POLICE SUICIDE, WHAT CAN BE DONE? By: Teresa T. Tate
Cops are seven times more likely to take their own lives than other Americans. There is a disturbing policy of silence when it comes to prevent and helping survivors cope.
The national statistics for police officers killed in the line of duty in 1995 was l62. The New York City Police Department lost one officer in the line of duty and seven officers to suicide.
The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) lost one special agent in the line of duty and five to suicide.
Two of the largest and most respected law enforcement agencies in this country have experienced more suicides in one year than many smaller law enforcement agencies will ever endure.
The exact number of police officers committing suicide is unknown. These statistics are not centrally maintained and recorded.
It is not known if this tragedy occurs to a particular age group, gender, ethnic group, or even a specific geographical area. To date, there have been no completed studies or surveys on law enforcement suicides. The American Association of Suicidology disclosed that in 1992, 30,000 Individuals committed suicide In the United States. Of that group, 20,000 committed suicide by using a firearm. How many were law enforcement officers?
As a widow of a police officer who committed suicide in 1989, I know of the stress that is placed upon law enforcement officers in this violent society. Many officers believe that seeking help from a mental health professional is a sign of weakness.
Officers experiencing emotional distress believe they are unable to confide in their peers and worry about the reactions or retributions from within the agency.
The fear of losing their status or their job within the agency is overwhelming for many. Several months before my husband's death, his doctor diagnosed him as suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. The doctor wanted to prescribe an antidepressant, but my husband declined taking the medication.
At that time, the police department was conducting random drug tests and he feared he might lose his job.
The stress level that these officers encounter on a daily basis is getting higher and higher. How are the police departments training these men and women to deal with the stress of their jobs? Their lives are in danger every day when they patrol the streets. Their adrenaline pumps up on each call. They cannot let their guard down. If they do, they are all too aware of the Possibility of line-of-duty death.
A police officer generally works a 10-hour shift. During those 10 hours, an officer may have responded to a domestic dispute, a robbery, a rape, an innocent child hit by a drunk driver, or even witness the results of a teenage suicide.
If the officer is working the night shift and is scheduled for court the following day, the officer's day is not over when the shift ends. Not only has that officer put in a 10-hour shift, but now will have to testify and recall events that may have happened several months ago.
Once the officer has completed his duty in court, the remainder of the day will be for sleep. And when the sun goes down that evening, the shift starts once again.
How do you recognize if an officer is contemplating suicide? What are the signs? Are law enforcement agencies training their officers to notice these signs among their own peers? Is the issue liability? One could say that not only was the officer trained by their department to shoot a firearm, but that same department issued and authorized the officer to carry the weapon.
There are some law enforcement agencies that have been unfortunate enough to have experienced this tragedy several times in a year and the statistics continue to rise.
What programs have these agencies developed in assisting fellow officers to cope with such a tragedy? Do the agencies provide counseling after the suicide? If so, why do officers fear counseling prior to taking their own life?
As we struggle to understand why an individual chooses to end their own life, law enforcement agencies need to respond to survivors with understanding, compassion and support. I have spoken to many survivors of law enforcement suicides, and have discovered that there are no emotional support systems for these survivors. Many law enforcement agencies are reluctant to discuss this Issue and through the department's denial and inability to cope with such a tragedy, any efforts to provide assistance to the survivors are minimal.
There are no shortage of support groups these days. In any town in America, you arc likely to find support groups for eating disorders, cancer survivors, alcohol and drug addiction. If your pet has died, there is a grief support group for pet owners. But there is a lack of support groups for survivors of police officers who have committed suicide.
Not only do these survivors feel the pain of grief, they feel the isolation that is forced on them by members of their "police family."
Is the way a person dies anymore painful than another? When an officer is killed in the line of duty, the reactions are shock, denial, and anger. The same reactions occur when an officer commits suicide. Although the reaction may be the same, the response is different. Accepting the fact that an individual chose to end their own life can be an impossible task.
It is difficult to know what to say or do for these survivors, but it is important to remember that suicide is an individual act.
The person themselves made the decision to take his or her own life. Whether you believe it was morally, religiously or spiritually right or wrong, the decision was made and cannot be undone. Why an individual takes their life is a question that goes unanswered. If you did not recognize the signs, then how could you possibly know the answer?
(Teresa Tate was married to a police officer who committed suicide in 1989.)