07/25/2007

For police, suicides all too common

By Gary A. Harki
Charleston Gazette
Related: The Suicidal Officer: Confronting our brothers and sisters

WEST VIRGINIA The suicide of West Virginia State Police Cpl. Marlo Gonzales is one of more than 1,300 law enforcement officer suicides since 2004, according to statistics by the National Police Suicide Foundation.

Gonzales shot himself with his service weapon inside his cruiser about 9 p.m. Wednesday. He was parked outside his father-in-law's house in Hurricane near Sycamore Road.

"Police are killing themselves two or three times faster than they are being killed," said Robert Douglas, director of the foundation and a former Baltimore police officer.

About 500 officers have died in the line of duty since 2004, Douglas said.

But that doesn't mean that there is a higher probability of suicide for police officers around the country, said Dr. Audrey Honig, chief psychologist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

"The suicide rate across the country is higher than the homicide rate," said Honig, who is also head of psychology for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Males between the ages of 21-45, typically the law enforcement officer demographic, have a higher suicide rate than the rest of the population in general.

"But that said, there does need to be greater prevention efforts because of the amount of impact a suicide has on an agency," she said.

Most often police commit suicide because of relationship issues, Douglas said. More than 97 percent kill themselves at home and use their service weapon, he said.

"When police officers come into the profession they are trained to be warriors," he said. "They are trained to handle crime and all the things they will find as police."

But usually they are not trained in how to deal with that draining, often gruesome work when they are with their family.

"They are not trained on how to make the transition from work to home," Douglas said. "Police today face a lot of issues at home. Domestic violence abuse is higher among police. Law enforcement officers have higher rates of divorce."

Often the reasons police kill themselves lie in the location of their suicide, he said.

Police who kill themselves at home often have family issues, and police who kill themselves at work often have problems at work, Douglas said.

"Police have a different mindset than doctors, teachers, journalists. They are talking and dealing with people every day with crime issues," Douglas said.

Only about 2 percent of the country's 18,000 law enforcement agencies have any kind of suicide awareness training, he said.

"It is something that's mentioned often as an afterthought," Douglas said. "They don't talk about specifics."

When an officer commits suicide, often it has a ripple effect within that officer's department, resulting in other officers committing suicide, Honig said.

"One sort of gives permission to others," she said. "Law enforcement suicide is a significant concern. It impacts the families, the organizations, the friends and colleagues of the officer."

To contact staff writer Gary Harki, use e-mail or call 348-5163.

Copyright 2007 Charleston Newspapers

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