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
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”
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
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).
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.
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