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Police Suicides: Losing Yourself

Some officers take their own lives because they can’t imagine not being a cop.

May 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

One of the major reasons cops murder themselves is because they are under investigation. While many see the suicide as an admission of guilt, experts say it's more likely caused by an officer's fear of losing his or her badge, his or her identity as a cop.

According to Elizabeth K. White, a psychologist with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, putting an officer under investigation is a double-edged sword. "We find that suicide often is connected to being under investigation. It's a betrayal if they're innocent. And if they did do it, then they're facing incredible humiliation," she says. "So either way it's going to have a great impact on them."

Being put under investigation can start a ball rolling that is difficult to stop. The prospect of being drummed off the force is worse to some officers than death.

The San Diego Police Department, which began a full-scale suicide awareness and prevention program in December, lost an officer to suicide in January. The officer was waiting for a fitness-for-duty evaluation, following an alcohol-related offense. As soon as he was released on bail, he rented a motel room and shot himself in the head.

Sgt. Garry Collins, assigned to the San Diego PD's medical assistance unit and the newly established member assistance program (MAP), says the department has "tweaked the program since then. Now we respond to [officers under investigation] so the individual knows that they're looking at possibly some discipline, but it's not the end of the world and we're there for them to help them answer some questions."

Terry Holcomb, chief of the Dale Police Department in Johnstown, Penn., was under investigation for payroll fraud when he committed suicide in 2000. Following his death, his wife Maria felt she got no support from the department. "I had to get counseling for my children and me," she says. "I did that on my own. We got nothing."

But often it's difficult for a police department to know how to deal with a grieving spouse who has so much anger for them.

Eileen Bowery's husband, Charlie, a Chicago police officer, committed suicide three months after coming under investigation for allegedly shaking down Polish immigrants on the Northwest side of Chicago.

Bowery believes the whole situation should have been dealt with differently. When the department came to his home and took his badge away from him in front of his family, it was difficult for the family to deal with as well.

Rev. Robert Douglas of the National Police Suicide Foundation agrees that this was not the way to handle the situation. "Having that happen in front of your whole family has got to be the most embarrassing situation in the whole world," he says. "At some departments I've seen them come into the station house and remove the guy right from roll call or pull an officer's car over and arrest him right there. These are all very embarrassing."

Bowery still blames the Chicago PD for Charlie's death. And immediately afterward, she was so angry that she allowed no visible police presence at his funeral except for one car. She also had him buried in a simple suit instead of his uniform.

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