By Anthony Loomis, University of Oklahoma
Research Problem Statement
Law enforcement has one of the highest rates of suicide in the United States. This is an ongoing problem with no end in sight. As long as there are traumatic events, there will be police suicide because we have not given officers the tools needed to handle what they deal with daily. There are many things that play into the suicide of officers including outside stressors, bureaucratic stressors, and internal stressors. Stack (2001) states that law enforcement suicide rates are some of the most studied in literature. This paper will identify the stressors that are prevalent in law enforcement that make them more likely to commit suicide and will analyze the biology, psychology, and social aspects associated with suicide in police officers. It is important for law enforcement officers to know and understand that they often are the first line of intervention when peers are exposed to trauma (Chapin, M., Brannen, S. J., Singer, M. I., & Walker, M., 2008).
The purpose of the research paper is to find the common areas of stress that lead to police suicide as well as determine if officers are predisposed to violent tendencies based on their jobs. It will also discuss how agencies and other officers can recognize when an officer is struggling and intervene.
One of the main aspects that will be studied is the sociological aspect of why officers commit suicide. Many believe that police are more prone to suicide because of the unique stressors that are involved with police work (Chapin et al., 2008). The second aspect is the biological aspect. It takes a certain type of person to become an officer. According to Haberfeld (2001), police officers want power more than the average individual. The final aspect that will be explored is the psychological aspect. Higher rates of suicide among officers is often credited to shift work, the publics antipolice rhetoric, and the court’s failure to appropriately punish offenders (Stack, 2001).
Police suicide has become a topic of much discussion. Many are trying to figure out how to process suicide rates while others are trying to figure out how to stop them from occurring altogether. According to Haberfeld (2001), police work is often misunderstood and tends to be glamorized and embellished. People tend to think that it is all about the power or danger when in reality it is a calling that enables someone to put their life on the line daily to protect others. This is an issue that society has garnered because of their misconstrued views of officers.
The biology behind why officers are prone to suicide is complicated. According to Currier and Mann (2009), the HPA axis may be part of suicidal behavior in the context of acute stress responses to proceedings before to the suicidal act. Times of high stress will modify the brain and make the neuron systems behave differently which can lead to suicidal thoughts or ideas.
The personality of a person is another facet of determining the likelihood of suicide. Herndon (2001), states that there are indeed differences in personality between those that succeeded in committing suicide and those who attempted without success. In his opinion, this means so people could be open intervention during times of crisis. According to Benner (2001), police have to suppress their emotions while on duty to command presence and remain objective. This suppression can lead to a change of behaviors and ideas as the officers spend more years on the force.
Law enforcement is the most studied occupation regarding suicide. Police officers are considered to have a high suicide rate compared to the general population. The reasons behind this are attributed to shift work, the public’s anti-law enforcement sentiment, the lack of the courts follow through to punish offenders, and the overall danger of the job (Stack, 2001). Police tend to have a higher suicide rate due to demographic factors. White males have a rate of twice that of African American males, men have a four times higher risk than women, and people who are divorced have a higher rate. Law enforcement is a white male-dominated profession and law enforcement has one of the highest rates of divorce. Just these factors alone, predispose officers to suicide more than other professions.
Police work is a stressful line of work in comparison to many other careers. According to Chapin et al. (2008), the “top five stressors in police work are killing someone in the line of duty, a fellow officer getting killed, being physically attacked, working with a battered child, and high-speed chases” (p. 339). These traumatic exposures can cause reactions such as sleeplessness, emotional detachment, hypervigilance, and shock. Most of the time, these reactions go away with support and talking about the event. However, if these feelings do not resolve and social impairment continues, it could become acute stress disorder. If the reactions persist, the officer may be experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is the leadership’s role to recognize when their officers are struggling and have the tools to intervene. Immediate intervention at the time of exposure is most likely to be done by peers or supervisors (Chapin et al., 2008). Leaders should take an active role in reinforcing how to deal with occupational stressors as well as knowing when to step in. It is the leader’s role to set an example of being in control while feeling distress and to remind everyone that stress is common. Leaders should stay in touch with their officers to make sure that everyone is working through the situation and to control rumors by reporting the facts of the situation.
