Police officer vulnerability previously ignored, hidden from plain site

What is currently understood as repeated exposure to trauma and its emotional impact was once thought to be a testament to toughness invoking the specter of a wall of silence. Law enforcement and first responder suicide has increased over the past several years and now exceeds the number of LEO’s killed in the line of duty. Why are cops choosing to take their lives? This is especially felt in Chicago where seven officers have taken their own lives in the last 8 months. In more than one case an officer committed suicide in the police vehicle or in the police department parking lot.

My colleague Dr. Leo Polizoti, Police Consulting Psychologist at the Direct Decision Institute, Inc. has been active in law enforcement training, fitness, and prescreening for over 40 years. He served over 30 agencies across New England and provides supportive psychotherapy as needed.

Dr Polizoti and I were recently involved in a symposium on Police Suicide in Chicago sponsored by Daninger Solutions from Daytona Beach, Florida. Among the presenters were Dr Thomas Joiner from the University of Miami, recognized expert in suicide, police sergeant Mark Debona from Orlando, Florida and Dr Daniel Hollar, Chairman in department of Behavior Science at Berthune-Cookman University in Tallahassee, Florida and CEO at Daninger Solutions.

There are many reasons why police officers have an increased levels of depression and stress.  Most are associated with repeated exposure to traumatic events like exposure to dead bodies, violence, childhood injury or death, terrorism, fatal car crashes, and more.  Most officers are able to remain professionally hearty when provided the opportunity to defuse the exposure soon after an incident. Career performance should include reducing officer depression and embitterment by building resilience starting in the academy and lasting throughout an LEO’s career.

The Mind-Body connection is well established and the role of stress in LEO career well-being is becoming a agency focus beginning in the academy.

“Not only must we as negotiators learn to take care of ourselves emotionally and physically – we must also be prepared to intervene with an actively suicidal officer. “

Dave DeMarco FOX News Kansas City

Is it any wonder officers lose hope and resilience.  There are inherent risks that LEO’s assume when they sign on like forced overtime, changing shifts, off-duty court appearances, the chance they may become injured, disabled or killed while serving the community.  There are also systemic stressors like supervisory bullying, professional jealousy, lack of opportunity to have an impact on policy, career stagnation, and paramilitary chain of command that often devalues education and innovation.  Agencies are beginning to track exposure to trauma and its correlated change police officer resilience in real time.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, LEO’s are required to attend defusing sessions following high lethality/high acuity exposure.  These sessions are kept private from members of the command staff and records are saved by the police consulting psychologist. The department has nearly 500 officers who are paid for their participation when they attend. It has been proposed that officers undergo annual “wellness checks” as a routine in some agencies such as KCMO. I have proposed a system of tracking officer call acuity and invoking mandated behavioral health assessment after a specified number of high acuity/high lethality calls for service. This is one way of reducing the stigma that officers face when they are sent for “fitness” evaluation or any sort of behavioral health care. The stigma associated with mental health may be reduced by having specified referrals following identified high profile incidents. Officers may be considered to be getting peak performance training at these defusing sessions as they are designed for enhancing officer awareness and reducing the human stress response.

Now, the KCMO department has mandated yearly wellness exams for officers in certain units like homicide and those dealing with child abuse. This was initiated to decrease the impact of traumatic events on police officer well-being. Officers at KCMO can also get up to six free anonymous visits to a mental health clinician each year, and the department has a peer support team.  Mental health clinicians must have experience working with law enforcement officers for best results.  Training for clinicians should be provided to best work with LEO’s and first responders. This is especially true for officers who self-refer.  Clinical hours should be supervised by the police consulting psychologist.

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 https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/msefton.wordpress.com/5294

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: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/chicago-s-cluster-police-suicides-raises-alarms-heroes-need-saving-n954386 Taken 1-23-18

From anonymity and stigma grows resilience

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.