Scope of the Problem: Police Suicide and the goal to eliminate it
Police job-related stress is well-identified and reported in the media daily and the rates of suicide nationwide are being debated by Aamodt and Stalnaker. They are actually less than one is led to believe but even one law enforcement officer suicide is too much.
Stress is defined as any situation that negatively impacts an officer’s well-being. The rate of suicide and divorce among law enforcement is approximately the same or lower than the general public according to a meta- analysis conducted by Professor Michael Aamodt. But there are areas in the country and agencies that have higher rates of self-inflicted death.
When the suicide rate of police officers (18.1) is compared with the 21.89 rate for a comparable demographic population, it appears that police officers have a lower rate of suicide than the population according to Aamodt, 2008.
Incidence of suicide tend to be elevated in cities like Chicago, where chronic gun violence and a murder rate in the hundreds per year means cops see a staggering amount of trauma and may gradually become numb to the exposure of pain and suffering (Joyner, 2009). A Department of Justice report found that the suicide rate in the Chicago Police Department is 60 percent higher than the national average. According to the Chicago Sun Times, in a note to department members Wednesday, CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson said, “Death by suicide is clearly a problem in Law Enforcement and in the Chicago Police Department. We all have our breaking points, a time of weakness where we feel as if there is no way out, no alternative. But it does not have to end that way. You are NOT alone. Death by suicide is a problem that we can eliminate together” CST September 12, 2018. Chicago PD is not alone with the problem of suicide among its men and women in blue.
Law enforcement officers (LEO’s) encounter the worst of all experience on a routine basis. The people who call the police may be society’s best upstanding citizens but on this occasion it could be the worst day of their lives and they seek help from police. Many times it is not the pillars of society seeking help but those people in the fringes or margins of society now victims of violent crime or abuse.
According to Hartley, et.al., 2007, “repeated exposures to acute work stressors (e.g., violent criminal acts, sad and disturbing situations, and physically demanding responses), in addition to contending with negative life events (e.g., divorce, serious family or personal illness, and financial difficulties), can affect both the psychological and physiological well-being of the LEO population.” When these officers are identified there needs to be a planned response using a peer support infrastructure that provides for a continuum of service depending upon the individual needs of the LEO and the supports available. In many agencies, especially smaller departments lacking resources, officers’ languish and sometimes spiral downward without support and without somewhere to turn. Police officers must have support available to them long before they are expressing suicidal urges.
As programs are identified and service continuum grows the risk of peer conflict over perceived betrayal of trust must be addressed. This must be addressed in the peer support training with emphasis on preservation of life over maintenance of confidentiality or the status quo of abject silence. “In itself, it’s a product of centuries of police culture in which perceived weakness is stigmatized. Cops know their brothers have their back, no matter what, but they still don’t want to be seen as the one who’s vulnerable.” according to a recent Men’s Health article written by Jack Crosbie in a report about suicide in the NYPD published during Mental Health Awareness month in May 2018.
The argument is made that the recurring uncertainty of police calls for service often leave LEO’s with low-level exposure to trauma of varying degrees. It is common that LEO’s move from one violent call to the next without time to decompress and process what they have seen. The repeated exposure to trauma can slowly whittle away LEO resilience – defined as the capacity to bounce back from adversity. In a national media study published by Aamodt and Stalnaker, legal problems were a major reason for the law enforcement suicides yet no other study separately cited legal problems. In another study, relationship problems accounted for the highest percentage of suicides at 26.6% (relationship problems plus murder/suicide), followed by legal problems at 14.8%. In nearly a third of the suicides, no reason was known for LEO suicide.
Police suicide has been on the radar of advocates of LEO peer support for months or years. The incidence of suicide has remained stable across the country but some agencies have higher rates of suicide. Smaller departments – those with less than 50 officers in general have the highest rates of suicide. This may be linked to the lack of availability of peer support programs and a paucity of local practitioners to provide professional service with knowledge in police psychology. “While police officers may adapt to the negative effects of chronic stress, acute traumatic incidents necessitate specialized mental health treatment for police officers (Patterson, 2001)”. A referral to the department EAP often falls flat and makes it more difficult to make the hand-off when peer support is not enough.
