EVERY POLICE DEPARTMENT'S NIGHTMARE: OFFICER SUICIDE
Rarely is found as much lack of emotion and as many tears as found at a police officerís funeral. Mostly those emotions are reserved for a police officer that has lost his or her life in the line of duty. But what happens to the family and the police department of an officer who commits suicide? As police departments continue to experience police officer suicides, a blank stare can be found on the faces of fellow officers. Couple those stares with the silence and it is best described as shock and lack as emotion. Perhaps the lack of emotion is part of the taboo associated with a person taking his or her own life, or perhaps it is the shame bestowed upon the department.
There were more than twice as many police officers committing suicide than were killed in the line of duty in 1994 (ourworld.compuservu, 1999). Why do so many departments deny there is a problem with officer suicide? This is hard to fathom since the experts believe officers are more prone to suicide because of their stressful occupations and the availability of firearms (Witanek, 1996). However, police suicides are not just a growing problem in the United States. France experienced fifty (50) percent more than the average rate of suicide for the last decade. Paris had a rate in 1995 of almost twice the rate for the New York City Police Department (Simons, 1996). In the United States there is a popular slogan saying, "Guns donít kill people, people kill people", but according to Sheik Mustafa of Singapore, Singaporeís slogan should read, "Guns donít kill people, policemen kill themselves" as he relates the high number of police suicides in that country (sintercom.org, 1999). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states, "there are no nationwide epidemiological studies on police suicide. Such research is needed, along with research in small or rural police departments (infoventures.com, 1999).
Although the public as well as the media have many preconceived ideas of what goes on behind the badge, the pain and suffering police experience and witness as a direct result of their job can not be portrayed in print or by pictures. Police suicides, police corruption and misconduct, high rates of alcoholism, divorce and mental breakdowns among cops all offer a grim confirmation that police work is grueling and stressful. Gilbert and Sullivan said it best a long time ago, "A policemanís lot is not a happy one, when the constabularyís duty is to be done" (McNamara, 1996). How can an officer be happy when they must deal with emergencies, tragedies and criminals in a more violent society than ever before, while vowing to serve and protect? In fact, a study in 1995 report a rate of 29 suicides per 100,000 for the New York City Police Department, versus 12 per 100,000 for the general population (McNamara, 1996). Further, the nationís largest police organization, the Fraternal Order of Police, studied suicides among 38,800 of its 270,000 members in 1995 by looking at insurance records in 92 local chapters in 24 states. They found a suicide rate of 22 deaths per 100,000 officers (Fields and Jones, 1999).
The stress of daily life, coupled with stresses from tragic events, can push a police officer to end his life. Nothing can possibly prepare a police officer for what they might encounter on the job. An unnamed rookie police officer states, "A cop is tough and although allowed to be afraid, can never convey this fear. A cop is unemotional and appropriately cynical; the horrors of the street donít affect him, he is not give to the emotion of the norm" (Eye Opener, 1999). Unfortunately in real life, police officers are affected by the horrors of the streets. THE ALARM IS SOUNDING
Why all the concern over the stress of police work and the affects of this stress on police officers? Robert Douglas, executive director of the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation states, "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" (Fields and Jones, 1999).
Are the statistics correct? Can the suicide rates among police departments be higher than reported due to the departments classification of suicides as other incidents such as "accidental discharge of weapon" to protect the families of the officers as well as the departments? Insurance companies normally do not pay claims to the survivors of suicides. It is best confirmed by Mort Feldman, vice-president of the National Association of Police Chiefs, when he stated that his organization did not keep statistics on police suicides by city "because I know we wouldnít be given the right numbers" (Lewis, 1999).
Forensic psychologists are now paying more attention to police suicides and to what they refer to as a hidden epidemic (Loh, 1994). One such forensic psychologist is Cindy Goss of New York. According to Ms. Goss the following is a profile typical of a police suicide:
"The cop who commits suicide is a male, white, 35, working patrol, abusing alcohol, separated or seeking a divorce, exper- iencing a recent loss or disappointment. Typically domestic abuse is involved. (Loh, 1994)
Further, Ms. Goss makes the following statement: "Cops are controlling individuals. When a cop loses control in his own home, he canít handle it. For 24 to 36 hours he is acutely suicidal. He barricades himself in his house and makes all kinds of threats. If he can get beyond that point, he gets himself back together very quickly. You donít see that in the general population. Also, about 90 percent of the time the cop is drinking heavily when he shoots himself. (Loh, 1994)
Others have different ideas such as W.C. Brown of the Jacksonville Police Department in Florida when he states, "I donít see any tie directly to the job" after his department suffered four suicides in two years. Further, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly states that all eight suicides on his force during 1992-93 "stemmed from domestic problems, not police work" (Loh, 1994).