People have various ways of coping with stress. Due to the nature of police work, officers often turn to drugs and/or alcohol to cope. Police officers see and hear some of the most horrific things in society. They are typically the first ones on the scene of a horrible accident, the ones that find the lost child, and the ones that must tell parents that their child is gone forever. Most of society cannot imagine the things that officers deal with daily. Police are held to a higher standard than other professions. They are in a line of work where situations that they deal with are volatile, and sometimes they must make fast decisions on emotional conditions. Officers know that they will make mistakes that they will be publicly judged for them (Haberfeld, 2001).
Harberfeld (2001), introduces the concept of the FIT (feelings, inputs, tactics) model. To an officer, things like counseling and support denote weakness instead of help like intended. However, officers still need to express their fears and frustrations. Harberfeld (2001), thinks that the best way to deal with these issues is to build in a tool that will allow officers to express their feelings without the fear of being judged. Like in staff meetings, time must be set aside for officers to divulge their feelings. No one should be excused even if they feel that they have nothing to share. “Only by securing the attendance of the entire personnel of a given agency will it be possible to get rid of the stigma – the label and provide for a productive and preventative forum” (Harberfeld, 2008, p. 95).
The idea of the FIT model should ideally be introduced during the academy. Officers must be introduced to the integrated model of emotional self-defense (FIT model) the same way they are to other tools, like physical self-defense. Once the FIT model is started in the academy, in-service training should begin. Meetings should be held on a consistent basis and emphasis should be placed on the fact that it is a mandatory meeting. There is not one designated leader of the meeting, but each meeting would start with someone volunteering to share their feelings of “injustice.” After the first person shares their experience, a discussion would open for ideas and ways to deal with the situation (Harberfeld, 2001). The FIT model is one that if used appropriately, could have a positive outcome on the agency when dealing with situations that arise.
When an officer commits suicide, the whole agency is affected. Every department should have a process for dealing with the aftermath of an officer suicide. It is hard to make decisions when emotions are involved and decisions made will often be second-guessed. If there is a protocol in place, then leadership will be able to devote more attention to their department’s reaction. Another issue that leadership must deal with is the circulation of rumors regarding what happened. Ideally, the department should meet with all officers shortly after the incident so that there is no time for rumors to start (Brewster & Broadfoot, 2001).
A plan for responding to an officer suicide most likely will not vary from that of an officer lost in the line of duty. There should be a funeral protocol which includes deciding ahead of time if an officer who commits suicide will be buried with honors or not. This is not something that should be decided at the time of the suicide but should be in written policy well in advance. The next part of the protocol should discuss how to facilitate visiting officers who have come to grieve. This part of the protocol should be the same as a line of duty death. The most important part of the protocol is the use of psychological services for the other officers of the department. The department should have relationships with local counselors, ministers, and other mental health professionals to respond in the departments time of need (Brewster & Broadfoot, 2001).
Police officers are put through a rigorous selection process compared to any other profession. Officers are put through mental and physical tests. They undergo evaluations of their mental stability to ensure that they have the emotional and mental ability to stay calm and steady under pressure. The extensive testing ensures that police officers have the psychological well-being to handle the pressures of being an officer (Mullins, 2001).
Currier and Mann (2009), concluded that stress could be looked at from two perspectives with regard to genes and biology. Exposure to stress at an early age has lasting damaging effects on the still developing neurobiological systems that are thought to be part of what controls suicidal ideations. Second, damages in stress response systems may be directly involved in suicidal ideations. In both cases, genes could contribute to tainted neurobiological functions. Much is still unknown about which genes have the most influence in suicidal tendencies.
Substance abuse is too common among police officers. Like other first responders, officers may use substances to cope with the stress of their jobs. Studies have shown that substance abuse rates are higher among first responders than the general population. Similar studies show that first responders also have a higher rate of suicide than other occupations. Excessive substance abuse modifies the chemicals in the brain which can make officers more likely to commit suicide.
The most effective thing departments should do is to train their officers on PTSD related issues. This should include what factors can influence their responses to a traumatic incident including predisposing factors and how they can exercise some control over those factors (Mullins, 2001).
