Few police agencies address suicides within ranks
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By Carrie Antlfinger
MILWAUKEE — Police Sgt. Chuck Cross pointed his department-issue .40-caliber handgun at his temple, finger on the trigger, as he sat drunk against his hallway wall.
"I was about eight pounds of a trigger pull away," he said.
He's unsure why he stopped. Fellow officers, called by his girlfriend, took him to a mental health center. He was charged with disorderly conduct while armed, and was fired.
He says his department had no idea how to handle his situation that March 2007 night, but after six suicides in three years the Milwaukee Police Department now provides suicide awareness training. Since starting the program early this year it has had two more suicides.
It's among the few departments confronting the subject. Experts estimate that only 2 percent to 10 percent of the 18,000 police departments nationwide actively work to prevent suicides within their ranks.
No one even keeps a complete, running tally of how many officers have killed themselves or attempted suicide. That includes the FBI, which issued a 726-page report seven years ago that called suicide a "significant issue confronting the law enforcement community."
"We wear a Superman cape. You're not supposed to be emotional or show it. It might show that you are weak," said Cross, who pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and won his job back. "I don't think I'm so far off that a lot of cops haven't walked down the path I have."
Milwaukee officers Tina Kurth and Dave Arndt have trained nearly all the department's 2,700 employees this year. They talk about depression signs, individual stories of suicides, how suicide affects survivors and department support efforts.
The important thing is to raise awareness and reduce stigma, Arndt said.
"Maybe you don't want to talk to us," Kurth told officers recently. "Take the resources we give you and seek help on your own."
Kurth was trained at the 11-year-old National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation, which teaches officers who want to institute training programs.
The foundation's co-founder, Robert Douglas, a former Baltimore police officer who lost a friend on the force to suicide, said many officers develop post traumatic stress disorder, or have job stress that affects other parts of their lives. They repress it because they fear it will cost them their badges, he said.
The California Highway Patrol started a suicide awareness program after it had seven suicides in 2006, Capt. Susan Coutts said. It's had none since.
Coutts said patrol officials had mental health professionals and the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation train about 65 employees to conduct suicide awareness sessions with all 10,700 employees there last year.
Douglas called police suicides an epidemic, but Dr. Audrey Honig, the chief psychologist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said her experiences have shown otherwise.
Honig, whose department started a prevention program in 2002, said police agencies screen officers and pick the most mentally sharp. She said officers are typically more resilient than the average person.
Still, police suicide is problematic because departments are tight-knit and suicide can be contagious, she said. "Why that is we don't know, but it sort of says, 'He could do it, I can do it, too,'" Honig said.
Andy O'Hara, who is retired from the CHP, this year started the Psychological Survival for Police Officers program, which offers departments mental health training services.
He came close to suicide himself, and wants departments to provide nine hours of training at the cadet level and then yearly voluntary therapy sessions. His group and Survivors of Law Enforcement Suicide also plan to lobby the FBI for a centralized tracking system to help determine the problem's severity.
More departments will likely start training soon. Within the next several months, the International Association of Chiefs of Police plans to urge its 22,000 agency members in 100 countries to implement suicide training programs. It's also putting out two guidebooks.
"It's not that they don't care, but they don't have slightest idea where to start," said Honig, who is also chair of the IACP's police psychological service section.
In Milwaukee, Cross didn't know how depressed he was until the night he put the gun to his head. He had been through a divorce. He was stressed about his then-11-year-old disabled son. He'd seen his share of crashes, murders and rapes and he had worked with three officers who committed suicide.
Cross received mental health and alcohol counseling. Since returning to the force he has attended one of the department's suicide awareness sessions, and he thinks recruits will benefit from it.
"It's been a long time coming," he said.
On the Net:
P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation: http://www.psf.org/
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