Real-time model of change
The use of force continuum is well described in the LEO literature and ongoing criminal justice narrative. What does that have to do with stress intervention in police officers? It sets the tone for officer behavior whenever they meet potential resistance and or increased aggression during citizen encounters. It may also be used for initiating peer support needs whenever an incident use of force has occurred. LEO’s change the force response based on the situation they encounter in real-time in a flexible and fluid manner. In this same way, peer support programs can flexibly shift to the needs of a presenting LEO and intervene early on – rather than when an officer is at a breaking point. “This continuum (use of force) has many levels, and officers are instructed to respond with a level of force appropriate to the situation at hand, acknowledging that the officer may move from one point on the continuum to another in a matter of seconds.” NIJ publication. Peer support too, must accommodate a law enforcement officer in real-time to begin the process of building a healthy, resilient response to sometimes horrific exposures and provide a continuum of unbiased employee assistance and when necessary professional consultation.
Protective Factors begin in Academy training
What topics should addressed while LEO recruits are in training? Ostensibly, the resilience of LEO’s depends upon the opportunity for in-service training in topics of mindfulness, stress management, physical health maintenance, nutrition, and trust.
“Emotional resilience is defined as the capacity to integrate the breadth of police training and experience with healthy, adaptive coping, optimism, mental flexibility and healthy resolution of the traumatic events. In general, resilient people are self-reliant and have positive role models from whom they have learned to handle the stressful events all police officers encounter” according to Leo Polizotti, Ph.D. a police consulting psychologist (Sefton 2018).
Police programs for health maintenance
The Police Stress Intervention Continuum or P-SIC, involves a system of police support that varies in its intensity depending upon the continuum of individual needs of the LEO including physical debility or other significant components impacting career success and satisfaction. The intervention protocol is flexible and fluid as well. The entry point into the peer support continuum initiates from supervisory observations of LEO history and behavior, peer recommendations, and exposure to a range of traumatic events.
Generally speaking, a police officer’s behavior change is a function of the resilience they develop throughout their careers. Greater attention to physical health and emotional well-being are now being espoused in police academies across the country. Greater awareness of the correlation with the recent trauma and frequency of exposure to trauma such as the death of a child, exposure to dead bodies, suicide of a colleague, etc. have negative impact on officer well-being. Perceived support from supervisors and the organization hierarchy builds resilience.
Career success requires that officers learn stress tolerance and healthy habits to manage the daily challenges of police service. Physical exercise and healthy routines often afford the stressed officer an outlet for reduced risk of stress-related physical afflictions in addition to the emotional and health effects of repeated exposure to unpredictable violence.
The cumulative stress associated with a career in law enforcement cannot be understated. In the setting of police stress and stress support there is an intervention protocol that relates to the peer-support program continuum. Depending on where officers enter the peer support network will impact the level of intervention they may require in the P-SIC program. Peer support is not psychotherapy but officers occasionally must hand off the officer in trouble to a higher level of care. These hand-offs are key to linking at-risk LEO’s with range of professional support needed to keep them on the job. Yet fear of reprisal for acknowledging the cumulative impact of stress and its impact often derails the hand-off to the professional. The highest risk for suicide to a LEO is when he is denuded of badge and gun because he may be a threat to himself.
The career success they have may be directly related to the application of resiliency training to build and maintain physical and emotional hardiness that lasts a lifetime according to Leo Polizoti, 2018. Before this can happen the stigma associated with reaching out must be reduced.
Points of entry to Peer Support – Stress Intervention Continuum
copyright Michael Sefton
Exposure to highly stressful events in close sequence
Change in work assignment, district/station, deployment undercover or return from deployment
Increased absenteeism – over use of sick leave
Increased use/abuse of substances – impacting job functioning, on-the-job injury
Community – citizen complaint(s) for verbal abuse, dereliction of duty, vehicle crash
Citizen complaints of excessive force during arrest, supervisory or peer conflict, or direct insubordination.
Abuse of power using baton, taser or firearm, recurrent officer involved use of force. Officers are sometimes strongly embittered and angry at this point in their career due to perceived lack of support and powerful feelings career disappointment and alienation.
NIJ Publication (2009). Use of Force Continuum. https://www.nij.gov/topics/law-enforcement/officer-safety/use-of-force/Pages/continuum.aspx. Taken November 17, 2018
Aamodt, M. G., & Stalnaker, N. A. (2001). Police officer suicide: Frequency and officer profiles. In Shehan, D. C, & Warren, J. I. (Eds.) Suicide and Law Enforcement. Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Aamodt, M. (2008). Reducing Misconceptions and False Beliefs in Police and Criminal Psychology. Criminal Justice and Behavior 2008; 35; 1231 DOI: 10.1177/0093854808321527.
