I have been a son and brother for 28 years, a husband for just over six years, and a father for four years. I have also been a police officer for six years. My family means everything to me. When I went into law enforcement I told my wife that the day that she sees my job changing the type of person that I am, I wanted her to tell me, and I would quit that day. I have always prided myself in my ability to separate my family life from my work life. I have always had non police friends, and I have tried not to bring work home with me. Two years ago those lines crossed when I purposely brought a part of my police life into my family. That was when I introduced someone that I love very much, my sister-in-law Dana, to a person I liked and respected, my fellow officer Wayne McLaughlin.
Dana and Wayne fell in love and were very soon inseparable. I was the hero! Both had been searching for someone like the other for their entire lives. On May 22, 2004 that part of my police and personal families officially came together when Dana and Wayne were married. Wayne and I became even closer. We worked on the same shift, and our families spent time together off duty. Dana and Wayne were planning to have children soon. Everything was perfect… for 92 days. On August 21, 2004 Wayne, like too many other police officers, took his own life.
According to the National Association of Police Chiefs, approximately 300 police officers per year commit suicide in the United States. That is twice the number that are killed in the line of duty (Lewis). Why is police suicide so common? What can be done to prevent it? What are the survivors left with? These are some of the things that I will discuss in this paper as I attempt to look in to this issue further, for my own education as well as my own healing.
People enter a career in law enforcement for many different reasons. Some want the excitement, the freedom, but most just want to help people. That first day on the street the officer is excited and energetic. Those feelings can quickly change when the reality of "the job" sets in. Common things in police life can change the officer's attitude. Being lied to is a good example. We, as police officers, are lied to multiple times on a daily basis, and we become very skilled at picking up on those lies. As a result of the lies most officers become cynical and feel that everyone is lying to them. Things like that change the way that we deal with the public and our families. Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, a behavioral scientist specializing in law enforcement-related issues says of police officers, "Positive outlooks are often replaced by dark, moody, negative views of the world." (3)
This pessimistic view of society adds to the emotional baggage that many police officers carry. The attitude also leads to the feeling that the work that they do really has no meaning. No matter how hard they work to try to help people there is always another person waiting for more.
Police officers deal with things that normal people do not have to deal with, nor do they want to. We see pain, anger, sadness, and very often death. We see all of these things and are asked to respond, not with normal human emotion, but with strength and stoicism. Most police officers feel that if they let their fellow officers show that a particular call got to them emotionally they will be ridiculed. This is not always false. Officers can be very hard on each other. We see joking and making fun of each other as a way to relieve stress. The end result of that tactic is that the stress is not gone it is only temporarily disguised.
I am lucky to be blessed with a strong, confident wife. I am not ashamed to admit that there have been several times in my career that a particularly emotional call has caused me to seek the comfort of my wife when I got home. My wife has listened to my emotions and cried with me. In discussing the issue with my wife, I feel that I have headed off the problem of walking around the house depressed, and when my wife asks me what is wrong saying, "nothing".
Many police officers feel that they should not burden their spouses with the terrible things that they see. I will admit that this is a very fine line. There is a difference between taking your job out on your family and talking about your job with them. When officers feel as though discussing things with their spouse is placing a burden on them they end up bottling their issues up inside them. Another portion of police society feels that talking with your family about difficult calls or the stress of the job is showing weakness. They feel that they are the strong cop and they should be able to handle any problem on their own. Once again, rather than dealing with their problems they end up internalizing them. The police spouse often feels alienated by their loved one's silence. They often react by either cutting off their law enforcement spouse, the way they have been cut off, or by over pursuing them to try to get them to talk (Kirschman 23). Normally, neither approach is effective and the officer continues to keep his or her problems inside. Issue upon issue is internalized until the officer seeks help or boils over. Vincent J McNally, a retired FBI agent, has characterized these issues as bricks in a knapsack. More and more bricks get added until the knapsack brings us to our knees (1).
