Speaking on the Unspeakable: Ending the Pandemic of Police Officer Suicide

I've talked with officers who have lost a colleague to suicide—as well as many widows of officers who died by suicide—and just about everyone has said that the warning signs were there before tragedy struck. They just didn't put the pieces together until it was too late. Let's all do a better job of helping officers in crisis.

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In late October, a California Highway Patrol officer from the South Sacramento office was discovered dead in his patrol vehicle. The nine-year veteran of the CHP—identified as Officer Sean Poore—was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 31 years old.

"Law enforcement agencies are traumatized with the death of one of their own. The response is even more devastating when that death comes at the officer's own hand," said CHP Commissioner Warren Stanley in a statement.

"Our hearts and prayers are with the surviving family members, friends, and co-workers," Stanley said.

At the time of this writing (the first days of November), 129 police officers have died by suicide across the United States, according to BlueH.E.L.P., an organization that tracks officer suicides while simultaneously seeking to prevent such tragedies from occurring.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am on the Board of Directors of BlueH.E.L.P.

This column will mention the organization, but is not meant to be a promotion of the 501(c)3 non-profit. I will mention some of the services offered because those services are germane to the topic at hand.

Neither I nor the organization profits from the inclusion of this information in this space.

The information provided is potentially life-saving for officers in crisis.

If you are having ideations of suicide, I implore you to seek the help from one of the resources listed in this space.

In October, nine officers died by suicide—there were 10 duty deaths that month. Of the duty deaths, four officers died by gunfire. Others died by duty-related illness, heart attack, or in a vehicle incident (collision or struck by).

Sadly, October was not an unusual month—nor is 2018 shaping up to be an unusual year.

In 2017 the number of officers dying by suicide was 154—and these are just the officers we know about.

By contrast, the total number of duty deaths in 2017 was 137—roughly half of those deaths in felonious assault such as gunfire, vehicular assault, and the like.

The ratio of felonious deaths to "accidents" has remained at about 50:50—give or take—for decades.

Imagine if 154 officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in a single year. If past is prologue—and it is—that would mean that nearly 300 officers would have died on duty in that year.

The outrage would be intense.

Ever since I learned about the pandemic of police officer suicide, I've made it a priority to speak openly on this topic that had for years been unspeakable in law enforcement.

Simply stated, we must do more to keep our officers safe from suicidal ideation.

Warning Signs

I've spoken with many widows of officers who died by suicide. Apart from the heartbreak that is still plainly evident in their faces—which is the most noticeable thing I observe during those conversations—the thing that sticks out is how each woman talks about the fact that after their officer's death, they recognized visible warning signs of life-threatening mental or emotional crisis.

Some of the signs include:

        • Displaying feelings of hopelessness
        • Withdrawing from friends and family
        • Increase in alcohol consumption
        • Noticeable change in weight—either gain or loss
        • Ending ordinarily beloved recreational activities
        • Sudden, unexpected outbursts of anger or sadness
        • Increased risk taking both on and off-duty
        • A change in attitude or personal demeanor
        • Saying things like, "You'll take care of my family if I die, right?"
        • Threatening suicide—a great many suicide victims verbally telegraph their death

Some of these behaviors—such as the second half of those signs listed above—are far more likely to be observed by an officer's colleagues than his family.

I've also talked with cops who have lost a colleague to suicide, and like the widows, many of those officers have said that the warning signs were there—they just didn't put the pieces together until it was too late.

Resistance to Assistance

Police officers solve problems—they're natural-born problem solvers who are then trained in the academy, by their FTOs, and the alchemy of thousands of hours of duty to solve problems. It is anathema for most officers to admit that they themselves have a problem in need of solving.

They are hard-charging type-A personalities reluctant to admit a fault or a flaw.

Add to that the fact that many agencies are not welcoming of an officer's request for help, and you have a recipe for reticence.

That culture needs to change. Agencies may have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), but are those services confidential? Is there a stigma attached to calling upon EAP for help? In too many agencies, there is needless blowback on officers seeking help because personnel records are shared with supervisors or made available to defense attorneys—or worse, plaintiffs' attorneys bringing suit against an officer.

Resources Available

As has been indicated, lots of cops are resistant to getting overt help. That needs to change, but for those who remain intransigent, there is plenty of literature available that can be quietly and covertly obtained.

Books like Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, I Love a Cop by Dr. Ellen Kirshman, and Armor Your Self by John Marx can be great resources for officers who may be approaching crisis. Add to that list books like The Price they Pay by Karen Solomon and Jeffry McGill.

Further, there is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress.

Safe Call Now (1-206-459-3020) offers those services specifically for first responders.

Then, as mentioned, there is BlueH.E.L.P.

BlueH.E.L.P. seeks to:

Honor those who have died by suicide, recognizing that it is not how they died that mattered, it is how they lived

Educate officers on recognizing warning signs of crisis within themselves and of signs indicated by peers

Lead departments and agencies toward understanding that officer well-being and mental health should be a top priority, and that suicide is preventable

Prevent officer suicide

In addition to tracking officer suicides—much in the same way that ODMP tracks duty deaths—and providing support to families who have lost an officer to suicide, BlueH.E.L.P. provides police officers with online resources that can help them connect with exactly the right person who can help with what is causing suicidal thoughts.

The 1stHelp website is a searchable database dedicated to helping first responders find emotional, financial, spiritual, and other forms of assistance in times of need.

A first responder need only enter a few data points—such as location and what kind of assistance is needed—and the individual will be provided with a list of options for help.

Just One Officer

A few years ago, I had the experience of being part—frankly, an almost insignificant part—of an endeavor that ultimately prevented an officer from dying by suicide. I cannot disclose much of what part I played—nor can I name the other parties involved in that situation.

I was barely a bit-player in this effort—one other man was far more important in saving this officer's life than I—but I can say that being involved in that intervention in my small way changed me in ways that defy description.

Tears fill my eyes when I think of any officer in crisis—any officer in need of an ear to fill, or in need of a calming voice—who chooses to burrow down deep into themselves, shunning the help that is there for them.

It's okay to not be OK.

It's okay to ask for help.

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