Patterson, G T. (200l). Reconceptualizing traumatic incidents experienced by law enforcement personnel. The Australian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies, 2.
Joyner, T. (2009) The Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicidal Behavior: Current Empirical Status. Science Briefs, American Psychological Association, June.
Sefton, M. (2018). Police Training: Revisiting Resilience Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2018/07/27/police-training-revisiting-resilience/. Taken November 18, 2018
Hartley, T., et.al.(2007). Associations Between Major Life Events, Traumatic Incidents, and Depression Among Buffalo Police Officers. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp.
John M. Violanti, Anna Mnatsakanova, Tara A. Hartley, Michael E. Andrew, Cecil M. Burchfiel. (2012). Police Suicide in Small Departments: A comparative analysis. Int J Emerg Ment Health. Author manuscript available in PMC 2015 Aug 14. Published in final edited form as: Int J Emerg Ment Health. 2012; 14(3): 157–162.
After a spate of bomb threats and mass shootings there are still many myths about the attribution of these events and the underpinnings of violence. The knee jerk reaction is to attribute the recent Thousand Oaks, CA nightclub shooting to a “crazed gunman” but that would unfairly place the blame on the mentally ill. 12 people were left dead in a despicable sequence of events during which the shooter Ian David Long posted that he had no reason for doing it except boredom. In truth, most people with mental illness are not dangerous, and most dangerous people are not mentally ill.” Liza Gold, 2013. But Long had a history of violence and aggressive behavior that may have been linked to his service as a decorated US Marine. Published information suggests Long’s mother was terrified of making him angry out of fear that he would harm or kill her. Was Long’s terminal behavior attributable to mental illness or the result of traumatic events he experienced in the service of his country?
“Fact is I had no reason to do it, and I just thought….(expletive), life is boring so why not?” Ian David Long via social media post (now removed)
Psychological experts believe mentally ill persons lack the higher order planning to execute the complex steps necessary for anything more than petty crime – more often associated with co-morbid substance abuse. It is the co-occuring illness of drug or alcohol addiction that is a confounding variable in all police-mental health encounters. “Doctors and scientists know that the perpetrators of such violent behavior including incidence mass shooting events are frequently angry young men, who feel they have been mistreated by society and therefore seek to exact revenge” described in a BBC the report Criminal Myths published in November.
“Confounding variables such as a history of childhood abuse or use of alcohol or drugs can increase the odds of violence.” according to a BBC report debunking the belief that people who commit mass murder are mentally ill by Rachel Newer in November, 2018. The vast majority of cases are committed by a person or persons without mental illness. In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime and are not prone to violent behavior. The Thousand Oaks killer refused any mental health support and was not driven by demons
The interaction of substance abuse and mental illness is complex. Persons with drug and alcohol addiction must be expected to become sober with the help of substance abuse treatment and family support. The risk of violence and suicide declines when sobriety can be maintained. This is essential and will help to reduce officer involved use of force against the mentally ill substantially. What to do?
Red flag indicators are often demonstrated in behaviors that are observable and measurable sometimes for weeks and months before the terminal event according to Michael Sefton, 2015.
The incidence of mental illness leading to mass shooting may be illustrated in the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. The Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho had been treated for depression and was hospitalized on an involuntary basis prior to the rampage in 2007. Cho exhibited a life-long pattern of withdrawal from interpersonal relationships. He was often nonverbal and did not respond to people who reached out to him including direct family members. His mother prayed for God to transform her son.
I strongly believe that mental illness does not mitigate citizens from responsibility for crimes they commit. I agree that alternative sentencing may be a powerful tool to bring these individuals into treatment. The substantive goal of streamlining encounters between police officers and citizens who suffer with untreated emotional problems belies the mission of these gifted officers and can teach others the role of discretion in mental health encounters.
Ostensibly, building relationships with network psychotherapists, physicians, addiction specialists, court judges, and other support service like Child and Family Services is essential. This is the area of most vulnerability. When LEO’s fully buy-in to the mental health – police intervention model including the use of de-escalation techniques there must be receiving facilities available to initiate treatment and keep patients and citizens safe. The development of a fully integrated infrastructure for jail diversion, intake, and providing for the needs of the mentally ill is certainly a work in progress.
