Law enforcement suicide: Whether it’s a problem of catastrophic magnitude, an infrequent anomaly, or a problem that simply doesn’t exist depends upon who you ask. The unfortunate reality is that we simply don’t know the extent of the problem because we, as a profession, have not had the stomach to face our mental health issues. Suicide is the final culmination of our much larger mental health issues that we continuously ignore as individual officers and organizationally.
There are myriad reasons as to why we seem to refuse to address our baggage. But those reasons change depending on your perspective. For the individual officer, there’s a stigma attached to owning your junk, which ranges from embarrassment to fear of job loss to being viewed as weak. For agencies, admitting that there’s a larger issue of officer mental health that needs to be addressed opens up issues of liability and officer safety, and, of course, it impacts the budget.
To comprehensively address the larger issue of officer mental health, we have to start at the end—suicide.
The Problem We Won’t Face
There have been few entities that have tried to quantify the suicide problem by collecting the raw numbers within law enforcement. None of these efforts, however, have been official governmental endeavors. Instead, it’s left to other organizations outside of government with vested interests in law enforcement to undertake this massive project. Even among these well-intentioned organizations, there has been a wide discrepancy in the raw numbers of police suicides and we have yet to collect year-on-year numbers.
The numbers that have been tossed out over the years by the “experts” have ranged from a high of 300 – 400 police suicides per year from National Police Suicide Foundation to as little as 125 – 150 from Badge of Life. The most reliable numbers thus far have been those from Badge of Life, having been counted methodically and in verifiable fashion in 2009 and again in 2012. Their numbers have often been cited by other suicide researchers, experts, and governmental reports as gospel.
The problem, however, is that there is no national mandate for the reporting of police suicides by the very agencies who would know about each since they are charged with investigating them. Instead, the Badge of Life numbers rely upon news articles, social media postings, and word of mouth within law enforcement circles. While these are all verifiable and become solid numbers, it’s what gets left out that keeps us from fully knowing what we are dealing with. Most us in law enforcement have either heard of or directly dealt with an officer suicide that was either reclassified as accidental or simply kept under wraps publicly. This has been done for many reasons over the years, most often to “protect” the surviving family, honor the memory of the fallen officer, or to assist the family with benefits.
No matter what the reason, and no matter the intentions, when we allow ourselves or others to skew these suicide numbers we are only hurting ourselves. We help perpetuate our dirty little secret within law enforcement, not allowing the public, or even ourselves, to see just how very human we all are. We keep that Superman complex in the forefronts of their minds as well as ours. This is not reality and it’s not beneficial for us individually or as a profession as it allows us all to avoid having the needed uncomfortable conversations.
In 2016, another organization, 1st Alliance, began to also track the suicide numbers through their 1st Help app. While their data collection relies in part upon the same format as Badge of Life, internet searches, 1st Alliance also culls their numbers from direct submissions to their website as well as from a vast network of partner LE organizations and groups. Perhaps most importantly, 1st Alliance is also focusing on collecting that suicide data each year rather than every 3 – 4 years. Even with the slightly skewed numbers borne out of a sometimes unreliable method, year-over-year law enforcement suicide data will benefit everyone in multiple ways.
First, this data will give more consistent and frequent counts that can be analyzed and compared by those seeking to address the larger issues of mental health in policing Second, it will either validate the currently accepted numbers or expose flaws in the way we are collecting and counting that data. Either way, the resulting numbers become that much more credible. And lastly, additional counts from different organizations can only increase the exposure of the issue at hand, thereby opening up discussion, awareness, and acceptance within law enforcement circles.
The last day of 2016 brought with it the knowledge through contacts that two more LEOs had taken their own lives in separate states. This added to an already unacceptable number (one is too many). The truly maddening part in learning of these deaths was that neither would be known outside of the immediate circles affected. This reality was, in both cases, reflected the wishes of each distraught family and was perhaps helped along by well-meaning agencies and individual officers and leaders.
This end of the year news was on the heels of having to deal with the fallout of another officer suicide just a month prior locally. This suicide, despite having been in a public place and having been witnessed by up to two dozen on-duty LEOs from multiple agencies, also never made the news. Again, it was the wishes of the family that everything be kept under wraps, and so it was. The problem, however, is that the fallout from this suicide was far more pronounced than some others because of the manner in which it occurred.
While respecting the wishes of the surviving family is always a good thing, such decisions can never do anything to ebb the pain, hurt, and trauma left behind. It helps neither the family nor the co-workers left behind. Absent the acknowledgement of what may have driven this hurting officer to such a final decision, we are left to put on a mask when talking about the now deceased officer. By putting on a more “pleasant” mask regarding the deceased officer’s death, we cajole ourselves into believing that we are somehow “honoring” their memory. The reality is that we are lying—lying to ourselves, lying to others, and lying about that deceased officer. We need to stop it. Now.
The only way to bring something out of the darkness is to shine a light on it, to bring it out of the shadowy corners and into the open. That is what we must do with the issue of police suicide and the larger related issue of police mental health. The only way to break down stigmas is to talk about, confront, and own them. We can’t tackle a problem that we won’t acknowledge exists.
I have found in my 20-plus years in public safety, peer support, and critical incident mitigation that the way to do this is through hearing from those who have experienced and lived with it. And when those courageous individuals do speak up, the rest of us need to get over ourselves, our insecurities, our pride, and our fears by not belittling them, not mocking them, and not ignoring them. We need to heed what these men and women who have dealt with these issues are saying because, quite literally, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
This can happen to any one of us in law enforcement at any time. Not one of us entered this profession thinking that PTSD, suicide ideation, chronic stress, or any other mental health issue would have its way with us at some point. Before we can actually have a targeted and cohesive plan of attack, we need to know what the size and scope of our problem is.