Police Interview Newsletter

Volume 5, Issue 3
May-June, 2006

What police officer wants to believe that his partner, or fellow officer, is feeling suicidal and is seriously contemplating taking his own life? Similarly, what law enforcement agency has its eyes wide open to the warning signs that one of their sworn personnel may be feeling desperate enough to take his or her own life?

As human beings, we do not want to believe that a friend, a family member, a co-worker could possibly kill himself-even when a number of danger signs or risk factors are clearly present.

Conservative estimates of police suicide indicate that law enforcement officers kill themselves at twice the rate of the general population. This figure is hard to nail down because these shooting are sometimes ruled "accidental" or non-job related by police agencies, which are reluctant to recognize the problem for what it is. Yet, the problem is quite real and pervasive.

Robert Douglas, executive director of the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation, states: "We're losing about 300 officers a year to suicides". USA Today research conducted in June 1999 revealed that "most departments lose more officers to suicide than they do to violence in the course of their jobs."

Police Suicide Profiles

In his excellent article, "Police Officers: Control, Hopelessness, & Suicide" (http://www.corpus-delicti.com/suicide.html, April, 1995), Brent E. Turvey, M.S. offered the following profiles of police officers who took their lives. I quote directly from his article:

"30 year old Steven Laski. An eight year veteran. He was one of eleven patrolmen in his precinct who were transferred to desk jobs the previous May as a result of an ongoing corruption investigation. In April, fourteen officers had been arrested from the same precinct on drug, robbery, assault, and civil rights charges. Laski's handgun and his badge were taken away. He was divorced and living with his mother. He drove his blue Mustang to a deserted street near a cemetery and shot himself in the mouth with a .22 rifle. He died in civilian clothes." (p.6)

"26 year old Timothy Torres. Three years on the force. Midtown South Precinct. An officer on foot patrol. After a half-hour meal break with his partner he took out his .38 service revolver and shot himself in the head. It was 4:15 a.m. He was severely depressed about his divorce six months previously. It was the morning after Christmas. A few hours earlier, Torres had responded to a report of an emotionally disturbed person in need of help. 'You've got a young man grieving over a divorce, missing his ex-wife on Christmas, and coupled with dealing with an emotionally disturbed person just a few hours earlier, it obviously was too much for him to take,' a fellow officer said. His father is a retired police detective. He worked out a Gold's Gym to keep in shape. He killed himself shortly before dawn."

Turvey observes, "The typical officer who commits suicide is a white male, 35 years of age, working patrol, separated or getting a divorce, who has recently experienced a loss or disappointment. As with any profile, these are not hard and fast criteria. These are statistical tendencies. They are a road map for prevention. The most important criteria, or symptom, or red flag, of a suicidal disposition is marital problems."

Suicide Risk Factors & Warning Signs

It's a tricky and difficult business to predict, with any degree of certainty, who will and will not actually attempt to take his life. However, there are important signs and situations to watch for that can help fellow officers tune-in better to a friend's emotional state and personal struggle.

The several lists of risk factors and danger signs that follow come from three different sources, or experts. No one has the final word on this topic, or can hope to comprehensively present everything we need to know about identifying suicidal feelings and impulses. These lists tend to complement one another, and can serve to increase one's awareness and sensitivity to an officer's experience of helplessness, hopelessness, and loss of control-3 factors that characterize individuals at high risk for suicide.

