Police Officer Suicide: Frequency and officer profiles
By Michael G. Aamodt & Nicole A. Stalnaker
Law enforcement suicide rates were computed and compared to suicide rates in the general population. The best estimate of suicide in the law enforcement profession is 18.1 per 100,000. This figure is 52% greater than that of the general population but 26% lower than that of the appropriate comparison group (white males between the ages of 25 and 55). Thus, the notion that suicide rates are abnormally high in law enforcement was not supported by the data.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate Americans commit suicide at a rate of about 12 per 100,000 residents (Fields & Jones, 1999). This rate makes suicide the 9th leading cause of death in the United States. Recently, the law enforcement community has taken a close look at suicide following a rash of well-publicized suicides in the New York City Police Department in 1994 and heavy media coverage of police suicides. The purpose of our paper is to examine suicide rates in law enforcement to determine if police officers have higher suicide rates than the general population, and if there is a common profile of officers who commit suicide.
DO POLICE OFFICERS HAVE HIGHER SUICIDE RATES THAN THE GENERAL POPULATION?
At first glance, the answer to this question would appear to be yes. The statistics commonly cited in the media suggest the suicide rate for law enforcement personnel is 22 deaths per 100,000 officers compared to 12 deaths per 100,000 in the general population. This estimate of police suicide is based on a 1995 Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) study of insurance claims by 92 local chapters in 24 states (Langston, 1995). Furthermore, "experts" quoted in newspaper articles consistently state there are about 300 suicides each year by law enforcement personnel or that the police suicide rate is at least double that of the general population (see for example, Aurizio, 1997; Gold, 1999; Loh, 1994)
To get an idea if this commonly cited suicide rate for law enforcement personnel is accurate, we looked at the data published in the June 1, 1999 issue of USA Today in which the paper listed the suicide rates for the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio police departments as well as for the FBI. As shown in Table 1, the annual suicide rate for officers in these agencies is a combined 16.34 per 100,000, well below the 22 reported in the FOP study.
In September of 1999, one of the researchers (Aamodt) phoned the 22 law enforcement agencies in the Roanoke and New River Valleys in Virginia to investigate the local law enforcement suicide rate. From the period 1990-1998, there was only one law enforcement suicide, a rate of 10.0 per 100,000, also well below the FOP rate.
To get further data, we used such sources as InfoTrac, Lexis-Nexis, and Dow Jones Interactive to conduct an extensive search of media articles reporting on suicides by law enforcement personnel prior to October 1, 1999. As shown in Table 2, the suicide rate for the 9 agencies is 37.05. Caution must be taken in interpreting this figure as the articles only covered agencies reporting a recent suicide.
Finally, we combined the data provided in published studies of law enforcement suicide. This analysis was limited to "more recent years" which we defined as being from 1950 to the present. To use some of these studies, it was necessary to obtain additional information. For example, Danto (1978) reported that 12 Detroit police officers committed suicide in the eight years from 1968 through 1975. To compute a suicide rate for this study, we used the Uniform Crime Report to determine the number of sworn personnel in the Detroit P.D. for each of those eight years, and then computed an average number of sworn personnel for those eight years. The Detroit suicide rate of 28.45 was then calculated by dividing the number of suicides (12) by the average number of sworn personnel (5,272), multiplying this quotient by 100,000, and then dividing by the number of years in the study (8). Similar calculations were conducted for any study with incomplete data.
Because the suicide rate of 203.66 reported by Nelson and Smith (1970) appears to be abnormally high, we used the Uniform Crime Report to obtain the number of law enforcement personnel in Wyoming for the relevant years and then recomputed the suicide rate. The rate of 117.6 we computed is still very high, but more reasonable than the 203.66 originally reported.
As shown in Table 3, the annual law enforcement suicide rate across these 30 studies is 17.83 per 100,000. In computing the average suicide rate across studies, each study was weighted by the size of the department and the number of years included in the study. Though the international studies are included in the table, they were not included in the analysis.
As shown in Table 4, when all of our sources are combined, our best estimate of the annual law-enforcement suicide rate is 18.1 per 100,000.
COMPARISON TO POPULATION FIGURES
Now that we have an estimate of the law enforcement suicide rate (18.1 per 100,000), the next task is to determine how this rate compares to the national rate. In the media, the law enforcement suicide rate has been compared to the national suicide rate of about 12 per 100,000 people (Fields & Jones, 1999). However such a comparison is not proper as suicide rates vary greatly across genders, races, and age groups. For example, as shown in Table 5, in 1997 (the most recent data available) the suicide rate for white males, which is what most police officers are, is 20.2 per 100,000. Comparing the law enforcement rate of 18.1 per 100,000 to the 20.2 per 100,000 paints a very different picture than comparing the law enforcement rate to the 11.4 per 100,000 in the general population (Hoyert, Kochanek, & Murphy, 1999). Furthermore, the suicide rate for white, males between the ages of 25 and 55 for 1997 is 25.5 (Hoyert, Kochanek, & Murphy, 1999).
