In the United States, the rate of suicide among police officers is alarming. In 2019, 238 law enforcement officers committed suicide, leaving their families and communities to mourn them. These numbers represent police suicides from across the country. The problem isn’t just confined to major cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas. The numbers represent officers in communities like St Louis, Indianapolis, Tampa, San Francisco, and many other cities.
Not Like Any Other Job
Officer safety is a top priority for all police departments. Departments are continually working to protect their officers from various types of health crises, both physical and mental, yet the numbers associated with officer suicide continue to rise. Being a police officer is like no other job. It is the one job in which you can do everything right and still be accused of criminal activity because of cultural or racial bias.
While true instances of police brutality do exist, there are cases where an officer’s actions are targeted because of an agenda. The truth of the matter is that many police action shootings involving an officer and a suspect occur because the subject refuses to comply and the officer is concerned for their own safety and the safety of others.
The Double-Edged Sword
When you walk the thin blue line, you walk the razor-edge of a double-edged sword. Every move is watched by the public and your superiors. Even the slightest misstep can be considered a threat to a person’s civil rights. The criminal justice system requires that police officers behave in a certain manner in order to be effective while they are out policing their neighborhoods.
There are laws and protocols to be followed. Many police officers will often detach themselves so they can do their job without becoming emotionally involved. Walking this line can be difficult and many officers fail to remain unbiased. It is these officers who take their job to heart. When they fail, even in a small way, it affects them deeply and can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
The Cost of Service
There is a price to be paid when a police officer puts on their vest, gun, and badge. Many officers pay with the loss of a marriage or the mental unrest that often accompanies the stressful situations they find themselves in on a daily basis. There are many studies that the suicide rate of police officers is approximately 8% higher than when compared to the general public. While many take their service in stride and continue to work through the difficulties they may face, other officers may not be so lucky.
Not All Officers Come Home
It’s a fact all law enforcement families must face. Not all officers come home. Every day when an officer kisses their spouse goodbye, they know that may be the last time. Although it is not something that is brought up or talked about. The thought is there and it does linger when certain events arise.
The cases of Michael Brown in St Louis and Patrick Lyoya in Grand Rapids are good examples. Neither man was willing to comply, and even though the circumstances were somewhat different, in the end, an officer feared for his life and took action. No one can say what they will do when faced with those types of situations so it is hard to put themselves in the officers’ position. Either way, a man lost his life at the hands of another. The survivor must bear that weight and it is not a light one.
The Other Side of Suicide By Cop
There are numerous situations where a police officer is forced to use deadly force – suicide by cop is one of many scenarios where police officers are left to constantly second-guess their actions. In some cases, dwelling on the event may be so traumatizing that their own mental health suffers.
The PTSD that a police officer deals with is similar to that of a combat veteran from World War II who dealt with armed conflict on a daily basis. Anyone in a war situation, including those who deal with terrorist attacks, bear the trauma on a daily basis. Even though it may not show, it is constantly lurking in their minds and cause serious mental health issues.
The War on Drugs
Police officers live their lives in the public eye, especially when it comes to dealing with drug abuse within the community. How they handle each situation is watched closely. When fighting the drug war, they witness firsthand how drug use can destroy families. Many work together as part of a drug policy alliance to improve how drugs are removed from the streets and provide assistance to the families who are constantly dealing with the mass incarceration of loved ones who have been caught up in drugs and other criminal activity.
Gaining the Necessary Coping Skills
For many law enforcement officers, taking care of themselves becomes more difficult. Officers who are constantly dealing with the stress of their jobs may not seek treatment for their anxiety or depression because they see it as a weakness. They fear that they may be considered ineffective or incapable of performing their duties.
This constant worry over being judged for even the smallest mistake or misspoken word will begin to take its toll over time. Some officers may begin to abuse drugs or alcohol. Others may harm themselves in other ways. There are many coping skills they can utilize through their law enforcement agency as well as in their community. Convincing them to seek treatment is often the sticking point.
Finding Someone to Trust
With so many groups protesting about how the police perform their duties, very few are willing to step up to find a positive solution to help officers overcome the obstacles they face. Every police department has an internal affairs unit that investigates officer misconduct. There should also be counselors on hand to assist officers when difficulties arise.
It can be incredibly difficult for an officer to find someone they can trust. With everyone on a police force being so constantly scrutinized, many officers don’t know who to turn to for fear that whatever they do will be wrong.
Protecting Themselves While They Protect and Serve The Community
Trying to protect themselves while they protect and serve the community can be an overwhelming task. Police officers are expected to lay their lives on the line for others while those same people may be planning to ambush them. It is a sobering thought when you consider that the people you are there to serve offer no respect and a blatant disregard for the officers’ lives.
This is the confusion that police officers must live with. Many are able to rationalize it and put it in perspective, while others have such difficulty with the concept that they choose to end their own lives. While criminal justice reform may help in some ways, it would be more beneficial to eliminate the struggle by allowing the police to uphold the law without trying to identify every one of them as a bad cop. A person who breaks the law should be held accountable by the police without fear of the officer being accused of racial bias.
Finding the Right Resources
Few officers want to talk about their experiences. Many keep their thoughts to themselves even though they know they should talk to someone. Many officer suicides could have been prevented if others would have “noticed the signs”. The fact is, police officers are good at hiding emotion. They keep their feelings inside because it is part of their training. It’s important to engage officers in new training programs that teach them coping skills as well as positive communication skills.
When it comes to suicide prevention, identifying the problem occurs when people communicate with one another. Within a police department, identifying officers who are dealing with suicidal thoughts can be difficult. Training officers in how to notice the signs of depression is important. Communication is also key in helping officers work through difficult periods where they feel as if they may not be able to sufficiently deal with their own emotions. When it comes to mental health, self-care must always be a priority.
They Are Not Alone
Law enforcement officers need to know they are not alone. The only true way to deal with the ever-increasing number of officer suicide is to bring more attention to the problem. You can’t just throw money at the problem and hope it goes away. It must be handled with the same consideration as any other police-related death. Reaching out to one another is the only way to bring about change, especially in a world where the thin blue line is not only walked by the officer but their families as well.