Police officer suicide: Recognizing the signs and helping our colleagues in distress
Q: Recently, our department was rocked by the suicide of an officer. Although the guy never seemed to be a happy camper, we didn’t know he was depressed enough to take his own life. Is there anything we can learn from this to prevent something like it happening in the future?
A: By asking this question, you just took the first step to constructively dealing with law enforcement’s dirty little secret. Suicidal crises rarely occur in isolation, but are most commonly seen in officers with prior histories of depression, or in those who have recently faced an overwhelming crush of debilitating stressors, leading to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. A typical pattern consists of a slow, smoldering build-up of tension and demoralization, which reaches a “breaking point,” and then rapidly nosedives into a suicidal crisis.
Importantly, suicidal crises tend to be short, which means that timely intervention can literally make a life-or-death difference. With appropriate treatment, about 70 percent of depressed, potentially suicidal persons improve considerably within a few weeks. This hardly means that depressed moods and suicidal thoughts won’t ever occur again, but a history of successful psychological treatment provides a support resource that the individual can rely on if and when the next crisis begins to brew.
Police culture tends to reinforce a professional ethos that resonates with the personal philosophy many officers already bring to the job from their own family and cultural upbringing. This can include a black-or-white, good-or-bad, all-or-nothing perspective on the world and the people in it. Shades of gray are often regarded as the bleeding colors of washed-out conviction and resolve, and this encompasses the officer’s self-perception of his own status as a law enforcement professional and as a human being.
Two primary qualities that almost all officers endorse are self-reliance and perfectionism. Officers come to believe that they should be able to handle most situations with a minimum of help, and that a long record of success can be undone by a single mistake.
At the same time, part of the gratification the police role brings lies in the respect it garners among civilians, the camaraderie felt among brother officers, and the admiration of family and friends. Unfortunately, this orientation leaves little room for acceptance of fallibility or error. An officer’s brittle shell self-esteem may shatter if barraged by professional or family stresses, especially in combination.
For such an officer, shame is a far worse emotion than fear, and losing the respect of his peers or the support of his family is perceived as more critical than losing a limb or a lung to a suspect’s bullet.
Worse, within this all-or-nothing value system, should the officer begin to feel overwhelmed and depressed, his inability to “suck it up” and “snap out of it” only reinforces his self-image as a loser. Completing the vicious cycle, some of this self-loathing may be projected onto others in the form of irritation or hostility, further alienating the officer from potential sources of support which in turn, only confirms his sense of isolation and abandonment. Add to this volatile mixture the ready access to a lethal firearm, stir in liberal amounts of alcohol, and this creates the perfect recipe for a suicidal explosion.
Inasmuch as the best form of crisis intervention is crisis prevention, there is much that law enforcement agencies can do address officer depression and suicide.
First and foremost, the problem needs to come out in the open. Both command and line officers need to educate themselves as to the nature of police stress, syndromes of impairment, and good and bad ways of coping.
Next, officers should receive training in crisis intervention skills that they can apply to fellow officers in a similar way as they do with distressed citizens on patrol. This is, in fact, the rationale behind the peer counseling programs that have been set up in many departments.
Also, supervisors must be alert to signs of depression and other problems that are affecting the officers under their command. Finally, there has to be a convenient and non-stigmatized system for referring distressed officers for psychological help, and this must be framed in health-maintenance context, not as a disciplinary procedure.
Warning Signs of Officer Suicide
Supervisors, fellow officers, family members and friends can all be valuable resources in identifying officers in distress who may be at risk for suicide. Clues may be few or many, verbal or behavioral, direct or indirect, with any combination possible.
Threatening self. Verbal self-threats can be direct: “I’d be better off eating my gun;” or indirect: “Enjoy the good times while you can—they never last.”
Threatening others. Often, self-loathing is transmuted into hostility toward others, especially toward those believed to be responsible for the officer’s plight. Verbal threats against others can be direct: “I oughta cap that damn lieutenant for writing me up;” or indirect: “People with that kind of attitude deserve whatever’s coming to them.”
Nothing to lose. The officer behaves insubordinately, without regard to career repercussions: “I’ll drink or smoke what I want, on or off duty. So what if I pee positive? What are they gonna do—fire me? Arrest me? Shoot me?” Or he recklessly puts himself in danger on the job—a kind of “passive suicide.”
Weapon surrender. The officer may fear his own impulses, but be reluctant to admit it: “As long as I’m on desk duty this week, can I keep my gun in my locker? It’s a pain to lug it around the station.”
Weapon overkill. This is the exact opposite pattern: the officer begins carrying more than one backup weapon, or begins to keep especially powerful weapons in his vehicle or on his person, supposedly “for protection.”
Cry for help. “Things are getting too hairy out here; I think I may need to check into the Bug Hilton to get my act together.”
Brotherhood of the damned. “You know that news story about the cop in Ohio who killed his family and himself? I know how that poor bastard felt.”
Overwhelmed. “My wife just left me, my checks are bouncing, I’m drinking again, and the Internal Affairs ferrets are crawling up my butt. I just can’t take all this.”
No way out. “If that Review Board burns me again, that’s my last strike. I could go to jail for just trying to do my job? No friggin’ way that’s happening.”
Final plans. Without necessarily saying anything, the officer may be observed making or changing a will, paying off debts, showing an increased interest in religion, giving away possessions, making excessive donations to charities, and so on.
Intervention with the suicidal officer
If the warning signs have been missed, the first chance to intervene with a depressed, suicidal officer may come when the crisis is already peaking. The intervener’s task now is to keep the officer alive long enough to get appropriate follow-up care, and this can be accomplished by applying some fundamental principles of crisis intervention.
