Into the darkness and away from the blue line

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 according to Sefton in a recent blog (2018).

The factors contributing to law enforcement officer suicide vary from one to the other but LEO resilience may be lost as a function of emotional embitterment that occurs over time. 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. Rates of suicide among LEO’s are actually less than one is led to believe but even one law enforcement officer suicide is too much. A closer look at the precipitants will help future generations of LEO’s to modulate trauma and process trauma in real time. The perceived stigma of depression, emotional vulnerability, and the cumulative impact of the worst of all human experience may lead LEO’s into the darkness. When suicidal officers are identified there must be a planned or intervention 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 (Sefton, 2018).

Prevention of law enforcement suicide is paramount according to Sefton (2018).  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 (2018).

Embitterment grows out of frustration and the build-up of chronic negativity, perceived helplessness, and resentment over lack of support according to Leo Polizoti a police consulting psychologist in Massachusetts. It stems from chronic discontentment within the ranks and grows with the strong belief that nothing will change. It may start with a single officer and grow to additional officers on the shift or within an outlier division or district. It is derisive to the camaraderie brought forth by the thin blue line. It is a cancer affecting what is the embodiment of a healthy law enforcement agency by trust and commaraderie. The corrosive perturbation of embitterment strips away trust in the “job” among individual officers leading to a darker reality and sometimes destructive inner narrative. Gradually, LEO’s grow weary over perceived lack of support from members of leadership and the community. In becoming alienated they often lose the support of peers growing increasingly marginalized.

Without light there is only darkness without hope

“The “typical” officer who committed suicide was a white, 36.9 year-old, married male with 12.2 years of law enforcement experience. The typical suicide was committed off-duty (86.3%), with a gun (90.7%), at home (54.8%).” Aamodt, 2001

In 2018 the Chicago Police Department went the extra step of releasing a video titled, “You Are Not Alone!” to put a spotlight on police suicide prevention and mental health. The video production is shown below and makes an effort to reduce alienation among officers suffering from the cumulative impact of trauma by reducing the stigma associated with seeking help for behavioral health afflictions. 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 as I cite in a recent blog (2018).  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 and must be done in real time with the lethality of LEO distress being the guiding intervention.  

Officer suicide in Chicago represents strongly felt stigma associated with
behavioral health crises

There have been notable cases in which an officer brings himself to his station house and chooses to end his life in a place where colleagues will surely find him. In a single agency, an officer hanged himself in the department parking lot while peer support officers raced the immediate neighborhood after a ping of the officer’s phone led them to his whereabout in an effort to find him before he died. In another agency an officer killed himself while parked in the district station lot before or after his shift. A female recruit recently committed suicide at the police academy after the halfway point in her training.

These acts will have a formidable impact on LEO’s everywhere in terms of the cumulative impacts of acute stress – especially those men and woman who were exposed to the individual cases or knew the officer involved and his family. Are signs of imminent suicide missed? In general there are signs of depression and anxiety that precede an attempt of suicide. Sometimes more than one. The severity and lethality of these depends on multiple underpinnings including coping strengths and weakness, co-occurring illness – including substance abuse, alienation from peers and family members, and other significant stress, e.g. impending divorce, loss of job, age, and serious financial trouble. History of heightened emotional response to stressful events is predictive of subsequent stressful responses later on.

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.

Sefton, M. (2018). From anonymity and stigma grows resilience. Blog Post Taken January 10, 2019

Sefton, M. (2018) Police Stress Intervention Continuum: An introduction for LEO’s and command staff to reduce officer suicide. Blog post taken 1-23-19

Polizoti, L. (2018) Personal correspondance.

Ortiz, E. (2019) Chicago’s cluster of police suicides. NBC News: Taken 1-23-18

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.