As a profession, we openly talk about officer safety, yet we refuse to talk about the No. 1 killer of police officers: law enforcement suicide.
Law enforcement suicide is real, yet the police culture continues to ignore the facts. What makes us afraid to talk about a real problem? Why do we not have stronger leadership on this issue?
Suicide occurs 1.5 times more frequently in law enforcement than it does in the general population. The estimated number of law enforcement suicides in the past decade is approximately 1,350 officers. It is difficult to get accurate numbers because many times these incidents are not reported accurately to protect the reputation of the department and its officers.
Law enforcement officers are trained to be resilient. They learn to turn off personal emotions in order to handle the constant exposure to human suffering and tragedy.
Many police researchers estimate there are 125,000 active law enforcement officers on full duty who are suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While PTSD is not the main cause of police suicides, it is a factor in depression. And untreated depression is responsible for the majority of law enforcement suicides.
We need to recognize that these officers died because of service-connected mental illness brought on by witnessing a traumatic event or a series of events. These officers deserve to be honored — not by how they died, but by what they stood for as an officer. We need to recognize that their deaths are duty related.
Roadblocks to addressing police suicide
Officers are often afraid to seek help because the leadership and police culture will ostracize them. Officers know that seeking help for depression is a quick way to end one’s career. This should not be the message or the reality any longer.
Changing a culture that is prideful and honorable in their traditions and service is not going to be easy, but this issue is costing lives. Our brothers and sisters are dying, and we can prevent many of these suicides by making it acceptable to seek help.
Officers need to step up and intervene when something is not right with a fellow officer. We can save lives if we have the strength to force the dialog and make changes that strengthen the profession.
Signs and risk factors of depression and police suicide:
- LEO starts giving away personal items they cherish to fellow officers
- Difficulty with shift work (did not have in the past but is now struggling)
- Divorce and child custody issues
- Missing work and showing up late for duty (out of character)
- Abusing alcohol or other substances
- Duty performance drastically falls
- Preoccupied with death
- Displays a lack of interest when he/she was once passionate about the topic
- Facing department charges/prosecution/internal affairs and feels humiliated and ashamed
- Death of a close friend, spouse or child
- Loss of sleep, nightmares and/or flashbacks
- Unexpected mood swings (not normal behavior)
- Not wearing the uniform with pride (has always dressed sharp in the past)
- Personal legal problems
- Social media postings (self-harm threats or hopelessness themes)
- Serious illness and physical pain
- Loss of appetite
- Financial troubles
- Takes risk on duty (walking into danger on purpose without normal tactical response)
- Openly talks about self-harm and makes statements like: “Things will be better when I’m gone.”
- Withdrawn, not associating with fellow officers (as previously did)
About the Author
Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.