Define the Problem. While some personal crises relate to a specific incident, many evolve cumulatively as the result of a number of overlapping stressors, until a “breaking point” is reached. In such cases, the officer himself may be unclear as to what exactly led to the present suicidal state. By helping the officer clarify what’s plaguing him, nonlethal options and coping resources may be explored. It also shows that the intervener is listening and trying to understand.
Officer: My life is out of control. I don’t see any way out.
Intervener: What’s out of control?
O: Everything, man, everything. The job, my wife – it’s all crap.
I: Can you give me an example? What about the job?
O: I work like a slave all year, put in for extra overtime, volunteer for the Chief’s pet programs, and then they tell me the city says there’s no more raises, overtime, or bonuses this year – that’s after we already put the down payment on the new house.
I: Is that related to the wife thing?
O: Yeah, so she’s all over me now because she’s scared we’ll lose the house. So it’s nonstop fighting. And on top of that, IA’s now reopening my file because of some more bogus complaints.
I: So you got caught by surprise with the no-raise thing, plus the investigation, and now all the family plans are backed up. And everybody’s freaked.
O: Yeah, that’s about it.
Without seeming tricky or manipulative, the intervener should encourage the officer to put even a few short steps between the idea of self-destruction and the action.
I: Is there anything in there with you that could hurt you?
O: I got my service Glock with a full mag. Yeah, that could hurt someone.
I: Any chance of you putting the gun away while we talk?
O: So what, so you can all bust in here and drag me away to the nut house?
I: Actually, I just want to make sure you’re safe. If you’re gonna do something, then you’re gonna do it; but for right now, how about popping out the mag and the cap in the chamber, and putting everything on the table in front of you. That way, if you really want the gun, it’s right there, but at least you’ll give yourself a second to think about it.
Remember that the purpose of crisis intervention is not to solve all of the officer’s problems in this one encounter, but to instill just enough motivation for him or her to emerge from the danger zone. The intervener should keep the conversation focused on resolving the present crisis, perhaps gently suggesting that the larger issues can be dealt with later – which subtly implies that there will indeed be a “later.” In the meantime, just “being there” with the officer helps reduce his sense of isolation.
I: When a lot of crap happens at once, it can seem like that’s all there ever was, even if there was some good stuff tucked away in there.
O: Good stuff, what good stuff?
I: Sometimes looking at things in a different way, trying things out you didn’t do before, sometimes just staying away from certain people or situations, things like that. At least it may be worth a shot. But right now, all I’m saying is I hear where you’re coming from, I hear a world of hurt, and I’m hoping you can get things together for yourself.
O: I dunno, man, but hey, thanks anyway.
Often, subjects in crisis are so fixated on their pain and hopelessness that their cognitive tunnel vision prevents them from seeing any way out. The intervener should gently expand the range of nonlethal options for resolving the crisis situation. Typically, this takes one of two forms: accessing practical supports and utilizing coping mechanisms.
Practical Supports. Are there any persons or groups that are immediately available to help the officer through the crisis until he or she can obtain follow-up care? The intervener must always be mindful of the risks and liabilities of relying on these support people instead of professional responders, and should be prepared to make the call to commit the officer involuntarily if he truly represents a danger to himself.
O: I already told you, I’m not going to some damn hospital to be locked up and pumped full of drugs.
I: Okay, let’s leave the hospital out of it. I know you told me about your problems with the department and your wife, but is there anyone you know out there who you trust, who could stand up for you and help you out?
O: I dunno, maybe my friend Mike. We were in Desert Storm together, and we got to be buddies. He’s a good guy, down to earth.
I: If Mike agreed to look after you for the rest of the weekend, till things cool off, would that be okay with you?
O: I guess so.
Coping Mechanisms. These can consist of cognitive strategies, religious faith, distracting activities, accessing positive images and memories of family, or successful handling of crises in the past, that show the officer that hope is at least possible.
I: You said something earlier about how you’ve had crap happen to you before. Can you give me an example?
O: Well, about six years ago, I got fired from a job for stealing, but it was really some other guy who pinned it on me. Their investigation was sloppy, so I filed a union grievance, and we ended up working out a deal where I’d resign and the charges wouldn’t go on my record. Even though I wasn’t guilty, I took the deal. That’s how I got my next security job, which led me to apply to the Police Academy.
I: So you went from almost being busted to becoming a cop. It was terrible to be falsely accused, but you handled it, and you made it come out the best way possible. When you put your mind to something, it seems, you’re able to work it out.
Make a Plan and Obtain Commitment
Again, this involves a combination of both practical supports and coping mechanisms, as well as both short- and longer-term plans.
I: Okay, I want to make sure I have everything straight. You’re gonna chill with Mike for the weekend, and first thing Monday morning, you’re gonna contact your EAP or go over to County Clinic so you can get some help in dealing with this, all right?
O: Now I gotta see a shrink for the rest of my life?
I: Probably not. But you may need a few sessions just to straighten things out. Let’s do this right, so that in a couple of months, it’ll all be just a bad memory, okay?
O: It’s gonna be a long weekend, man.
I: Hey, I respect what you’re doing; it’s not easy. But you’ll make it.
Post-Crisis Mental Health Intervention
As in any area of crisis psychology, there is no cookbook “formula” for dealing with the problem of police officer suicide, but applying the fundamental lessons delineated here may not only save an officer’s life in the short term, but even nudge his or her career in a more productive long-term direction.
To learn more about this topic, see:
Miller, L. (2005). Police officer suicide: Causes, prevention, and practical intervention strategies. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, 7, 101-114.
[Reprints available from the author: send request and mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org].
Miller, L. (2006). Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. [Learn more about this book at www.ccthomas.com].
Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.