On the Edge: Recent Perspectives on Police Suicide
John M. Violanti  More Info

According to the book description of On the Edge: Recent Perspectives on Police Suicide, “In this book, the authors extend their academic research and knowledge on the subject to a national level. Two of the authors, who have personally dealt with the aftermath of suicide, add a realistic description of what it is like to be “on the edge.” Violanti is a former NY State trooper and is now the nation's foremost researcher on police suicide.  Andy O'Hara, a California Highway Patrol sergeant who survived a near suicide and describes the feelings and pain he felt during that crisis period, and Teresa Tate, whose husband died by suicide, will add immeasurably to the understanding of this problem.

Chapter One discusses police suicide rates and the ongoing controversy that surrounds this area of research. In Chapter Two, the authors describe two in-depth analyses of national police suicide rates. Chapter Three is based on a conceptual model of the career span of a police officer and trauma within that span that may exacerbate conditions for suicide. Chapter Four presents a discussion of factors that may help to protect police officers from suicide.

In Chapter Five, Andy O'Hara discusses his own journey to the edge and how such decisions may come about in police officers. In Chapter Six, Andy O'Hara presents a description of his newly developed program, “Badge of Life,” which seeks to “depower” police trauma and, instead, “empower” the officer. In doing so, they will be prepared not only for stress but for trauma before it occurs and know what to do when it does. In Chapter Seven, the aftereffects of suicide are explored and how police support can help to ameliorate psychological distress and trauma associated with an officer’s death. Teresa Tate, founder and leader of the survivor group S.O.L.E.S. (Survivors of Law Enforcement Suicide), presents actual cases of police survivors derived from her personal interviews with these survivors. In the final chapter, the authors conclude with a description and critical analysis of present programs for police suicide prevention. Law enforcement practitioners, researchers and therapists, as well as police Organizational policymakers, will benefit from the discussions presented in this book.”

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            The men and women in law enforcement deal with danger every day.  Being killed in the line of duty, although terrible, is undeniably a risk that comes with the job.  Regrettably, police officer suicide is becoming an epidemic.  Dying by suicide more frequently than by homicide authenticates the need for special training and counseling to help police officers deal with overwhelming stress.

            Studies show that police officers are eight times more likely to commit suicide than to be killed by homicide (L. Baker). Unfortunately, research findings on police suicides is not always correct.  Some departments will not release any data or make the information difficult to attain.  Other departments list the deaths as accidental, undetermined or natural, instead of suicidal.  Most departments, thinking that they are “taking care of their own,” try to cover up the suicide.  Suicide is considered a disgrace to the victim, the victim’s family, and the victim’s department.  Approximately thirty percent of suicides may have been misclassified in the last forty years (Violanti 19-20).

            Although research is limited, studies about police officer suicide are still being conducted. In 1999, USA TODAY surveyed the six largest law enforcement agencies for statistics on police officer deaths.  Thirty-six New York City police officers were killed in the line of duty, between the years 1985 to 1998, while eighty-seven officers committed suicide.  In the Los Angeles Police Department, from 1990 to 1998, eleven officers were killed and twenty officers killed themselves.  Chicago Police Department had twelve officers die in the line of duty and twenty-two suicides, from the year 1990 to 1998.  The Federal Bureau of Investigations had eighteen suicides and only two agents killed between 1993 and 1998.  The fifth agency surveyed, the San Diego Police Department, did not have any officers killed but lost five officers to suicide from 1992 to 1998.  The United States Customs was the sixth agency surveyed with seven suicides and zero officers killed from 1998 until 1999.  The survey stated that the National Suicide Rate for the general population is only twelve per one hundred-thousand, while the suicide rate for police officers is almost three times more (“Suicide on the Force, Code of Silence Doesn’t Help” 2-5).

            The reasons police officers commit suicide are numerous.  Stress appears to be a significant factor.  Dealing with stress on the job includes the many dangers officers face daily, dealing with a negative public image from an unsupportive community, the ever changing hours of shift work or the administration bureaucracy.  Officers may also be coping with stress off duty, in their personal lives.  Problems with a relationship or marriage can cause more strain on an officer (Violanti 20-21).

            In addition to stress, alcohol abuse plays a major role in suicide.  Sixty percent of suicides in the Chicago Police Department involved alcohol abuse (Violanti 21). At first, officers get together after work to have a few drinks and unwind before going home.  As stress becomes harder to handle, the drinking increases and the officer becomes addicted to alcohol.  Paul Quinnett, Ph.D., stated that most successful suicides involved untreated, clinically depressed people, intoxicated with alcohol (20). 

            Another motive for committing suicide is an impending retirement.  The officer may not want to leave the job because he or she is afraid of losing friends and losing his or her police officer status.  Police officers are accustomed to being surrounded by other officers and retirement will bring loneliness and a loss of identity (Violanti 21).

