Law Enforcement Suicide
By Teresa Tate, founder of Survivors of Law Enforcement Suicide (SOLES)
There has been a silent statistic within the law enforcement profession that has been unspoken for decades. A line that is drawn deeply and permanently between two deaths. One, whom we call a hero when dying in the line of duty. The other, a mere whisper that an officer has died. That growing statistic is law enforcement suicide.
When an officer dies by suicide, the family not only grieves the loss of their loved one, but must also deal with the isolation and abandonment of their police family. Law enforcement is the only profession that has a written funeral protocol based on how the officer died. Shouldn't these men and women be honored for how they lived?
The stigma associated with depression, PTSD, and suicide is prevalent in the law enforcement profession. Over the past several years, the suicide rate among law enforcement officers has been shown to equal or surpass the rate of officer's who died in the line of duty. It is also interesting to note that the average number of years that an officer has been employed at the time of death, as well as the average age, is similar. When comparing law enforcement deaths by accidents, suicides, and homicides, the suicide rate is three times higher than the homicide rate.
Law enforcement officers are tasked with protecting and serving our communities. They are the first people we call when we need help. On September 11, 2001, thousands of people ran from the twin towers to safety, but law enforcement officers ran towards the towers to rescue those who were injured. Who rescues our law enforcement officers when they need help? Who can they trust with their fears and traumas? How do we, as a society, support these men and women who are put in harm's way every day?
To reduce the suicide rate among law enforcement officers, training must begin in the police academies with periodic in-service training throughout an officer’s career. It must also entail a change in the law enforcement culture by supporting officer’s who may need psychological counseling as well as medication. The suicide rate will not decline until law enforcement administrators implement policy change to help officer’s affected by the trauma of this profession.
On the Edge: Recent Perspectives on Police Suicide by John Violanti, Andrew O'Hare, and Teresa Tate (Charles C. Thomas, 2011).
Police Suicide: Epidemic in Blue (Second Edition) by John Violanti (Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 2007)
Police Suicide: Tactics for Prevention by Dell P. Hackett and John M. Violanti (Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 2003)
CopShock (Second Edition) by Allen Kates (Holbrook Street Press, 2010)
Stress Management in Law Enforcement (Second Edition), by Leonard Territo and James D. Sewell (Carolina Academic Press, 2007)
Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Kevin M. Gilmartin (E-S Presss, 2002)
Law Enforcement Suicide Prevention Toolkit http://policesuicide.spcollege.edu/toolkitIHW.htm
(Designed to help your agency present suicide prevention training within your department.)
QPR Institute www.qprinstitute.com
Online Discussion Lists (send emails to the addresses below to be added to the discussion lists)
Survivors of Law Enforcement Suicide (survivors only) TOAC_SOLES@yahoogroups.com
Tears of a Cop (law enforcement officers only) firstname.lastname@example.org
Survivors of Law Enforcement Suicide
National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder www.ptsd.va.gov/
EMDR Institute, Inc. www.emdr.com
Why do some Police Officers consider suicide as a way to escape the pain of the job and the trauma of life? And is there a better way to help them cope and still get the job done?
By Chaplain John South, Phoenix Police and Army Ambassador for Arizona
First, you can find and read all sorts of ways ideas and ways something will work, and some will say that’s all a part of the job. Having been a police officer for over thirteen years in Nevada and California, let me say that “cops” hate that comment. Being a law enforcement officer first of all is not a job, as we see it. It’s a way of life. Look at it as a sub-culture within the main culture of society. Most cops I know want the position to help others, who can’t help themselves, and to try and put the bad element of our society behind bars. Every day as a cop you start anew, a desire to do something worthwhile, to meet people you can help and let them know there is still someone who will stand by them. I used to enjoy just stopping and helping any person with a flat tire or call someone for them. It helps them feel that they are not over looked or not important.