If we adjust these figures to take into account the fact that as of 1997, 72.1% of law enforcement personnel were white males, 8.9% were white females, 16.9% were non-white males, and 2.1% were non-white females (Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 1997), the expected suicide rate for law enforcement would be 21.89 per 100,000. Thus, if we compare the law enforcement suicide rate to the appropriate population rates rather than the general population rate, it is clear the suicide rate for law enforcement personnel is actually lower than the appropriate comparison group!
A second way to compare suicide rates is the Proportionate Mortality Ratio (PMR). Table 6 shows the PMRs for each of the studies in our analysis. The PMRs were computed by dividing the law enforcement suicide rate by both the rate for the general population and the rate for white, males between the ages 25-54 for the years in which the study was conducted. These rates were obtained from the Federal Statistical Abstracts for each of the past 40 years. A PMR below 100 indicates that the law enforcement suicide rate is lower than the age adjusted comparison group. Likewise, a PMR above 100 indicates that the law enforcement suicide rate is higher than the age adjusted comparison group. As shown in Table 3, the average PMR across the studies is 152 when compared to the age-adjusted general population rate and 73 when compared to the rate for white, males between the ages of 25 and 54. Thus, law enforcement personnel have a 52% higher suicide rate than the general population and a 27% lower rate when compared to white males between the ages of 25 and 54. If we adjust for the percentage of females and non-whites in law enforcement, law enforcement personnel have a PMR of 82.69 compared to the appropriate population rate.
On the basis of the data mentioned in this article, the differences in suicide rates between law enforcement agencies and the general public can be explained by the fact that the vast majority of police officers are white (81%), males (89%) between the ages of 21 and 55 (Uniform Crime Reports for the United States, 1997) C characteristics associated with higher suicide rates. After accounting for sex, race, and age, differences between law enforcement personnel and the general public are not only reduced, but change direction indicating that law enforcement personnel are 26% less likely to commit suicide than their same sex, race, and age counterparts not working in law enforcement. Thus, attempts to attribute suicides by law enforcement personnel to unique characteristics of the job are not supported by the data in this paper.
IS THERE A COMMON PROFILE OF OFFICERS WHO COMMIT SUICIDE?
We used two strategies to answer this question. The first strategy was to review published literature providing information about law enforcement personnel who committed suicide. This review yielded data on 396 law enforcement suicides from 12 articles: Ivanoff (1994), Aussant (1984), Heiman (1975), Friedman (1968), Cronin, (1982), Violanti, Vena, and Petralia (1998), Danto (1978), Loo (1986), Josephson and Reiser (1990), Dash and Reiser (1978), Cantor, Tyman, & Slater (1996), and the FOP study (Langston, 1995).
The second strategy was to use such sources as Infotrac, Lexis-Nexis, and Dow Jones Interactive to locate media stories about police suicide. This strategy yielded data on 299 law enforcement suicides. As shown in Table 7, the "typical" officer who committed suicide was a white, 36.9 year-old, married male with 12.2 years of law enforcement experience. As shown in Table 8, the typical suicide was committed off-duty (86.3%), with a gun (90.7%), at home (54.8%).
The reason the officers committed suicide is more difficult to determine. Each study used different categories to code the reason for the suicide and thus comparisons among studies are difficult. For example, in our national media study, legal problems were a major reason for the law enforcement suicides yet no other study separately coded legal problems. As shown in Table 9, relationship problems accounted for the highest percentage of suicides at 26.6% (relationship problems plus murder/suicide), followed by legal problems at 14.8%. In nearly a third of the suicides, no reason was known.
The data in this paper suggest that, although the suicide rate of 18.1 for law enforcement personnel is higher than the 11.4 in the general population, it is not higher than would be expected for people of similar age, race, and gender. Thus any difference between law enforcement rates and rates in the general population can be completely explained by the race, gender, and age of people who enter the law enforcement field. This is an important point because it suggests that speculation about such factors as job stress and the availability of weapons are not factors that are exclusively associated with law enforcement suicide. Although even one suicide is too many, allocating mental health resources to law enforcement personnel at the expense of other professions does not appear justified. Furthermore, the reasons that officers commit suicide are similar to those of the general population with the possible exception of legal problems.
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1. This paper was presented at the 1999 FBI Conference on Police Suicide and then published in the proceedings of that conference. The citations for this paper are:
Aamodt, M. G., & Werlick, N. A. (1999). Police officer suicide: Frequency and officer profiles. Paper presented at the FBI Conference on Suicide and Law Enforcement, Quantico, VA.
2. Questions or comments about this study should be addressed to
Department of Psychology
Radford, VA 24142-6946
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