As part of his doctoral dissertation, Benner (2001), studied 44 subjects that he had previously performed the MMPI and CPI on. What he found was that veteran officers tend to be closed-down emotionally. Of the 44 officers questioned, 13 stated that they felted they were more cynical, nine felt they were more conservative, five said they were more prejudiced, five reported they were more assertive and confident, four stated that they had become less tolerant and two said they had become less compassionate (p. 37). “Law enforcement involves controlling others. To effectively control others, officers must first be in control of themselves” (Benner, 2001, p. 38).
Police officers are a unique breed of person. Fear is not an emotion they will entertain until well after the incident is over. Anger is avoided and can derail plans. Revulsion must be resisted. Empathy should be held in check and should be viewed as a balancing act between comfort and restoring order. Police officers must know how to suppress their emotions quickly and effectively (Benner, 2001).
Officers should be taught realistic expectations and understand that they are not superheroes. They are human and need to understand that their occupation does not mean they are given a special status in behavior or psychology. With that, officers need to be trained to recognize their reactions once they have been exposed to a traumatic incident. Agencies have the responsibility to train officers how to react to their peers that are suffering from PTSD. Officers often do not know how to react to other officers who are suffering and tend to say or do things that worsen the officer’s reaction. Agencies should train managers to understand what happens to people when they are exposed to traumatic events as well as trained to spot the signs of worsening depression and possible suicide (Mullins, 2001).
Law enforcement does not like to be looked at as weak. Therefore, they tend to bottle their emotions and feelings of traumatic incidents instead of seeking the help they need to cope. Just like the general population, the impact of loos, depression, anxiety, isolation, substance abuse, and pain are a deadly cocktail that could lead anyone who is vulnerable to the same fate of suicide (Benner, 2001). Officers need to understand that they are not invincible.
While suicide in cops is an ongoing issue, there is help for those officers suffering. Officers should know that they are not alone and can reach out for help. Several years ago, I met a man that has struggled through everything that this paper discusses. Sean was a veteran officer with the Kirkland Police Department, in Washington state. After getting hurt on the job, he began abusing his pain medications as well as turning to alcohol. In 2005, he was federally indicted for doctor shopping. Sean knew he needed to reach out for help with he was contemplating killing himself. Instead, of following through, he reached out for help. In doing this, he realized that there are many first responders that wanted to help people in his situation but due to the stigma attached, they would not. Because of this, he created Safe Call Now. Safe Call Now is a confidential 24-hour crisis referral service for all first responders. Sean is proof that suicide does not have to be the answer and because he realized this, he is reaching out to other first responders to show them the same.
Police officers are always in the public’s eye and lately, constantly criticized for doing their jobs. Officers and leadership alike must be able to detect when an officer is suffering and know how to intervene correctly to save a life.
Benner, A. (2001). Suicide in San Francisco: Lessons learned and preventions. In D. C. Sheehan, & J. I. Warren (Eds.), Suicide and Law Enforcement (pp. 31-44). Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Brewster, J., & Broadfoot, P. A. (2001). Lessons learned: Suicide in a small police department. In D. C. Sheehan, & J. I. Warren (Eds.), Suicide and Law Enforcement (pp. 45-56). Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Chapin, M., Brannen, S. J., Singer, M. I., & Walker, M. (2008). Training police leadership to recognize and address operational stress. Police Quarterly, 11(3), 338-352. Sage Publications.
Currier, D., & Mann, J. (2009). Stress, genes and the biology of suicidal behavior. Psychiatric Clinic of North America, 31(2), 247-269. doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2008.01.005
Haberfeld, M. (2001). From critical incident stress to police suicide: Prevention through mandatory academy and on-the-job training programs. In D. C. Sheehan, & J. I. Warren (Eds.), Suicide and Law Enforcement (pp. 83-96). Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Herndon, J. S. (2001). Law enforcement suicide: Psychological autopsies and psychometric traces. In D. C. Sheehan, & J. I. Warren (Eds.), Suicide and Law Enforcement (pp. 223-233). Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mullins, W. C. (2001). The relationship between police officer suicide and posttraumatic stress disorder. In D. C. Sheehan, & J. I. Warren (Eds.), Suicide and Law Enforcement (pp. 257-265). Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Stack, S. (2001). Occupation and suicide. Social Science Quarterly, 82(2), 384-396. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42955727
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