            After continually being exposed to many stresses such as misery, violence, and death, police officers can suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  Similar to war veterans, officers involved in police shootings can be racked with horrible aftereffects which include flashbacks, nightmares, pain and the fear of returning to work (Violanti 22).

            Consequently, with so many factors adding to the cause of an officer’s suicide, the one detail that makes the suicide easy to perform is the accessibility of a weapon (Gillan).  Ninety-five percent of the officers used their service revolver to commit suicide.  Some of the officers believed that the use of their gun to protect others included the right to kill themselves (Violanti 21).

            Besides agreeing with the reasons why a police officer commits suicide, most studies also concur on the purposes for not seeking help.  Police officers believe that needing help is a sign of weakness.  Officers are trained to always appear strong and be in control of any situation.  Officers think asking for help would be admitting lack of control of their lives; however, committing suicide would be taking control of their lives (Baker and Baker 24-25).

Another reason officers do not try to get help is the fear of jeopardizing their jobs (“Suicide”).  Officers are afraid that revealing they need help will result in losing their jobs, being demoted, or being exposed and ridiculed by their peers or the public.  The possibility of losing his or her job or having his or her reputation tarnished is too overwhelming for some officers to handle and instead of requesting assistance, they solve their problems with suicide (Baker and Baker 24-25).

            Since seventy-five percent of suicidal officers show some sign of their intentions (Baker and Baker 25), learning to recognize the warning signs is crucial.  Warnings could include a recent loss, a disappointment or other bad news.  Changes in an officer’s behavior or attitude signals trouble.  Increased alcohol or drug abuse is also a warning sign.  Another indication is a depression that lasts longer than two weeks.  Signs of depression include loss or gain of weight, change in sleep patterns, the inability to concentrate, feeling worthless, and loss of energy.  An easy to understand signal is the officer expressing his or her wish to die or saying that he or she is not needed.  Certain signs are easier to identify, while other signs are more difficult to interpret (Baker and Baker 25-26).

            Learning to recognize the warning signs of suicide is the first step in preventing officers from committing suicide.  Since most suicides are preventable, training everyone in the department is certain to save many police officers lives.  The training or counseling should exhibit that asking for help is strongly encouraged.  Suicide prevention programs will only work if police officers feel safe seeking help (Baker and Baker 24). 

            One new suicide intervention program being utilized in some departments is called QPR.  A trained supervisor questions the suspected suicidal officer, persuades the officer to get help and refers the officer to the appropriate source of help.  A degree is not needed to teach and use QPR.  QPR trains persons to identify possible suicidal officers, teaches the warning signs to look for, and teaches the intervention skills to apply (Quinnett 20-24).  Supervisors who suspect that an officer is suicidal must take immediate action to help the officer by ordering the officer to get help.  Most officers will acknowledge their supervisor’s authority and will obey the order.  Supervisors should help the officer obtain the help and continue being supportive (Baker and Baker 26).

            Police officer suicide is undeniably an important issue that needs to be addressed more seriously and aggressively.  With studies proving that police officers are dying more often by suicide rather than homicide, additional training must be implemented in all law enforcement agencies.  In order for any suicide prevention program, like QPR, to work, the epidemic of officer suicides must first be acknowledged.  Secondly, the warning signs must be recognized so the officer can then be directed to the correct source for help.  With the proper training, available help and continued support, police suicides can be prevented.

 

About the Author

Jennie Valencia is a Victim Services Advocate, Pinal County Sheriff's Office (Arizona). She can be reached at Ten74ever@aol.com.

 

                                                             Works Cited

Baker, Lois. “Suicide Outranks Homicide in Risk to Police Officers, UB Study Shows.”

State University of New York at Buffalo Reporter 28.4 19 Sept 1996. 12 Apr 2002 <http://wings.buffalo.edu/publications/reporter/vol28/vol28n04/fl.html>.

Baker, Thomas E., and Jane P. Baker. “Preventing Police Suicide.” The FBI Law

            Enforcement Bulletin 65.10 (1996): 24-28. 13 Apr 2002 <http://www.fbi.gov/

            publications/leb/1996/oct996.txt>.

Gillan, Thomas. “Suicide.” Central Florida Police Stress Unit, Inc. 13 Apr 2002 <http://

            www.policestress.org/suicide.html>.

Quinnett, Paul. “QPR for Police Suicide Prevention.” The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

67.7 (1998): 19-24. 13 Apr 2002 < http://web2.infotrac-custom.com/pdfserve/

get_item/1/s621610w4_2/sb176_02.pdf >.

“Suicide on the Force, Code of Silence Doesn’t Help.” USA Today  1 June 1999.

            13 Apr 2002 < http://www.psf.org/media.html >.

Violanti, John M. “The Mystery Within: Understanding Police Suicide.” The FBI Law

            Enforcement Bulletin 64.2 (1995): 19-25. 14 Apr 2002 < http://web2.infotrac-

            custom.com/pdfserve/get_item/1/s621610w4_1/sb176_01.pdf >.

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