The average citizen when asked “what are the deadliest 12-hours in the day for law enforcement officers,” are likely to respond, “probably while they are at work.” Many believing it would be in the commission of the first responder’s duties, and would likely be the result direct or indirect result of homicide, accident, or health-related issues. Sadly, this just isn’t true.
What the Data Shows
The deadliest 12 hours of the day for the first responder begins the moment they go off-duty. According to 1 Is Too Many a group tracking law enforcement and corrections officer suicides, the silent killer claiming more lives in the 12 deadliest hours of the day is SUICIDE. Essentially, it is more dangerous for a first responder to be off-duty than to be working.
The majority of the suicide deaths in the data collected by 1 Is Too Many are noted as occurring “off-duty” to include those who just got off shift and those failing to report for duty that were subsequently discovered deceased due to suicide. In addition, the data collected and verified for 2019 by 1 Is Too Many, shows a basic profile of an officer who dies by suicide is a married, White male with children, with the largest concentration in their 40’s. However, it should be noted that there was also a heavy concentration from the 30’s through the 50’s in the collected data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018), indicates the largest concentrations of those in policing, to include: first line supervisors, detectives, corrections, and patrol are represented from 25-54 years of age (p. 2). These age groups are also representative of the largest concentrations in the active workforce and include men in middle years (MIMY). According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) (2016), MIMY are classified as those aged 35-64. This group accounts for less than 20 percent of the U.S. population, yet “…account for 40 percent of the suicides in this country” (p. 5). In addition, as these males age (that is 65 and beyond), their risk for suicide is not decreased, but rather increased with age (SPRC, 2016, p. 8).
What is Happening Off-Duty?
So, the question must be asked: What is occurring during these off hours that are placing officers at risk for suicide? Well, life. Things that include, but are not limited to: substance use, relationship issues, communication problems, stress from personal issues, dealing with pain (physical, emotional, and psychological), mental health issues, dealing with the stress of work-related issues, addressing financial issues, sleep troubles, etc. The truth, every family is dealing with something and it’s not usually one thing. According to Dr. Robert Douglas, Founder of the National Police Suicide Foundation, the why is often found in the where when discussing completed suicide. There may be issues associated with the physical location of the act and correlation to the why. For example, someone going back to a place frequented with a loved one or a place that was significant, special, or even problematic. The personal residence is a common place for suicides to occur, often because this is a place of comfort and a place that one is familiar with. However, many other things occur “behind closed doors” in the home that can increase the risk of completed suicide.
One very common issue faced in many homes are financial issues. According to Friedman (2019) nearly 80% of American homes live paycheck to paycheck. This is not only stressful, but financial issues are the second leading cause of divorce and break up (Cruze, 2018), with leading cause being infidelity. In addition, Cruze explains that approximately two-thirds of marriages actually start off in debt. This is already setting the tone for future issues. However, money issues in a police household are not just money issues, but can very easily become TRUST issues. It is often not so much about the purchase (e.g., the new gun or the new purse), but often about things that are often not discussed prior to issues arising (e.g., spending habits, honesty about how much was spent, and living outside of one’s means). Things which, if discovered can have adverse effects on the relationship. Relationship issues and the end of a relationship can cause extreme stress, vulnerability, and insecurity of the future and can lead to an increased suicide risk.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you or someone in your home is over spending. The other party or parties discover the overspending and there is a verbal confrontation. The verbal confrontation escalates and the next thing you know there is a physical altercation. In the moment one party is yelling how much they hate you, that they are going to leave you and it is over. What if we add alcohol and a firearm to the mix. Things can become serious or even deadly in a matter of moments. So, this issue about someone over spending is not just a financial concern. It is now affecting your relationships, your emotional and physical health due to worry about high interest rates and making the minimum payments, your physical safety, and added stress from lying and hiding purchases. If the fighting has escalated to physical or emotional violence, there may be the additional stress of others finding out, fear of losing a job, additional violence, or the inability to pay off the debt. This can lead to substance use as a way to deal with the stress, which can affect things like sleep, emotional regulation, problem-solving and can become a vicious and debilitating cycle.
I mean let’s be honest: would you go to work and tell a co-worker that you and your significant other got into a violent verbal and physical altercation because of their overspending? Would you share that your loved one is a chronic over-spender who has led to your house being foreclosed on and bills going unpaid? Would you tell your co-worker that in the heat of the argument you gave your loved one a black eye and a busted lip? Do you share that the stress in your house is unbearable and you both consume too much alcohol? Does this sound like something you would share? If you are being honest with yourself, the answer is no. In fact, there are probably very few people you would confide in about something this serious.