Although Commissioner Kelly denied police work entered into the police officerís suicides, the New York City Police Department has gravely seen the effects of stress and suicide. On October 20, 1998, yet another tragedy fell on the department. The tragedy unfolded when Detective Fred Jesselli left his shift early, arrived at his home, used his service weapon, shot and killed his wife and then shot himself. Monica Jesselli, the victim, was also a police office with NYPD (nydailynews.com, 1998).
Although drugs, alcohol, and relationships continue to surface when the subject of police suicide is mentioned, the officer who brings the stress of the job home and couples with any of the above, seems most at risk. A suicidal police officer may fear suicide but they may fear life just as much. Especially as the rationalizations, denials, and excuses crumble, the officer is left with the spectacle of his or her wasted and broken life (Milam and Ketcham, 1981).
John M. Violanti, Ph.D. at the University of Buffalo states he thinks the biggest reason for police officer suicide is because police officers think they have nowhere to go for confidential help when stressors such as personal problems or the job become overwhelming. "Police officers are more hesitant than the average citizen to get help for emotional problems. Because of their roles, they mistrust many things, and they especially mistrust mental health professionals," Violanti said. "Departments should include some sort of suicide awareness training in their stress management programs" (policestress.com, 1999).
Most police officers witness some of lifeís most horrible scenes. "Cops get catapulted from tedious duties into moments of terror and danger, and relentless close-ups of human degradation and death" (McNamara, 1996). Any of these can trigger stress in which can be labeled as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, Dr. Matthew Friedman, M.D., states that "clinical experience with PTSD diagnosis has shown, however, that there are individual differences regarding the capacity to cope with catastrophic stress so that some people exposed to traumatic events do not develop PTSD, others go on to develop the full-blown syndrome (Friedman, 1999). Depression is a symptom of PTSD, and with depression can come suicidal tendencies or the actual suicide as seen with the Vietnam War Veterans (Kulka, 1990).
The National Center for PTSD classify police officers and fire fighters as rescue workers. According to the Center, traumatic events can cause a police officer to experience problems to include emotional reactions, cognitive reactions, physical reactions and interpersonal reactions. Further, the following will list examples of traumatic events (National Center For PTSD, 1999):
∑ Life-threatening danger or physical harm
As Cindy Goss advised, "cops are controlling individuals" (Loh, 1994); therefore, any one or any combination of the examples of the symptoms above can leave a police officer feeling totally out of control. As a reminder, the provided list above is only a few examples of the symptoms that can be associated with PTSD. PTSD is a disorder far too complicated to narrow into a tidy list or post in a police academy training manual. PTSD is real and the risks of developing this disorder associated with police work warrants further police training in this area.
In conclusion, police officers are killing themselves at a rate more than twice as high as the general public (McNamara, 1996). This in and of itself should lend the experts and individual police departments to devote training and prevention in the area of suicide to all officers.
New York City was the site of a study conducted by Andre Ivanoff of the School of Social Work. Ivanoff recommendations included further development of confidential counseling resources within the New York Police Department; additional training in handling depression, problematic interpersonal skills, recognizing the effects of alcohol and drugs, and police academy training in officer "lifesaving," how and when to seek help for oneself or a fellow officer when necessary (cc.columbia.edu, 1999).
Police officers are no different than anyone else when it comes to the vicious cycle of despair that accompanies, and is part and parcel of suicidal depression (Brown, 1998). As Hal Brown states, "the percentages of suicide in law enforcement are staggering by any measure no matter how unreliable. But even one police suicide is one too many. The fact is that virtually all suicides caused by depression and anger is preventable with appropriate intervention (Brown, 1998).
On July 28, 1999, Surgeon General David Satcher stated, "the nation must address suicide as a significant public health problem and put into place national strategies to prevent the loss of life and the suffering suicide causes" (Huntsville Times, 1999). Further, Satcher states, "suicide is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States, claiming about 30,000 lives in 1997, compared with fewer than 19,000 homicides" (Huntsville Times, 1999). With those alarming rates of suicide in the general public merged with the high rate of suicide among police officers, it is obvious that prevention, education and training must be paramount in all departmental training.
Attitudes such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation must cease in order for the problem to be addressed. The spokeswoman for the F.B.I. Debra Weierman stated, "It is really something we keep and consider an interagency concern and it is not really up for public consumption". She further stated, "The issue of any personnel dying as a result of suicide is a highly personal matter and not anything we would divulge to the public (Armstrong, 1999). Ms. Weierman made that statement when the Bureau was ask for the overall F.B.I. number pertaining to agents who committed suicide, but not the names of the agents (Armstrong, 1999). This attitude lends to the reasoning that departments tend to keep officer suicide among themselves.
Departments must stop ignoring the problem before the problem becomes a nightmare in their own department. Too many excellent and proficient police officers have ended their life when perhaps help was only a call away. Police departments need to confront the stress of the job before the sound of Taps can be heard once again shrieking from a police officerís gravesite.
Permission to publish granted by Sgt. Monroe Dugdale.