Another look at self-destruction in law enforcement and its septic underpinning

This is a photograph produced by Dave Betz who lost his son (pictured) in 2019 to suicide.

Officer Dave Betz lost his son David to suicide in 2019

The code of silence.  It surrounds the culture of police work and always has.  I was once told there are two kinds of people: police officers and ass holes.  If you were not a police officer then you were an asshole.  It was a brotherhood with a formidable blue line that defined the police service as a singular force against all that is bad.  Some have said that law enforcement offers a front seat to the greatest show on earth.  Until what is viewed in the front row cannot be unseen and slowly chips away the veneer of solidarity by threatening the existing culture.  For police officers to have long term career success the organization must come to grips with its membership and relieve them of the stigma they feel that prevents them from coming forward. Who would go for that?

If the organization devalues its rank and file for experiencing the natural, neurobiological reaction to repeated, high lethality exposure to violence and death, then who would join such an organization?  Fewer and fewer applicants are signing on in 2019. If a police officer is emotionally denuded by the job why would he or she step up and break the code of silence and be labeled a “nut case” only to lose his badge, firearm, and police authority?  No one will sign on for that kind of treatment.

Each time a member of the law enforcement community takes his or her own life the unspoken silence becomes a lancing wound to the festering emotional infection that is from repeated exposure to traumatic events. The reappearing wolf in sheep’s clothing cuts his teeth on the souls of unwavering academy graduates now paired with senior field trainers who promise to teach the tricks of the trade. Academy graduates come forth like professional athletes with all the confidence and enthusiasm of an elite athlete.  They need experience and mentoring so they know what they are up against.  I was asked to speak at the annual Society of Police and Criminal Psychology meeting in Scottsdale, AZ in late September, 2019 on the importance of the field training program on long-term officer wellness and career satisfaction.

Country music blared from the car radio as Dave, dressed in pajama pants and a t-shirt, stood over his son and realized he was dead.

Father of 24-year old police officer David Betz, 2019

The psychological autopsy may provide insight into the manner of death and must include prior exposure to trauma.  How many first-in homicide calls had the decedent handled? How many unattended SIDS deaths?  How many death notifications? How many cases of domestic violence where the victim was too frightened to speak about the nightly horrors in the marital home? How many times did he witness the remnants of a violent motor vehicle crash with ejection?  Each time he bears witness to this inhumanity he risks never coming back. Some spouses will say they remember when they lost a husband or wife. “It was after the 4-alarm fire – sifting through the rooms for possible causes and finding the old woman who rented the place in an upstairs bathtub” or “the time the addict threw his newborn son off the 14th floor balcony because his baby mama did not return from work when she was expected.” Many espouse the use of the psychological autopsy as a way of honoring an officer who died by suicide as a means of linking the suicide to their tour of duty. 

High lethality calls must be tracked allowing for paid psychological defusing time in the aftermath of these calls.  Defusing and psycho- education can be provided for the entire group who handled the high lethality call rather than identify a single officer.  Aftermath check-ins and peer support should follow. An officer who begins to exhibit changes in his normal work routine, e.g. increased tardiness, citizen complaints, or substance abuse should be referred for psychological follow-up that is linked to annual performance reviews and recommendations for corrective action.

In truth, the reader may wish to put himself into the position of the first arriving police officers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in a place called Newtown.  In December, 2012, twenty seven people were violently murdered – most were first grade students. I have read the Connecticut State Police report of the Sandy Hook shooting and was left feeling numb and physically sickened. It is over 1000 pages of grueling detail.  Now, when I see TV images of LEO’s running on campus toward the sound of gunshots, I know they must step over the desperate victims, some of whom take their last breath reaching for a pant leg or a blue stripe or a black boot covered in blood all the while begging to live.

Recruits enter the police service with high hopes of making a difference but quickly learn that their purpose in life is being sucked out of them like embalming fluid moving though the lifeless remains of a brother or sister officer who could endure no more. Coming forth and asking for help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength, resilience, and heroism. There should be no penalty or secondary administrative sanction when an officer comes forth.  They must be provided behavioral health treatment and a pathway to return to the job.  

Police officer suicide impacts police agencies everywhere in America and across the globe. Many officers feel abandoned by their agencies and become marginalized because they struggle with depression, substance abuse, and PTSD after years of seeing the worst life has to offer. It is time to lessen the expectation of shame among the troops who serve communities large and small. No father should be first in at the suicide death of his own son and be expected to stand with a photo and share his story at the same time he remains stoic and brave.