Alcohol abuse plays a major part in the issue of police suicide as well. Alcohol abuse in law enforcement is very prevalent. 23% of police officers who drink become alcoholics, as opposed to 10% for the general public (Turvey). Unfortunately many officers deal with a hard day or a critical incident by drinking it away. In regards to police officers and alcohol Dr. Ellen Kirshman says, "Hazardous habits such as a need for emotional control combined with a disposition mentality - solve the problem and move on - make cops eager to get rid of their problems rather than face them or work through them." (162) Cops feel as though they can numb the pain with alcohol and make life bearable until it is time to go back to work. After work the cycle begins again. When the alcohol stops working the problems that it was being used to cover are still there. Though statistics on the topic are very hard to compile, it has been said that 90% of officers that commit suicide are drinking heavily at the time of their death (Turvey).
All of the issues I have mentioned, as well as a multitude of others, combined with the officer's own personal history can lead to a deep depression that they may feel that there is no escape from. Officers often feel that they can not ask for help for their problems. They fear being perceived as week by their families, peers, and superiors. Officers usually see asking for the help that they desperately need as showing weakness. Weakness will lead to a lack of respect and respect to an officer is everything. Subsequently the officer refuses to ask for the help that may save their life.
Many cops also fear that asking for help will have an adverse effect on their careers. Most of the time that fear is unfounded, but there are the occasions when asking for help can lead to a modified duty assignment and having a duty weapon taken away (Marcus 21). Mort Friedman, vice president of the National Association of Police Chiefs, says:
Policemen are often afraid to tell people in the chain of command that they are having problems because they fear their careers will be destroyed. So they make the mistake of trying to solve their problems quietly and that often leads to alcohol or substance abuse and suicide. (qtd. in Lewis) Often times, even if an officer's supervisor suspects that one of his or her subordinates is suffering from depression, they will resist the urge to get them help or talk to them about it. The supervisor most likely has the same fears about career ramifications that the officer has (Baker and Baker). They do not want to see the officer's career suffer if their assumption was wrong. Officers even fail to request help away from the job either because of embarrassment or fear.
What is left, when the cop has no where to turn to help with their problems, is a feeling of control being lost. Control is another essential factor in a police officer's life. Cops must always feel that they are in control of the situation. What happens when an officer feels that they have lost control of their feelings and, in essence, their life? They begin to try to come up with ways to regain that control. Regaining the control through therapy, as I have already stated, is usually not an option. The alcohol no longer works to control his or her emotions. The desperation leads officers to the same last resort that they use on the street to regain control, their guns. That is why 90% of officers commit suicide using a gun (Marcus 21). The gun is always around and easy to access.
It may appear to the officers in desperation that the situation is hopeless and suicide is the only viable alternative. As a rational thinking person knows, this is not the case. Police officers are often very good at hiding their emotions, they are trained to be. Keeping this in mind the friends, family, and co-workers of cops need to look closely for the signs if there is to be any hope of prevention. If signs are present, they often come in the form of long term depression, a recent loss, giving away belongings, substance abuse, personality changes, reckless behavior, anniversaries of other significant deaths having an effect on the officer, and previous suicide attempts(Kirschman 171-74). It is often not as simple as recognizing warning signs and getting a loved one help. Even if the officer is confronted with the issue they may deny there is a problem and refuse to accept the help. It goes back to the fear of showing weakness and career ramifications. The most powerful preventive measure is very likely education and support from the police agency. Officers in crisis need to know that their department will stand behind them.
Training should be provided to educate every officer on resources that are available to them to help them deal with their work and personal stressors. Most of all cops need to feel confident that asking for help will not end their career. It is only when this confidence exists that the potentially suicidal officer may seek the help they need. No matter what intervention a family member, friend, or co-worker takes, it is in the end the individual's choice whether or not they will ask for help, or take their life.
Once the officer chooses to take their life, and does so, their pain is over, but the real pain for those left behind has just begun. The guilt, pain, unanswered questions, and anger are immense. Every person that was close to the cop questions what they could have done to prevent it. Each person wonders why their loved one did not talk to them about their pain. Every officer that worked with the person is left to explain to their families, as well as themselves, why they would not do the same thing. Unfortunately there are also most likely other officers trying to convince themselves why they should not.