What do you do? You keep doing what you have always done, pretend this is normal and probably keep fighting and arguing. You keep doing this until… The until can be the realization that something needs to change. A positive change would be to seek financial assistance, but all too often what occurs is two people living separate lives, the loss of a relationship in the form of a divorce or separation, one or both parties end up facing arrest due to domestic violence, or it could be even worse (e.g., suicide or murder/suicide).
Making a Safety Plan
The reality is many families are struggling in some way. We are often unaware that others may be struggling like us, because they are not talking about it and they are not sharing it. This can easily lead us to feeling isolated and alone and even ashamed. The same things that keep us from communicating our needs and getting help. We often know some of these issues are out of control, but the shame of how we are managing them (or rather not managing them) is not seen as socially acceptable or responsible. We do not want others, especially our peers to know that we may not be managing our lives very well right now. So, we put on the brave face that nothing is wrong and get ready to go back on-duty.
The reality of conducting research in the area of suicide is knowing that firearms are used in approximately half of all completed suicides. When talking about suicide deaths by firearms among law enforcement personnel, that number can be closer to 85-90%. Restricting access to lethal means (i.e., firearms) can seem simple to understand, yet complex to implement. Officers are required to carry a firearm, so means restriction is not an option, at least not while on-duty. However, changing the way we think about firearms in the home may be a great place to start. Other research indicates that proper storage, temporary relocation, and even the separation of weapon and ammunition does reduce the risks of suicide and murder-suicide. Another study showed that living in a house with a firearm that was stored in an unsafe manner was correlated to an increased risk of suicide by firearm. Having a firearm safely secured does not mean that another means cannot be accesses, but what can make a firearm so deadly:
- Individual vulnerability
- Inability to see things getting better
Do you and your family have a plan for your firearm one you get home? If not, you need one. This is extremely important, since impulsivity can play a role in completed suicide. In addition, there is at least one firearm in most law enforcement homes. And knowing what you know now, not having a plan would be irresponsible. This PLAN really needs to be basic and easily understood by all family members. This will include gun safety for children. The idea is to make firearms not readily accessible while off-duty – during the 12 deadliest hours of the day. As with many officers, there will be more than one gun to secure, but all should be secured, especially the duty weapon. The idea is to build protective mechanisms during off-duty hours to reduce bad outcomes – especially those outcomes which can change lives and end them. This plan requires a family meeting about wellness and safety and should be conducted just as you would a fire drill and home escape plan. Safety is safety. When you see a risk, address it.
The 12 deadliest hours of the day are filled with many ups and downs. Often, these ups and downs are only known to a select few individuals, which is often why people are completely devastated and in shock when tragedy occurs. The sad reality, the majority of first responders who take their lives are noted as doing so off-duty. Understand that as we maneuver through our day, many components are constantly changing and how we view our reality is continuously being impacted and altered by our thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, etc. Of course, these are not always a direct reflection of what is actually occurring. Under extreme stress our “views of reality” can be skewed, causing disruption in our though process, problem-solving abilities, and responses. We know that White males make up the majority of those employed in the law enforcement profession. So, seeing this represented in the data is understandable, but still problematic.
The tide is turning, albeit slow to understand two very important things about officer suicide. First, the current approaches to reducing deaths due to suicide are not working. Second, a proactive approach is required in dealing with the issues that can and do lead to one seeing suicide as a viable option. This includes educating officers and their loved ones about issues that they may face and really any issue that can contribute to problems on and off-duty (e.g., relationships, finances, stress, effective communication, occupational stress and trauma, infidelity, substance use, etc.). We must all be more proactive and vigilant during the 12 deadliest hours of the day.
Dr. Olivia Johnson holds a master’s in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and a doctorate in Organizational Leadership Management from the University of Phoenix, School of Advanced Studies. Dr. Johnson is the Founder of the Blue Wall Institute and 1 Is Too Many. She is a veteran of the United States Air Force, a former police officer, and published author. She belongs to numerous professional organizations and recently completed a three-year term with the St. Clair County Suicide Prevention Alliance as a Suicidology Researcher. Dr. Johnson speaks on wellness and resilience for the Bureau of Justice VALOR Program and is on the Advisory Board regarding curriculum review for de-escalation training and techniques. Dr. Johnson currently works as a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research. Correspondence can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org