POLICE SUICIDE: HIDDEN EPIDEMIC ACROSS THE
NEW YORK - The man didn't show up for work so Cindy Goss phoned his home. No answer. She jumped in her car and rushed to his house. He was there, a bottle and a glass at his side.
"Trust me," she said to him. "You must trust me now."
Her heart pounding, she slid her finger between the trigger and the trigger guard and eased the muzzle of the gun from his mouth.
Cindy Goss is one of America's more successful battlers against what one forensic psychologist calls a hidden epidemic: police suicides.
It is hidden because suicides tend to be hushed up, in part out of reluctance by police authorities to admit they may be work- related, and, although "epidemic" may not be quite apt - there is nothing contagious about suicide - there does appear to police psychologists to be an undeniable increase lately across the country.
In America about 16 of every 100,000 adults commit suicide annually. At least that is the figure generally accepted among psychologists studying the problem seriously: 0.16 suicides per 1,000 adults.
In the New York City police force of 30,000, the nation's largest, at least 63 officers have committed suicide in the past 10 years. That's 31 percent higher than the average. Last year's eight suicides were nearly double the average.
In Florida, the JacksonviUe force of 1,200, tiny by comparison, four suicides in the past two years is 10 times the general rate.
"I don't see any tie directly to the job," said Jacksonville's director, W.C. Brown. Neither did New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. All eight suicides on his force, he said, stemmed from "domestic problems," not police work.
While there are no government statistics on the suicide rate of police officers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does, however, report that cops have a life span eight to 11 years shorter than the average. Specialists who study police suicide say the rate on a national scale is at least double that of the general population and possibly higher.
You could not convince Cindy Goss that the reason has nothing to do with the emotionally draining work. Cops, incidentally, refer to their work as The Job, as if no other fit the definition.
Goss is a certified counselor for drug and alcohol abuse. She went to work with the employee assistance program for New York's Erie County and met with success in every county office except one. "In the sheriffs department," she said, "nothing seemed to work." She set about discovering why.
What she discovered about The Job others in the field have discovered as well. To oversimplify, the progression from idealistic police academy graduate to depressed cop with his gun in his mouth goes like this:
Graduate frequently exposed to blood, gore and danger. Does not unburden these horrors on spouse. Spouse wouldn't understand. A few drinks with the guys after work helps to unwind. Fellow cops understand. Can't trust civilians. Can't admit troubles even to fellow cops; would be considered a wimp. Can't trust fellow cops. Drinking increases. Spouse takes off. Gun is handy.
The gun Cindy Goss removed from that officer's mouth was only one of five similar rescues she has made in as many years. All five men are back at work.
There's no telling, of course, how many lives the program she devised five years ago might have saved. But the decrease in absenteeism, sick leave, turnover, tardiness and other measures of departmental performance are so marked that the program has become mandatory in every police agency in Erie and some other New York counties' and has leaped the border into Canada. No agency to adopt it has recorded a suicide since. More obvious, say colleagues, are the hundreds of careers even marriages, saved long before the progression reaches the gun-in-mouth stage.
"Cops are well screened before they sign on," says Harley Stock "Most have a mentality more like a social worker than a soldier. Over time and in increments they don't recognize their personality gets chipped away and changes."
Stock, among other specialties, is a screener. He knows the progression well, both from textbooks and experience.
He has earned a handful of degrees including a doctorate in police psychology, a narrow but expanding specialty. He's a certified SWAT-team member and hostage negotiator. He worked with two dozen police agencies in Michigan and was police psychologist in Broward County. He now has his own treatment center, "Interphase 911' in Boca Raton, exclusively for police officers and entirely confidential.
"Typically," he says, "the cop who commits suicide is a male, white, 35, working patrol, abusing alcohol, separated or seeking a divorce, experiencing a recent loss or disappointment. Typically, a domestic dispute is involved.
"Cops are controlling individuals. When a cop loses control in his own home he can't 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 don't see that in the general population.
"Also," says Stock, "about 90 percent of the time the cop is drinking heavily when he shoots himself." (That was the case in all five of the men Cindy Goss took the guns from.)
"Here's a statistic with lots of supporting data to back it up," Stock continued. "About 10 percent of the general population who drink become alcoholics. Among cops the figure Is 23 percent. Cops also abuse drugs.
"And here's another solid statistic: "The suicide rate among alcoholics in the general population is 270 (as opposed to 16) per 100,000."
Among cops, after-shift drinking bouts are so epidemic to The Job that they have a universal euphemism for it: choir practice. If the pitfalls of choir practice aren't obvious, Stock explains:
"Alcohol at first releases tension but if you drink enough it becomes a depressant. So if you have an underlying depression it makes it worse. The suicide rate among people suffering from depression is 230 per 100,000.
"What you have, then, is a psychologically panicking cop full of alcohol, depressed, with access to a weapon. Bad combination. Bad combination."
In a recent study of 20 suicides in one large. Midwest police department, 13 of the victims were alcohol abusers.
Joseph Wambaugh, the writer, has long studied the progression from idealism to despair. Wambaugh was a Los Angeles cop for 17 years. His books, fiction and nonfiction, are as much about how police do their jobs as what The Job a does to them.
"Cops of course see the worst of people but they expect that when they sign on," he says.
"What they don't expect - and nothing can prepare them for it - Is to see ordinary people at their worst. This works on their sense of belief, I would say, and they tend to become prematurely cynical.
"Even people who come from war can rationalize it by telling themselves that that was war and in war people become savage barbarians. But this is not war and people are normal and good. And here he is in the middle of the night in a normal person's home seeing normal people at their absolute worst. He begins believing that all people are barbarians and savages.
"I've had young cops confess to me in a patrol car at night that when they go to the grocery store they wonder who the grocer is ripping off, whether he will try to cheat them. When they go to church they wonder what the preacher does when nobody's around. That's pretty cynical.
"An old saying among cops is that everybody is garbage except my partner and me and I'm not sure about him. When he begins to include himself the erosion of self-esteem is complete, the cynicism is complete."
Wambaugh, Stock, Goss and others all seem to recognize these same steps toward depression and use the same phrases to describe other traits of The Job.
The John Wayne syndrome, for example. This is the cultivated swagger of authority - and its corollary, the macho refusal to admit a weakness or ask for help. "Eventually," says Wambaugh, "the badge becomes almost heavier than he can carry."
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