It is commonly reported that in the United States a police officer dies in the line of duty every 58 hours. So far in 2018 the total has reached 93 – a 7% increase over this same time last year. Firearms-related deaths are up by 28%, while traffic-related deaths and deaths from other causes (like training accidents, etc.) remain 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.
Uh-oh . . . we’re not supposed to talk about this! 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 life stressess that non-officers struggle with, but they are also trying to process the ugly side of human life that they are beset with 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 200 to 450 active duty police officers complete suicide every year! And 85% of them use their service weapon to complete the act.
A common myth about suicide is that it 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. 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; 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.
Another common myth about suicide is that asking people if they are suicidal might plant the idea in their heads. 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.
What if you have heard an officer jokingly talking about suicide? Another myth is that if people talk about killing themselves, they won’t really do it. 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!
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 (adversarial relationship between police and community)
- 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 I refer to police suicide 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 an employee assistance plan (EAP) if the department has one. Officers or even their family members may reach out to Call for Backup by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/. In the case of an impending suicide attempt, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: (800)-273-TALK (8255), or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor. These services are available 24/7, are free, and always confidential.