“And when it comes to mass shootings, those with mental illness account for “less than 1 % of all yearly gun-related homicides” a 2016 study found. Other studies indicate that people with mental disorders account for just 3-5 % of overall violence in the US” – Paul Appelbaum, M.D. taken from BBC by Rachel Newer 11-1-2018
Nuwer, Rachel (2018) http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180509-is-there-a-link-between-mass-shooting-and-mental-illness taken 11-10-2018
Sefton, M. (2017) https://wordpress.com/post/msefton.wordpress.com/4561
Mentally ill American’s and their proclivity to act out against authority.
Washington Post (2007) Rescue and Recovery: A story of resilience that began with the scene in this photograph, Blog post: taken on April 16, 2007. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/local/virginia-tech-five-years-later/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cd170ba2ac09 taken 11-10-2018
Sefton, M (2017) Police as crisis interventionist: CIT as it is meant to be. Blog post: https://wordpress.com/post/msefton.wordpress.com/3653 Taken 11-10-2018
Sefton, M. (2015) Unappreciated Rage: The Dissembling Impact of those living in the Margins. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/unappreciated-rage-the-dissembling-impact-of-those-living-in-the-margins/ Taken 11-10-2018
There is much to be said about all the good that comes from being alone. Aloneness and loneliness are completely different. Aloneness is a feeling of aliveness and emotional freedom. It is a positive and emotionally energizing place. It’s not the mere concept of being by oneself that defines being alone more the understanding that being alone requires both self-reliance and emotional sustainability. People who enjoy being alone have higher self-esteem and emotional maturity. There is a significant difference between being alone and being lonely.
Loneliness refers to feelings of being incomplete and sometimes empty. You can be surrounded by people and still experience feelings of loneliness and the range of emotions associated with insecurity, dependence and unmet needs. Some people feeling that without another person or companion that there is something wrong and missing in their lives. Loneliness is a negative emotion that quietly robs self-esteem and can errode one’s capacity to feel complete and connected to others. Lawrence Wilson suggests that loneliness may actually be a driving force that helps people look for connection in others to fulfill emotional need (2011). Wilson asserts that loneliness may be seen as a state of suffering over loss of connection or long felt abandonment. The difference between the two feeling states is important. Aloneness is a pleasant feeling whereas loneliness is unpleasant and can lead to chronic isolation and sadness. Aloneness can bring about creative energy while loneliness brings about brooding rumination.
Think about what that means. The two concepts are almost opposing emotions yet most of us are them as synonymous. Too many people either fear being alone or depend on others to complete them by making the whole. There was an old adage that we come into this world alone and so we go out. Emotional grown and emotional development require being alone and not total dependence on another person to feel complete or whole.
I am preparing for an upcoming presentation at the annual Society of Police and Criminal Psychologists in Sarasota, Florida held in early October each year. So far I have offered several police departments an opportunity for free in-service training in the area of risk assessment and domestic violence. No interest. I can even say that one of the chiefs I approached is a friend of mine and still there was no interest in hearing about updated issues in domestic violence and the risk associated with intimate partner abuse. This has been both a surprise – given my passion about the topic and self-ascribed expertise, but also because it brings up great anxiety when I think about the expectation for my presentation at a national conference consisting of my peers. This post is all about how to deal with the flood of anxiety associated with presenting one’s ideas to an audience that may not be interested in what I am selling.
“If we perceive our available resources to be insufficient, along comes the ‘threat’ mindset. When threatened, stress has a catastrophic effect on our ability to perform. We receive an enormous sympathetic surge (adrenaline/noradrenaline dump), and our HPA axis pumps out cortisol. High cortisol levels have a very detrimental effect on higher cognitive processes – decision-making and prioritization” or triage as described in a blog written by Robert Lloyd and physician in the U.K.
Lloyd goes on to say “that breathing is the only autonomic process that we can consciously control (other than blinking – less useful). By doing so, we access the ‘steering wheel’ of our sympathetic nervous system, and can regain a feeling of self-control in a moment of extreme stress. Heart rate and blood pressure come down when practiced. The process of deliberately controlling ones breath in the midst of a stressful moment that is key to lowered autonomic overdrive and greater physiologic homeostasis. Mindfulness and reslience training converts a ‘threat’ to a ‘challenge’ mindset by building resilience to a controlled stressful stimulus.” It arms you with prophylaxis against condition black when the organism is fighting for its life.
