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Police Suicide: Cop Killer

More law enforcement officers are slain by their own hands than any other cause.

May 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

Officer John Jones sets down his glass of scotch on the bedside table. He has been drinking more lately. Having a few at the end of his shift has always been his way to unwind. But now it’s more than a few.

Everything has just gone to hell since the internal affairs investigation. And nothing makes sense anymore. So John takes out his off-duty piece, an old wheel gun. He sits down on the bed, puts one in the cylinder, snaps it shut, and stares down at the blued metal machinery in his hand. The world around him is very quiet as he starts to raise the weapon to his head.

Then the door opens. His four-year-old son walks in. He doesn’t speak. He’s just looking for Dad because he senses something is wrong. John quickly lays the gun aside and covers it with a pillow. Then he lifts the boy onto his lap and holds him tight. He’s found a reason to keep living. At least for tonight.

Officer John Jones and his private hell are a composite. But there are many officers each year who face similar moments of despair and choose to take their own lives. And they don’t always find a reason not to pull the trigger.

Numbers are hard to come by because so many police suicides go unreported and there is no central source of information. But according to statistics collected by the National Police Suicide Foundation, a police officer takes his or her life every 22 hours. If that estimate is accurate, then nearly 400 cops kill themselves each year.

Suicide is a fact of life in law enforcement. If it hasn’t touched your life in some way already, chances are it will.

This is not to say that every police officer is a walking time bomb waiting to kill himself. But the stresses of the job and the long hours spent away from family can take a toll.

Risk Factors

The reasons someone commits suicide can be very complicated, but there are several major causes.

Many of these risk factors are as applicable to the public as they are to law enforcement personnel. For example, people experiencing marital problems are 4.8 times more likely to take their own lives than people who are happily married. And any failing relationship that is meaningful to a person can be a precursor to suicide.

Substance abuse, including drugs or alcohol, is another common factor in suicide. It is not unusual for officers to take their lives while drunk. Part of the reason could be that, as well as being a depressant, alcohol tends to remove inhibitions.

Up to 35 percent of officer suicides involve alcohol. Increased drinking is one of many warning signs.

Finally, even someone else’s moment of despair can lead to your own. According to Rev. Robert Douglas of the National Police Suicide Foundation, children of police officers often kill themselves in the first five years after their parent completes the act.

Other risk factors are part of cop culture. It’s been documented that suspended police officers and those under investigation are 6.7 times more likely to kill themselves. Many police officers feel that their lives are over if they can no longer be cops. This is especially true when they haven’t reached retirement and their career is terminated because of a disciplinary matter.

Then there’s the job itself.

Police officers are under a great deal of pressure to perform under traumatic circumstances. But they don’t always feel they can allow themselves to be affected by the situations they encounter on the job. And oftentimes they can’t while they’re in the situation or they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs. That leads to a lot of pent-up emotion, particularly dark emotion.

Emotional Wear and Tear

Chaplain Herb Smith, who works with the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office, believes that the expectations of administration as well as the public wear on an officer, especially when his or her actions in an officer-involved shooting or other critical incident come under scrutiny.

“With law enforcement, there is a larger measure of the kinds of adversities and stressors that come into one’s life,” Smith says. “Officers get a lot of contradictory messages administratively and publicly. They’re expected to enforce the law in an almost impossible way. [Then they are judged] by managers who are able to spend time developing a political assessment, deliberating what they would have done in the same situation, scrutinizing the decisions a police officer must make in a second or two.”

The “Perfect” Trap

Smith also believes that the type of people who become police officers might be more susceptible to suicide because of the high expectations they put on themselves. A prime example of this is a recent well-publicized case of a Nebraska state trooper.

Mark Zach, 35, of the Nebraska State Patrol shot himself with his sidearm because he apparently believed he hadn’t done all he could do to prevent a massacre at a Norfolk, Neb., bank. Four people were killed in that bank holdup, and reports say Zach blamed himself. He stopped one of the robbery suspects a week before the incident and found a concealed weapon.

The suspect was arrested for a concealed weapon charge and the gun was confiscated, but he posted bond. After the robbery, Zach learned that he made a mistake when checking the serial number. He transposed two digits when feeding the number into a police computer. If he’d input the right information, the gun wouldn’t have come up clean and the suspect could have been arrested for having a stolen gun, and that might have stopped the holdup, which took the lives of three bank employees and a customer.

For armchair psychologists, the easy conclusion is that Trooper Zach couldn’t live with the consequences of his mistake. He’s not alone. An all-encompassing sense of responsibility is part of many cops’ psyches.

Heroic Self Image

Another common denominator in many a cop’s psyche is that he sees himself as a hero. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t always agree and the disconnect can lead to depression and rage.

Police psychologist Carolyn M. Tenerowicz, who works for the Cleveland (Ohio) Police Department, says the new generation of cops is ill equipped to deal with the pressures of police work because they have different expectations than previous generations. “Years ago, police officers would commit suicide as a result of burnout and the tragedy of having given their life and all they had to give with very little in return,” says Tenerowicz. “It was a really helpless exhaustion. Today, they’re not able to tolerate the lack of appreciation that’s presented to police officers. These suicides are a result of anger, not frustration, because they’re not getting outside praise for their efforts.”

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