The survivors of suicide are left behind to put together the pieces that the suicidal officer could not. The survivors try to work backward from those final moments in an attempt to determine what led the person they cared about to feel that ending their life was the only option that made sense. The hard truth is that most times the answers to those questions will never be answered. We may be able to point out contributing factors, but we will never be sure.
Dealing with the death of a loved one is always hard. Dealing with the suicide of a loved one is inevitably harder. When a person dies of a disease, in a car accident, or in the line of duty we are distraught, but we generally know what happened, and in most cases why. When a person commits suicide the unanswered questions prolong the pain and distress. The emotions that are inherent with a suicide stand in the way of getting through the process of grieving (Marcus 158).
The solace that survivors of suicide can take is that there are undoubtedly a number of people that loved and cared about the officer. Any one of those people would have done what ever it took to help them if they had the courage to ask. The resources are available to help a person in emotional anguish, but it is up to them to accept the help. We, as the loved ones of an officer who has committed suicide, must accept the fact that this was their choice. There is no one thing that any of the people in their life did that led him to do what he or she did.
The police agency that the fallen officer worked for must treat this situation very carefully. It is irresponsible of the administration to act as if the suicide had nothing to do with the officer's work and attempt to brush it under the carpet. The department has the responsibility to stand behind the officer's family and support them as they deal with the trauma. Perhaps the department's greatest responsibility is to the surviving members of the agency.
The department must ensure that counselors are made available and critical incident debriefings occur quickly. The department must also ensure that continuing education and training is provided for the officers to reinforce the availability of resources to aid them in times of crisis. It must be made perfectly clear that police suicide is not just a family issue, it is also a police issue.
I unfortunately am able to see this issue from both sides. As a member of a police agency in which one of our officers committed suicide as well as a family member of an officer that committed suicide. Having attended the critical incident debriefing as a police officer and being a family member at my brother-in-law's funeral I have come to two realizations. I am proud to be a member of the Vacaville Police Department, and I am proud of my family. The Vacaville Police Department should be used as a model of how a police agency in the 21st century deals with the suicide of one of its members. Our department was unfortunately tasked with investigating the incident because it occurred in the city. The detectives did so compassionately and thoroughly. The administration never left any doubt that they were behind Dana and the rest of the family. They also provided support and counseling for the other officers within the department. They assisted with the planning of the funeral and treated it as they would any line of duty death. The outpouring of love and support from the officers has been overwhelming. This is a situation that occurs far too often, but it is the first for our department. They handled it superbly.
My family's tragedy is similar to many police suicides but different at the same time. Those that love Wayne saw no warning signs. He appeared to be abundantly happy, he was always talking about the future. Wayne was one of the 10% of officers that commit suicide when they have not been drinking. All of these facts make his suicide even more difficult to deal with. Depression is a disease, like any disease if it goes untreated it can be fatal. Unfortunately there are often no outward symptoms of depression, but the internal pain can be unbearable.
Since August 21, 2004 I have often said, to whoever will listen, that even this tragedy may have something positive come out of it. An officer who is in emotional turmoil may see the aftermath of Wayne's suicide in my family and my agency. That officer may decide that they do not want to do that to their family and friends. If Wayne's death leads one or two officers to seek the help they need then that may be his legacy.
Baker, Thomas E., and Jane P. Baker. "Preventing Police Suicide." The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Oct, 1996: 3pp.. 01 Sept. 2004
Gilmartin, Kevin M. Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. Tucson: E-S Press, 2002.
Kirschman, Ellen. I Love a Cop. New York: The Guilford Press, 1997.
Lewis, Claude. "Police Suicide is an Alarming Problem Rarely Discussed Publicly". Tears of a cop. 01 Sept. 2004
Marcus, Eric. Why Suicide? San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996.
McNally, Vincent J. "Stress in the Law Enforcement Family". Trauma reduction. 02 Sept. 2004
Turvey, Brent E. "Police Officers: Control, Hopelessness, & Suicide". Corpus-delecti. 01 Sept. 2004
Copyright 2005 David Kellis. Cannot be reprinted and/or republished without the expressed written consent of the author. For permission to use this article, email David at Davjozac1@aol.com