Today there is still a great deal of stigma associated with reaching out for peer support within police departments. Officers’ fear being misunderstood and seen as weak if they acknowledge their vulnerability years into the job. The blue line bleeds each time an officer takes his or her own life yet the silence within the ranks is stunning. An officer may act heroically in their efforts to save a child who isn’t breathing and fail. An officer may be first-in to a call for domestic violence homicide and fail. An officer may be dispatched to a horrific motor vehicle crash and come upon an overturned minivan with a shamble of entrapped human misery and death and still feel a failing. These events create a chink in the armor and sometimes reveal gaping personal anguish that accumulates over time. The cumulative impact of trauma adds to the layers that belie the outward calm. As a former police officer there are calls I covered that are painful to this day. Abject failure. Exposure to subclinical, traumatic events takes a toll of both physical health and emotional wellness and can lead to PTSD, secondary traumatic stress disorder, and burn out.
Prevention of law enforcement suicide is paramount. As recently as early November, 2018 a former police chief died by police assisted suicide killed by his former officers after charging them with a kitchen knife. And in Baltimore County, MD, School Resource Officer Joseph Comegna, a 21-year veteran of the force, took his own life at his desk in the public school. “And unlike line-of-duty incidents, which tend to receive a great deal of media coverage, law enforcement suicides rarely get much press, says Al Hernandez, a 35-year veteran of the Fresno Police Department (FPD) in California. Hernandez helps connect officers to mental health care.” according to Jack Crosbie writing in Men’s Health about a suicide death of an NYPD officer who died in early 2018.
The impact of stress on the lives of LEO’s is well known and can have pervasive impact on officer well-being both in and out of uniform. Hypertension, cardiovascular disease, substance abuse, and depression are just a few of the behavioral health consequences that may result from repeated exposure. Ongoing vulnerability to traumatic events can result in anger, resentment, strong negative emotions, and reactive embitterment that can erode job satisfaction and job performance (Sadulski, 2017). Critical Incidence Stress Debriefing plays an important role for police by helping LEO’s manage their trauma and post-traumatic stress. It should be provided as part of an integrated system of peer support. Most departments have officers trained in CISD whom provide peer support to brother and sister LEO’s who are in crisis. Key among these relationships is the hand-off to mental health professionals when indicated. Peer support is not treatment and the relationship between the peer support and psychological treatment should be clearly defined.
Each of us in law enforcement has a duty to reduce suicide among the men and women in blue whenever possible. This requires a substantive understanding of the risk factors associated with LEO self-destruction. Chief among law enforcement is the camaraderie that bonds officers together during times of stress. Peer support is a key factor in reduced emotional suffering among law enforcement officers.
Risk factors for suicide increase when the conventional need for belongingness among law enforcement officers which is thwarted by the estrangement or isolation. This comes with individual officer discipline, e.g. suspension, or some other factor pushing him/her out that can be isolating and evoke feelings of thwarted belongingness according to Thomas Joiner (2009). Social alienation is a powerful emotional dynamic that results from the experience of being estranged from a core group of supportive friends, colleagues, and immediate family. This occurs in many ways including change in social reciprocity and reduced exposure to primary interpersonal ties resulting in powerful feelings of loss and growing belief of being a burden. This may be the result of disciplinary actions toward the officer, on-the-job injury, or departmental requisite following officer-involved use of force.
Embitterment has large implication on LEO productivity, career satisfaction, job performance, citizen complaints, and officer health. It grows slowly as a function of career experience perceived support, and critical incident debriefing and peer support are vital to officer longevity. Mentoring in the field and supervisory support reduce officer isolation and sometimes powerful feelings of negativity that can fester over time according to Polizoti, 2018. 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 in court and remain nonplussed maintaining a positive attitude and a “better luck next time” belief system.
Lethal Self-Injury – Acquired Ability The final risk factor involves a gradual desensitization to pain and human suffering according to Joiner (2009). Over time, exposure to repeated violence, homicide, intimate partner violence, and other “salient fearsome experiences”, the self-preservation instinct gradually disintegrates into a residual fearlessness in the face of life threatening danger and an acquired capacity to ignore the horror and humility of violence with a higher tolerance of pain and substantive capacity for suicide (Joiner, 2007).
Joiner believes that the capacity for suicide is acquired over time from the repeated exposure to trauma such that the reaction to horrific traumatic events, e.g. domestic homicide, loses the ability to evoke a normal emotional response and habituates to a decreased emotional reactivity, a higher tolerance for pain, and a fearlessness in the face of death. Given this proclivity toward feeling “numb” in the face of high levels of violence, over time researchers look for protective factors such as reducing isolation and more frequent debriefing after every critical incident rather than wait until LEO coping goes the way of attachment and perceived support.
References Sadulski, J. (2017). Promoting Police Resilience through Peer Support. Law Enforcement. Blog post taken November 20, 2018 Joiner, T. (2009). The Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicidal Behavior: Current Empirical Status. Science Briefs, APA, June. Polizoti, L. (2018) Critical incident resilience training. Personal correspondence, September.