guilt, isolation or even incompetence can overwhelm those who suffer in silence. Many who suffer feel like they shouldn’t feel the way they do. Ironically, they may feel guilty for feeling guilty. Comparison to warrior archetypes, or what we may conceive or expect a warrior to be, isn’t healthy either.
Additionally, we must not underestimate the toll of experiencing primary, secondary or even tertiary traumas. Even interviewing victims of heinous crimes can be overwhelming (e.g. child abuse crimes). From nightmares to sleepless nights and from powerful feelings of anger or rage to the gloom of depression and constant fatigue, sometimes the warrior’s bane is terribly stressful.
After experiencing a tragedy, it is normal to question or even second-guess everything we’ve done. We may regret ever doing what we’ve done, particularly if we get slammed in the media, on social media, or with Internal Affairs. Unfortunately, it can create a huge burden for future confrontation in that we may hesitate the next time a situation occurs that may reflect the first tragedy we have experienced and suffered through—or something other good officers have suffered through.
Whatever the case may be, we must not feel like we haven’t endured enough to be suffering. Such inner conflict can be overwhelming. Those who suffer internally may feel justified to feel badly only if they had experienced something truly horrific in their minds. We can compare ourselves to the point of compounding guilt (e.g. “If I had the same experiences as [so and so] then I would feel justified for feeling the way I do.”)
For those who end their lives or even attempt suicide, feelings much deeper than failure and toxic pains much more poignant than despair must be saturating their entire lives. As rescuers, we can be understanding, nonjudgmental and compassionate. We can at least throw our buddies an emotional tourniquet. Utilizing these attributes, as well as lending a listening ear, can help do just that.
But again, in the end, it’s up to every person individually to get the help themselves. Don’t wait until things are catastrophic. Don’t put a Band-Aid over an amputation. Get help today and try to have hope enough to recognize that after the storm passes, sunshine always appears.
Published in Law and Order, Sept. 2015, pp. 54-56.
Police Suicide: Statistics and Stopping-The-Threat Training
Image in Law and Order article taken by Welden Andersen