Stress has undeniable impact on all human functioning and public health. Not enough is being done to infuse knowledge and understanding into the emotional maelstrom created by chronic stress (Sefton, 2014). Healthy coping and productivity breaks down when uncontrolled stress occurs over and over. According to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D., the primary author of the Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness and Mental Health Emergencies stress can lead to a breakdown in adaptive coping. “Learned resilience can be taught and leads to reduced stress and psychological hardiness rather than psychological weariness. Psychological weariness is a drain on LEO coping and adaptation to job-related stress and the efficiency for handling everyday calls for service. As the demand for police service becomes more complex, officers must adapt their physical and emotional preparation for service or risk premature career burnout” according to Polizoti. Resilience and career satisfaction are important components of law enforcement and individual officer training, behavior and longevity. Positive resilience will reduce officer burnout.
In its absence police officers and their agencies are at greater risk for conflict both internally and with the general public in the form of civilian complaints of police officer misconduct.
So in anticipation of my own decrease in internal homeostasis and elevated production of stress hormones, I will breath and adjust my thinking for a positive outcome and not be hurt by the buyer beware myth my topic may evoke. I will take a few moments to relax and breath slowly in anticipation of the quiescence it will bring and my belief in learned resilience.
“You can’t say that nothing can be done, because nothing will be done,” said Michael Sefton, a former Westbrook, Maine police officer who is a psychologist and former police sergeant in Massachusetts at the New Braintree Police Department.
Bangor Daily News
September 2, 2018 Have you ever met someone who appeared chronically angry? Someone who is bitter about everything as if they have been screwed over by the entire world. Embitterment grows out of frustration and the build-up of chronic negativity, perceived helplessness, and resentment over lack of support. They pay a substantial price for being so embittered and are likely to have chronic health-related consequences such as hypertension, chronic pain, sleep disturbance, substance abuse, risk of cerebral vascular attack, and more. Law enforcement officers develop coping skills early in their career and many are now being taught strategies to avoid becoming embittered and chronically angry over what they encounter and witness over years of policing.
Research on the impact of high stress lifestyles is supportive of what LEO’s experience over the course of their professional career. People who grow up in war zones demonstrate a malfunction in their system of arousal marred by hyper vigilance due to perpetual release of stress hormones and the health-related effects. This is the result of chronic exposure to unpredictable chaos and the changing physiology associated with a lack of personal control and chronic, intermittent threat to life and well-being. Neuroscientists can now pinpoint the impact of stress on hardwired changes in the brains of people growing up in places without lasting peace and this research approximates the experience of LEO’s who may be bored one moment and in a fight for their lives the next.
Embitterment has large implication on LEO productivity, career satisfaction, job performance, citizen complaints, and officer health. Mentoring in the field and supervisory support reduce officer isolation and sometimes powerful feelings of negativity that can fester over time. The physical consequences are well documented and raise the specter of work-related injury from stress and untreated traumatic exposure. In Massachusetts an officer with acquired cardiac disease has presumptive work-related debility if he or she is shown to have been healthy when first hired.
Ostensibly, resilience is the opposite of embitterment. Have you ever worked with someone who rolled with the punches – literally and figuratively? They can have felony cases dismissed and be nonplussed maintaining a positive attitude and a “better luck next time” belief system. They cope with a range of career inequities by having a rich family life, a healthy self-concept, and a positive sense of humor. Resiliency requires positivity and using innate resilient coping strategies. “By using alcohol to cope instead of resilient thinking one often develops other problems and this can lead ultimately to suicide. Alcohol is often related to suicidal behavior.” according to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D at the Direct Decision Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. To survive these incidents one needs to have resilience also known as the psychological resources to process the experience with all of its ugliness and to know that you did what was needed with the training and experience you bring to the job every day.
After a stressful event, your body and mind must return to its baseline calm and ready state so that the officer may again activate and serve in whatever capacity is required without the baggage of the calls gone by. As this “baggage” builds unfettered the likelihood of a decline in officer job performance grows sometimes exponentially. “Like anxiety, depression or other stress reactions, it can become pathological when it reaches greater intensity and is accompanied by feelings of helplessness, dysphoric mood, intrusive thoughts, aggression towards others and suicidal ideation towards oneself, withdrawal from others, phobic avoidance of places and persons that can remind oneself of the critical event, or multiple somatoform (physical) complaints” (Hauer, Wessel, & Merckelbach, 2006).
“Beyond the rigors of police work, lie the demands of a personal life, specifically a wife or husband and children. Maintaining a healthy and happy family life is on its own a demanding responsibility. Add these powerful life stressors and demands to the burdens of police work and an officer may begin to feel the weight upon his or her shoulders.” Leo Polizoti, 2018.
