During 2017, a high number of suicides continued to plague the law enforcement community. As of the year’s end, a raw number of 102 self-inflicted deaths have been identified. Many such deaths, currently hidden, remain to be identified for the year but will come to light and be publicized as 2018 progresses and further reports come in. A number of other cases do evade detection because of agencies that conceal them when they occur—an occurrence that is all too frequent. Using past reliable experience, patterns and research, however, we compensate mathematically at the end of the year for those that are deliberately hidden or misreported. This formula is consistent with that used and verified in past years. After using it, we were able to pin down a final number of 140 police suicides in 2017.
Sadly, this figure of 140 reverses a hoped-for trend in the past two years, which suggested police suicides might be going down for the first time.
A variety of techniques are used to find and track police suicides. The Badge of Life non-profit organization has been tallying police suicides since 2008, with an average of 130 deaths for each past year studied. It reviews approximately 16,000 suicide-related press reports and internet articles each year and tracks social media to identify law enforcement self-inflicted deaths. Blue H.E.L.P., another non-profit that teams with Badge of Life, publicizes and makes available an online form by which families and associates can submit their cases.
The Badge of Life study, for clarity, includes only fully sworn traditional “police officers,” and does not include assorted categories such as retirees, separated officers, animal control, wildlife, reserve officers, prison/corrections, etc. Although important and related, some of these occupations are studied and/or included by organizations like Blue H.E.L.P.
Based on available figures, the average age for a police suicide was 42 years. Time on the job averaged 16 years. 96 percent of suicides were males. By the end of the year, five chiefs/sheriffs were known to be lost, six lieutenants, and nine sergeants. The remainder of suicides were officers and deputies.
Guns, which are so readily available in the profession, continue to be the overwhelming means of suicide among police officers. There were three overdoses, one poisoning and two hangings during the year.
Some facts of interest: based on the 2017 figure, more officers died of suicide during the year than were killed in the line of duty. Approximately twelve officers take their own lives each month. The rate for police suicides in 2017 was back up to 16/100,000, compared to a public rate of 13.5/100,000.
The deep seated causes remain a mystery. Many, it is believed, result from the stresses of the job, PTSD, depression, etc.—but are rarely reported as such by departments. “Psychological autopsies” or reviews are not done to identify a cause. Stigma, sadly, appears to be a key hindrance among agencies, as does an apparent fear of financial obligation for a work-related death.
In spite of the relatively steady pattern of deaths over the years, the figure for 2017 is distressing in that we can’t seem to keep these numbers down. Police agencies around the country, to their credit, have been implementing a variety of programs to lessen the problem—but the number of suicides remains high. Common strategies have included “suicide prevention training,” peer support programs, chaplaincies, the hiring of departmental mental health workers, employee assistance programs and mandatory screenings of police personnel every six months or year. Well intentioned, these ideas are definitely helpful but still do not completely resolve the issue of the officer who so typically shows no signs or symptoms of a pending suicide to the department or co-workers. These cases are common scenarios—nothing at all is seen by them to forewarn what is about to happen.
Too often lost in the mix is the importance of truly confidential, professional help for officers on an ongoing basis. Emphasis has been placed for years by Badge of Life on departments encouraging personnel to take advantage of private psychologists and therapists for routine, voluntary “mental health checks” each year. This means everyone in the department. While for many agencies a “mandatory” system is chosen, the problem with some officers having to see a departmental specialist (even an employee assistance program) is out-and-out “fear”—many are naturally suspicious that any revelation of stress, depression or anxiety will find its way in a report to the agency’s leadership and result in desk duty, suspension or even termination, particularly if an injury like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is identified. Strongly encouraging personnel and even compensating them to safely see a private professional outside the department overcomes that problem and can be the best gateway to a healthy career—a clear benefit to both the individual and the agency. Few officers are willing to lose their jobs and take a limited pension—if they can get it–because of stress.
It’s worthy of note that there are officers who do continue their careers while being on helpful medications, such as antidepressants, that do not affect their alertness while on duty.
Utilization of an “outside” therapist or psychologist, whether at the department’s cost (such as time off for the visit) or even the officer’s expense–can have a number of significant advantages, particularly when it comes to ensuring a long and healthy career. Instead of perceiving it as a “fitness for duty” examination, the ideal place for them to go is a private one in which they are completely safe to vent, explore and resolve issues that may have arisen during the year. Instead of a one-visit “evaluation,” which must process many people, problems can be identified and healthy coping mechanisms developed individually. With a system such as suggested, personnel are encourage to review the past year, see what has been working and what, perhaps, has not been working so well—and find better ways to cope.
Ron Clark, Board Chairman of Badge of Life, describes law enforcement as “one of the most toxic, caustic career fields in the world,” comparable to being in a war zone. However, rather than being subject to periodic assignments to combat duty, which are disturbing in and of themselves, police officers are exposed to weekly and even daily traumatic events throughout their careers that would make anyone cringe in horror. Their risk for emotional pain and hurt are real. Rather than allowing it to build and have catastrophic consequences, they need to have a place to deal with their issues. Mere classroom training, he notes, is not enough—they deserve the best of actual care in order to continue healthy careers.
In the meantime, current programs should certainly be continued—because they do help. Peer support efforts, for example, are valuable and do provide relief from daily, routine issues and problems. Confidentiality in these programs, often, is not as available as it is with a private therapist or psychologist, however, and additional resources must be identified and utilized by departments to deal with truly personal issues.
One measure of hope has to do with a new and younger generation of police officers that are coming into the fold. Long lasting attitudes, stigmas and fears about discussing mental health are gradually eroding. There is still a chance that, as these officers continue to permeate the ranks and fill the leadership, more law enforcement personnel will not only seek help “when it’s needed,” but do so before it’s needed. The future still holds promise and, with time, we hope to see a positive change in the current pattern.
Andy O’Hara is the founder and a board member of the Badge of Life organization. Andy has co-authored one book and has written numerous articles for publication. He is an advanced peer support officer, working with individuals to find appropriate help and ways to deal with law enforcement issues. Andy is a 24-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, was suicidal and retired with PTSD.