01/22/2008

Milwaukee department confronts police suicide

A police officer is 2-3 times more likely to commit suicide than die in the line of duty

By Meg Kissinger
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Related: Police officer suicide: Recognizing the signs and helping our colleagues in distress

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Dave Arndt was just finishing his meeting this month on how to prevent police officers from killing themselves when the call came in.

Denise Schulz, 37, a Milwaukee police officer the past seven years, was dead.

Her ex-boyfriend found her lying in bed, a gunshot wound to the side of her head. Earlier that day, she had sent him two text messages. The first one said, "This is for you and because of you." The second, sent 52 minutes later, simply read, "Bye."

Schulz, who had been on medical leave for depression, had recently been cleared to return to work. Her death Jan. 4 was ruled a suicide.

It was the third suicide in the Police Department since September and the sixth in less than three years, Arndt said. It's a clear sign to him that more needs to be done to help officers deal with the stresses of their jobs.

"We're coming out of the closet," he said. "It's time to talk about this openly."

Officer deaths in the line of duty make big headlines, Arndt said, but a police officer is two or three times more likely to commit suicide.

From Monday until March 14, Arndt and his partner, Tina Kurth, planned to conduct mandatory hourlong sessions on suicide prevention for all police officers and administrators. That's roughly 2,000 people, Arndt said.

The department has contracted with Kevin Gilmartin, a national expert on mental health care for police. Gilmartin, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., has written a book, "Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement." Arndt and Kurth consulted with Gilmartin, who helped them prepare the presentation.

"People need to know that a lot of cops suffer from depression," said Arndt, Milwaukee coordinator of the Police Officer Support Team, an independently funded group begun in 1985.

Lesser-known risk

Bob Douglas, a retired Baltimore officer who founded the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation in 1984 after a fellow officer, one of his best friends, killed himself, said police suicides were among the lesser-known risks of the profession.

Douglas and his associates train 3,500 officers a year in suicide prevention. Kurth went to Douglas' seminar in Maryland for training in October.

Statistics compiled by the FBI show that police officers are six times more likely to kill themselves than average members of the public — 60 for every 100,000 people each year, compared with 10 for every 100,000. That figure more than triples for police officers who retire. Officers who are disabled are 45 times more likely to commit suicide than the average person, FBI statistics show.

"This is an epidemic, not just a problem," Douglas said.

Mental health experts said police officers were more inclined to commit suicide because of the tremendous stress of their jobs and the pressure to maintain a cool demeanor.

"We're not supposed to cry," Douglas said.

But police officers are more than twice as likely to be involved in domestic disputes. They also have higher incidence of divorce.

"We are taught to be controlled," Douglas said. "We know how to intimidate and manipulate. But we don't necessarily know how to communicate."

Hiding reports

Until police departments begin to deal with the issue head-on, it will grow, he said.

"Everyone knows that we are responsible for the safety of our community and our citizens," Douglas said. "But we are equally as responsible for the wellness of our officers."

Many police departments hide reports of officer suicides, Douglas said.

"They preach integrity and then they fudge the facts," he said. "It's that old stigma thing."

Arndt and Douglas said that because true numbers were hard to come by, it was difficult to know where Milwaukee's six suicides in the past 34 months put the department in terms of a national average.

The six were four active-duty officers, one retired sergeant and a 911 dispatcher. Two were women.

One of the officers, Greg Braun, died in 2006 after serving time in Iraq. Arndt said he would be using Braun's suicide note as part of the training exercise.

He said then-Police Chief Nannette Hegerty welcomed the idea of training officers in suicide prevention for themselves and their partners.

The new chief, Edward Flynn, who was sworn in three days after Schultz's suicide, attended her funeral and is fully supportive of the training, Arndt said.

Copyright 2008 The Milwaukke Journal-Sentinel

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