  1. The National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation offers the following (1997 USA Today). The bold text is quoted directly.
    Common Factors in Suicide by Law Enforcement Officers:
    • Alcohol, coupled with an always-present firearm, drinking and depression are major causes of police officer suicides.
    • Breakup of a relationship or marriage. Often, the only people outside law enforcement an officer trusts are his or her family. When a relationship ends, an officer loses his or her emotional support base.
    • Stagnated Career
    Common Police Suicide Warning Signs:
    • An officer who starts having a high number of off-duty accidents
    • A rise in citizen complaints about aggressiveness
    • A change in personality in which a sullen officer suddenly becomes talkative or officer who is normally very vocal becomes silent and withdrawn.
    • The law enforcement officer starts giving away prized possessions or telling friends they will be missed.
    • The officer suddenly writes a will.
  2. Journalist Allen Kates, author of "CopShock, Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)" offers the following risk factors on his website-http://www.copshock.com. The bold text is quoted directly from Mr. Kates.
    Risk Factors for Suicide
    • Thoughts of death
    • Suicidal ideation or thoughts of suicide
    • Conception of a suicide plan, which includes where it will take place and when
    • Availability of lethal means- which is no problem for armed cops.
    • Presence of the warning signs of suicide
    • A family history of suicide or suicidal behavior.
    • Presence of symptoms of an emotional disorder.
    • A history of drug or alcohol abuse.
    • A recent stressful life event or change, such as retirement, promotion or even an award.
  3. Chaplain Robert Douglas, in his book "Death With No Valor", presents the following danger signs for police officers that may be suicidal. The bold text is quoted directly from his list.
    Danger Signs for Potential Suicide
    • Sudden loss of motivation
    • Not concerned about physical fitness or physical appearance
    • Isolation, withdrawal, doesn't talk much or confide in anyone
    • Heavy drinking or drug taking
    • More accident prone, especially with own car and service vehicles.
    • Reckless behavior.
    • Not sleeping, looks tired all the time.
    • Has told others about suicidal thoughts.
    • Frequent use of tranquilizers.
    • Mood swings, displays inappropriate emotions, gets angry easily.
    • Unable to concentrate.
    • Frequent injuries.
    • Discipline problems at work, picks fights with superiors.
    • Becomes arrogant, aggressive, impulsive, violent.
    • Unable to deal with frustration.
    • Cries easily.
    • Nervous, may experience shaking or tremors.
    • Plays with gun, points it at self or others.
    • Delusional.
    • Suffers from high blood pressure.
    • Previous history of suicide attempts or family history of suicide.
    • Combines tranquilizers and alcohol.
    • Sudden desire to make last wishes known.
    • Preparing will and getting papers in order.

Dynamics and Development of Suicidal Feelings

Brent Turvey, in his article "Police Officers: Control, Hopelessness, & Suicide", provides an excellent description of the way that hopelessness can grow, develop, and eventually become a legal dynamic in the life of a law enforcement officer.

"Hopeless is the most motivating contributor to the suicidal mind set. It is the sense that one does not have control over one's own behavior, feelings, or circumstances. It is a resignation of the self to perceived external elements. A feeling of hopelessness can be perceived by an officer from innumerable sources. It is not sudden. It grows slowly, unabated, until it becomes an insurmountable mind set."

"There is an unofficial progression in 'The Job' that police counselors have noted in many cases of police suicide and attempted suicide. The idealistic academy graduate turns into a depressed cop:

Graduate frequently exposed to blood, gore, and danger. Does not unburden these horrors on spouse. Spouse wouldn't understand. A few drinks with the guys after work to help unwind. Fellow cops don't understand. Can't trust civilians. Can't admit troubles, even to fellow cops; would be considered a wimp. Can't trust fellow cops. Drinking increases. Spouse takes off. Gun is handy" ( p.4, italicized text from Jules Loh's article-"The Man with a Gun is a Cop; The Gun is in His Mouth", The Oregonian, January 30, 1994).

Police Agencies & Fellow Officers Can Help

  1. Suicide prevention programs should be put in place in all police agencies. Educating police officers, starting with academy training, on depression and suicide among law enforcement personnel is essential.
  2. Officers must be taught to recognize suicidal signs in their co-workers and in those they supervise.
  3. When supervisors, or coworkers, observe significant danger signs in a fellow officer's life, it is important to ask that officer if he/she is "having thoughts of hurting himself." It is almost always relieving to the sufferer when somebody cares enough to ask that question. The person is crisis has probably been having suicidal thoughts, and now at least one other person knows how badly they feel. This specific questioning provides a sense of connection and support to the officer in crisis.
  4. To be successful in reaching out to potentially suicidal officers, administrators and supervisors must be clear and supportive about the following issues:
    • Officers will not be fired or punished for seeking help.
    • Information will be kept confidential.
    • Let's problem solve together. Suicide is not the answer.
    • Professional help is available to deal with these problems.

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