What I’m going to write is mainly from personal experience, not just from a textbook. I wanted nothing more than become a cop after I returned from Vietnam, and thankfully, I was hired three weeks later. But after about five years on the street, things began to take a new shape between what I actually saw when the people I thought were good folks, turned out to be (not all) worse than most. We worked a suicide and two to three Homicides every week and a fatality almost every day. I have seen death on the battlefield more than once, but this was almost daily on the streets at home. Some of the ways people died I wouldn’t try to explain to anyone. Why give them nightmares? There is enough to go around already. The trauma began to take a toll on all of us, even those with strong faith, as I consider myself one of them. But God never said life was easy and there wouldn’t be dark moments to travel through. Later on in my career, after graduating from the University of California with a degree in Criminal Justice, I volunteered to go to a new school for deputy coroners so I could work in the area of homicide and suicide in hope of helping victims find a way to get through the days and months ahead. However, my partner and I begin to wonder if this had been a good idea after working some type of death every night, five days a week for five years. Yes, it took its toll on both of us. The local funeral homes knew us better than our own families, not to mention we never really slept. It was one nightmare after another. Depression began to sit in and I could feel I was losing myself to hopelessness and despair. It seemed no matter how hard I tried, things really never got better and society was a battlefield of its own making.
So, what does all of this have to do with police suicide? Everything, believe me. It was and is my faith, family, and a few real friends that keep me going and focused. Many officers don’t have that and need a genuine lifeline to be there without judging or telling them what to do. I went on a call one morning, it was 3:00 am and a good friend was already there. A parolee had broken into a home, raped a small child, and was still there when he got there. He told me later that morning the guy just smiled and put his hands up, as if to say “You can’t do anything to me.” My friend said in his heart he wished to could make this guy hurt. Guess what? Even as a police chaplain now, I agree and bet God does, too. He didn’t touch but cried for hours while the two of us sat outside by ourselves wondering how things like this happen every day in our society.
Suicide. Three times more law enforcement officers die every year by suicide than are killed in the line of duty. We lose about 160 officers every year to line of duty deaths. You can do the math. Why? As the father of suicide prevention in our country, Edwin Shneidmen, Ph.D., became interested in the number of deaths we have in America due to suicide said from research in his book, Suicide as Psychache, one of (I believe the best reason) causes of suicide involving anyone: “Most suicides represent combination of various needs. There are many pointless deaths, but never a needless suicide. Psychological needs are more conceptual and abstract than people know” (p. 37). The key he believes from sixty years of research is that “The common goal of suicide is CESSATION of CONSCIOUSNESS. Suicide is both a moving toward and moving away, but the common practical goal is stopping the painful flow of consciousness” (p. 35). What cops have in common and share only with each other: their anguish, hurt, aching in their hearts, shame, guilt, humiliation, loneliness and fear. Even the strong fear of dying. This has proven to be one of many causes of suicides. Remember no one is an expert on suicide because no one can get inside a person's head. That’s the main reason not to judge someone. All of these issues and feelings can and do cause serious psychological pain. Unless you have been there, you cannot understand why suicide for so many is their salvation from the human body and the pain.
Psychache is real. I have felt it myself and it does hurt, more than one could imagine. When I came back from the shootings at Columbine High School and seeing the faces of the kids that were dead and lying on the floor among so much blood, I didn't sleep for weeks, an hour here and there. Depression was and still at times my daily partner. Most people don’t want to hang around with you which is one of the key reasons cops hang only with other cops. Cops know the signs of suicide and they know the buddy system and how it works but need a lifeline put into place that will take them out of the decision process. For example, some agencies are starting to rotate officers every two years off the streets and let them work other units within the department. That way everyone plays a part and no one can say about an officer “They lost their nerve or they have a mental issue.” That's one way to help them see less trauma and hopefully have time to recover and get counseling before rotating back on the street. Cops will only talk to someone about suicide that they can trust with their life (anonymous) and someone who is not a threat to their job.
Schneidman, E. (1993). Suicide as psychache. New York: Aronson.