Law enforcement officers work in highly stressful situations and their bodies are exposed to external threats that activate the autonomic nervous system. Many are conflicted over the need for overtime versus the need for family time. “In times of crisis, fight-or-flight (adrenergic) responses may cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure. This can lead to hypervigilance or a feeling of being on overdrive. If the mission is extended in the case of large-scale disasters, there may be problems with sleeping, changes in appetite, irritability, and impatience. Often, there is profound fatigue caused by long shifts with limited down time and limited space for sleep and relaxation” according to Laura Helfman, M.D. in a 2018 paper on coping and trauma. The longer the mission, the greater the risk of shifting from normal to maladaptive responses.” Helfman, 2018.
Stress has undeniable impact on all human functioning and public health. Not enough is being done to infuse knowledge and understanding into the emotional maelstrom created by chronic stress (Sefton, 2014). Healthy coping and productivity breaks down when this occurs over and over. According to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D., the primary author of the Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness and Mental Health Emergencies, “learned resilience leads to reduced stress and psychological hardiness rather than psychological weariness. As the demand for police service becomes more complex, officers must adapt their physical and emotional preparation for service or risk premature career burnout.”
Helfman, L. (2018) How do First Responders Experience and Cope with Trauma. Quarterly Technical Assistance Journal on Disaster Behavioral Health. Volume 14, Issue 1, Page 14
Linden, M. et al. (2009) Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder Self-Rating Scale. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy Clin. Psychol. Psychother. 16, 139–147.
Polizoti, L. and Sefton, M. (2018) The Police Chief’s Guide to Mental Illness and Mental Health Emergencies. (In press) Decision Press, Worcester, MA
Sefton, M (2014) Stress: The human cost of Technology. Blog post: https://msefton.wordpress.com/health-psychology/stress-the-human-cost-of-technology/. Taken 8-22-2018
Many cases of domestic violence (DV) result in an order of protection being issued. The protection order is based upon the personal report of the victim which is substantiated by police report and perceived risk and may be implemented 24 hours a day. The approval of a court judge or magistrate is generally required for its issuance. This order requires that the abuser “stay away” from the victim and is based on the totality of circumstances presented to a district or family court judge at the time of arrest. Police officers use report narratives to construct the details of the protection from abuse (PFA) or restraining order (RO). Different states utilize differing nomenclature to define what is the substantive court directive that provides the underpinning of a victim safety plan. They are granted on an emergency basis for 24-48 hours and are sustained for up to 6-12 months following a review by the court.
What happens between the time the initial PFA is granted and when the victim is expected in court to chronicle his or her intimate partner violence is often a mystery. Victims often fail to show for the initial hearing that allows the initial PFO to go away. Why? In some cases they become intimidated by their violent spouse who has made promises to straighten up and fly right. This is the core dynamic of intimate partner violence and it is well-described in these pages and elsewhere.
“Domestic violence is not random and unpredictable. There are red flags that trigger an emotional undulation that bears energy like the movement of tectonic plates beneath the sea.” according to Michael Sefton (2016).
In all states a protection order requires that no contact be made via telephone, through acquaintances, text messaging, or in person. By violating a PFO requires that law enforcement make an arrest of the person in violation. This information becomes the grist of the underlying risk to the victim. The marginalized abuser sometimes becomes obsessed with his loss of control and may take to cyber stalking in order to keep tabs on his partner. As just mentioned any violation of the protection order renders the abuser subject to arrest and should require a high amount of bail before he is released from jail. This is rarely the circumstance as violators easily make bail ironically blaming the victim as the root cause of the marital strain. These are the hubristic remarks of building tension and frustration described in the cycle of violence.
It is important to note that social media has given abusers extra means to “creep” into the privacy of estranged spouses without detection. It played a significant role in the domestic violence homicide according to the psychological autopsy report of the Dexter, Maine homicide/suicide in 2011 (Allanach, R. et al., 2011). Social media may also be used to intimidate and unfairly influence friends and family.
Bail amounts differ from state to state and sometimes even from county to county within a single state. The amount of bail should be high enough to inconvenience and deter the abuser from being tempted to coerce and manipulate his victim and family. Most often the bail amount is low and inconsequential to the abuser who often has no criminal record. However, changes in bail conditions and risk assessment must be integrated into orders of protection – especially when a single abuser has had more than one PFO filed against him. This sets the stage for measuring the degree of violence one might expect as the abuser becomes further marginalized and feels his control over the victim begin to collapse. “Someone with a history, particularly a continuing history of violence, can be presumed to be dangerous.” according to Frederick Neuman, MD.
