How Do We Change Police Culture To Save the Lives of Fellow Officers?

By Mark Bond, professor of criminal justice at American Military University

As a profession, we openly talk about officer safety, yet we refuse to talk about the number one killer of police officers: law enforcement suicide. Law enforcement suicide is real and yet the police culture continues to ignore the facts. What makes us afraid to talk about a real problem? Why do we not have stronger leadership on this issue?

Law enforcement suicide occurs 1.5 times more frequently compared to the general population. The estimated number of law enforcement suicides in the past decade is approximately 1,350 officers. It is difficult to get accurate numbers because many times these incidents are not reported accurately to protect the reputation of the department and its officers.

Law enforcement officers are trained to be resilient. They learn to turn off personal emotions in order to handle the constant exposure to human suffering and tragedy. Many police researchers estimate there are 125,000 active law enforcement officers on full duty who are suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is not the main cause of police suicides, but it is a factor in depression and untreated depression is responsible for the majority of law enforcement suicides.

We need to recognize that these officers died because of service-connected mental illness brought on by witnessing a traumatic event or a series of events. These officers deserve to be honored, not by how they died, but by what they stood for as an officer. We need to recognize that their deaths are duty related.

Roadblocks to Addressing Police Suicide
Officers are often afraid to seek help because the leadership and police culture will ostracize them. Officers know that seeking help for depression is a quick way to end one’s career. This should not be the message or the reality any longer.

Changing a culture that is prideful and honorable in their traditions and service is not going to be easy, but this issue is costing police officers’ lives. Our brothers and sisters are dying and we can prevent many of these suicides by making it acceptable to seek help.

Officers need to step up and intervene when something is not right with a fellow officer. We can save lives if we have the strength to force the dialog and make changes that strengthen the profession.

Signs and Risk Factors of Depression and Police Suicide:

  • LEO starts giving away personal items they cherish to fellow officers
  • Difficulty with shiftwork (did not have in the past but is now struggling)
  • Divorce and child custody issues
  • Missing work and showing up late for duty (out of character)
  • Abusing alcohol or other substances
  • Duty performance drastically falls
  • Preoccupied with death
  • Displays a lack of interest when he/she was once passionate about the topic
  • Facing department charges/prosecution/internal affairs and feels humiliated and ashamed
  • Death of a close friend, spouse, or child
  • Loss of sleep, nightmares, and/or flashbacks
  • Unexpected mood swings (not normal behavior)
  • Not wearing the uniform with pride (has always dressed sharp in the past)
  • Personal legal problems
  • Social media postings (self-harm threats or hopelessness themes)
  • Serious illness and physical pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Financial troubles
  • Takes risk on duty (walking into danger on purpose without normal tactical response)
  • Openly talks about self harm and makes statements like: “Things will be better when I’m gone.”
  • Withdrawn; not associating with fellow officers (as previously did)

For more information on this topic check out these videos: Police Suicide, the roots of PTSD, from Badge of Life and Police Suicides: In the Ranks, a Neglected Topic.

About the Author: Mark Bond worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms trainer for more than 29 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in Criminal Justice, and M.Ed in Educational Leadership with Summa Cum Laude Honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education with a concentration in distance education. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University &American Public University and is one of the faculty directors in the School of Public Service & Health. You can contact him at MBond(at)apus.edu.

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2 Responses to How Do We Change Police Culture To Save the Lives of Fellow Officers?

  1. Mick Toyne July 9, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    Dear Mark
    Thanks for raising this issue
    My experience would suggest that we are really bad at recognising and dealing with this

    A personal experience
    Around 1990 I had a colleague (detective sergeant) who (late turn) started a discussion about how best folk we had known had committed suicide with the least impact on loved ones and the emergency service personal
    after some debate we agreed carbon monoxide poisoning (car hosepipe) was in our experience the least traumatic for others
    Actually he had recently been arrested and bailed for drink driving, (was going to lose his job) and had split from his wife (lose his family) though these facts he did not disclose

    He committed suicide the day after our discussion and in the way we had discussed

    I constantly question whether or not with more knowledge and education or emotional maturity I could have prevented this, I will never know

    Since then i have been acutely aware of how complex and difficult to deal with this issue is and how stigmatised/penalised an individual can become whilst dealing with major life events

    From my own perspective, I believe that these issues should in no way remain the remit of occupational health departments etc, they should be written into the fabric of who we (or the police are)

    Perhaps its time to think about the principle of how we treat and look after each other1

    Summary

    the unwritten rule, needs to be written and become part of policing culture

    Most days I remember Jerry and think about how his action impacted upon his children and wife and ask

  2. Rebecca Donahue July 30, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

    I am one of those wives left behind. I can tell you how bad it was/is for me.. Still after 17 years.

    Becki DOnahue

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