The order of protection belies the fundamental safety plan that is crafted by police and domestic violence experts and is designed to prevent further victim injury or death.
Sefton, M. (2016) Blog post: DVH in MA: 4 year old child begs his father. https://msefton.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/dvh-in-ma-4-year-old-child-begs-father-not-to-murder-his-mother/. Taken 8-20-2018
Allanach R. et al., (2011). Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.
Neuman, F. (2012) Is it possible to predict violent behavior? https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/fighting-fear/201212/is-it-possible-predict-violent-behavior?collection=113345
There is no pleasure when a parole board must decide on whether to release or not a man who violently murdered his wife. Especially the case of Albert Flick – arrested in Westbrook, Maine in 1979 and convicted of the brutal murder of his wife. Mr. Flick asked not to be released perhaps out of some inner sense of foreboding and primal instinct of things to come – if such a thing exists among killers. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing -underneath he is ravenous.
Fast forward to Sunday July 15, 2018 Albert Flick who had been released from jail for committing the violent murder of his wife again killed a woman with whom he had an infatuation. He had been stalking her for weeks prior to her murder. He followed she and her two little boys from place to place in Lewiston, Maine. She had an inner sense that he was dangerous but was fearful of going to the police at the time of her death. Yet she had spoken to friends about her worries. What may have prevented the victim from calling police when she first noticed Mr. Flick was stalking her? Why was she fearful of the very people charged with preventing violence? What may have happened if she had notified the officer on her beat? Or a police officer walking in her neighborhood?
The answer is that Mr. Flick would have had a visitor that in all likelihood would derail his infatuating behavior. If not, he would have had is parole revoked as it should have rightfully been done. I was a police officer in Westbrook, Maine when Flick murdered his wife in 1979. I was on duty when the call came in to the station but as a junior officer was not dispatched to the scene. The scene was horrific even by todays standards of violence. Nevertheless, the case is well know to me as I later worked closely with the arresting investigator Ron Allanach and his partner Wayne Syphers – both exemplary career law enforcement officers. Ron went on to earn his doctorate in counseling and was Chief of Police for 8 years at the end of his career in Westbrook. Both men were instrumental at convicting Albert Flick. Flick is shown in the 1979 photograph below being taken to court in Portland by Detective Syphers who made a heroic effort to save the life of the victim. The female victim ultimately died in his arms in 1979. Albert Flick should have remained in jail for life and many in law enforcement who remember the case are agonizing over his release after serving 20 years.
“Clearly, probation is not working. … At this point, I just don’t know what else to do. I think there’s a huge safety risk to women and society when it comes to Mr. Flick.” Prosecutor Katherine Tierney, 2010
Flick was known for a proclivity for violence against women. After being released from his murder conviction Flick was arrested for chasing an intimate partner with a screw driver with intent to due harm. There would be other charges and other arrests that were red flags for the underlying anger he felt toward woman. A group of us will reach out to Mr. Flick in the coming months for a sit down.
The female victim, Kimberly Dobbie, in this 2018 Lewiston, Maine case had felt threatened by Flick. Her instincts were keen as it related to his potential for violence against her. But she told only her friend and no one else. She was 30 years his junior and had spurned his love interest. She had twin children who were present during the despicable killing and are traumatized having witnessed their mother’s death. In his book “The Gift of Fear“, Gavin deBecker espoused the value of trusting our primal instincts as they pertain to our personal safety.
Flick had been in and out of prison for crimes involving intimate partner violence and intimidating female witness who were courageous in coming forward against Flick. At some point he himself reported asked to be kept in custody.
“You can’t say that nothing can be done, because nothing will be done,” said Michael Sefton, a former Westbrook police officer who now works in Massachusetts for the New Braintree Police Department.
The judge who authorized Flick’s release is retired from the bench but his stated opinion for releasing Flick was that “he had aged-out and was no longer criminally inclined” yet he himself asked to remain behind bars. Why?
Technically this was true, Flick no longer fit the stereotypic picture of a repeat murderer. He was older and physically growing infirm. Most men who commit domestic violence homicide do not recidivate once released from prison especially those over the age of 70. While researching a case of family murder-suicide, I have spoken to a man who served 18 years for strangling his wife who was released and became a model citizen and amateur photographer. He published a book of his photographs that were quite good – even sensitive. This man was not a risk and was somewhat younger than Flick. So by all reasonable judicial standards Flick was considered a low-risk release. Probation would keep him in line. Not so fast, information was available from his first release that included repeated violence against women raising a red flag of potential violence in the future. Plus the horrific nature of the stabbing murder in 1979 was not a factor in the release conditions once he had served his time. Finally, there is also information that suggested that Mr. Flick did not seek his own release as reported above. He may have been institutionalized with the simmering anger he himself expected would again leach from his despicable soul.
What is resilience in police work? Emotional resilience is defined as the the capacity to integrate the breadth of police training and experience with healthy, adaptive coping, optimism, mental flexibility and healthy resolution of the traumatic events. In general, resilient people are self-reliant and have positive role models from whom they have learned to handle the stressful events all police officers encounter. In the best of circumstances officers are encouraged to share stressful events and debrief with peer supports that are a regular component of the police service. Unfortunately, in spite of the availability of peer support many officers are hesitant to utilize and call upon their peers to help with difficult even traumatic calls like suicide and severe child or elder abuse. One reason for this is a culture of internalizing stress until it whittles away career satisfaction and job performance. The underpinning of police officer burn-out is the collapse of resilience and onset of maladaptive coping.
How many mid-career officers have reduced productivity and elevated stress that leads to increased use of alcohol, drugs, gambling, abuse of sick leave, and job-related injuries? According to Leo Polizoti, Ph.D. resilience refers to professional hardiness that is protective against such career burnout and raises both professionalism and job satisfaction. Many believe that hardiness and resilience can be built and polished as the officer grows into his career.
Police training tends to be repetitive and often boring. Officers train to attain a level of automaticity so that when field encounters become threatening they are quick to utilize tactical behavior in the use of force continuum. Sadly, police departments everywhere have trained in the active shooter protocol so that when the call goes out every officer knows exactly what is expected of him or her. By doing so the motor programs and cognitive maps coalesce into a tactical advantage for law enforcement. Training also helps to reduce autonomic arousal and helps regulate internal levels of stress so that officers can function at optimal levels when needed most.
Just as it is difficult to identify mental illness in a civilian population until the person is off the rails, so too is it difficult to pinpoint a law enforcement officer who is struggling with the long-term effects of the high stress calls police answer on a daily basis. “Stress and grief are problems that are not easily detected or easily resolved. Severe depression, heart attacks, and the high rates of divorce, addiction, and suicide in the fire and EMS services proves this” according to Peggy Rainone who provides seminars in grief and surviving in EMS (Sefton, 2013).
High levels of stress are known to slowly erode emotional coping skill leaving a psychologically vulnerable person at higher risk of acting out in many ways including with violence. The 2013 case of domestic violence homicide in Arlington, Massachusetts raises the specter of domestic violence homicide in police and first responders. In this case, a decorated paramedic allegedly killed his twin children, his wife and then himself. Outwardly, he and his family seemed happy. What might trigger such an emotional breakdown and deadly maelstrom?
“Although resilience — the ability to cope during and recover from stressful situations — is a common term, used in many contexts, we found that no research had been done to scientifically understand what resilience is among police. Police officers have a unique role among first responders. They face repeated stress, work in unpredictable and time-sensitive situations, and must act according to the specific departmental policies. ” Andersen et al. 2017
The career success they have may be directly related to the application of resiliency training to build and maintain physical and emotional hardiness that lasts a lifetime according to Leo Polizoti, 2018. Before this can happen the stigma associated with reaching out must be reduced.
Reduced stigma will afford officers the chance to express themselves, lower stress and tension, and seek peer or professional help when situations evoke or release the ghosts of cases past – often the underpinning of PTSD. This openness has not yet found its way into the law enforcement culture and while physical fitness has taken hold for career satisfaction – mindfulness has not become fully embraced.
Andersen et al. (2017) Performing under stress: Evidence-based training for police resilience
Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Gazette Magazine Vol. 79 No 1.
Polizoti, L. (2017) Psychological Resilience: From Surviving to Thriving in a Law Enforcement Career. Presentation. Direct Decision Institute, Worcester, MA
Polizotti, LF (2018) Psychological Resilience : From surviving to thriving in a law enforcement career. Personal Correspondence. Taken 4-21-2018
Rainone, P. (2013) Emergency workers at risk. (website) http://www.emsvilliage.com/articles/article.cfm?ID=176. Taken 12-1-2013