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Officer Suicide – Uniting a House Divided

By Karen Solomon

Published on

Karen Solomon is a national speaker, author, columnist and advocate. Karenis also the co-Founder and President of Blue H.E.L.P., and she will be speaking in depth about the rise of officer suicide during her Accelerate 2019 sessions.

In 2016, an officer who served his community very well for 17 years died by suicide. He had spent the last two years of his life struggling from post-traumatic stress, a direct result of two on-duty incidents. After his death, his Lieutenant told me that he wanted to give this officer a funeral with honors because he deserved it – but some of the officers in his department thought otherwise.

Those officers said he didn’t deserve it, he wasn’t one of them anymore. He chose to leave them. He chose suicide. Others in the department countered that he did deserve honors, saying that he served for 17 years, he was one of them, and he literally gave his life to the career. Some members of his community, the same people he served for seventeen years, said, “We don’t want to waste our money or our resources on him. He did not die a hero.”

Seventeen years.

How did we get here? Why have 463 law enforcements taken their own lives since January 1, 2016? Why do we ignore their service? Shouldn't we honor their service – not only for the officer, but for the family left behind?

The families get penalized the most. They lose their benefits, their income and their pride along with their loved one. They are left on the sidelines with little support. One of the widowed mothers I spoke with said, “I don’t know what to say when people ask me because that wasn’t him. We don’t know why he did that.”

At their core, the men and women who serve are not only duty sworn police officers. They aren’t cold, mechanical law enforcement machines devoid of emotion and feeling. They're human. Every single one has different life experiences, different sets of coping skills, different biological make-ups. They'll also have completely different sets of experiences on the job. So, they're all going to react differently. Some will be fine and might get through it no problem, no questions asked. Others are going to need help. They'll need an external factor to help get through it.

What we should be doing, instead of arguing about who is right or wrong, is addressing this traumatic trend and it's causes. We don't need to be sweeping it under the rug or stigmatizing it. When it comes to officer suicide, we need to:

Change the narrative

  • Start regular discussions about mental health and suicide in law enforcement during basic recruit training, in-service training, and shift briefings.
  • Show officers that operational stress injuries change the way the brain functions creating a physical injury that may manifest itself in a variety of ways associated with their physical and mental health.
  • Teach officers that mental health checkups should be used like regular visits to the dentist. We don’t wait until we have a problem. We go to prevent a problem.

Create better outreach programs

  • Officers who have received help and stayed on duty or successfully returned to duty should be encouraged to share their stories and mentor other officers.
  • Encourage mental health workers, chaplains, and other sources of support to ride along with officers on a regular basis. This builds trust between the parties and ensures those who may be called on for support have a better understanding of the challenges of police work.
  • Officers are taught to be in control of everything and we learn this through training and practice. The single best way to stay in control of your mental health is active prevention and mitigation techniques and this can be trained and practiced. Identify credible trainers to bring in this information and then adopt it agency-wide.

Focus on the families

  • Train families to manage the stresses of law enforcement. Families need to understand police culture, learn to recognize the signs and symptoms associated with operational stress injuries, and must know who they can call and where they can seek help.
  • Families must know that seeking help is the right answer and not fear agency policy. Officers or families who believe they are choosing between paying the bills and asking for help justifiably feel as if they have no choice.
  • Establish a relationship with the family before there is a need. Spousal support networks, shift/unit socials, and agency-wide events allow interactions amongst peers and their family outside a work environment allow the trust to build.

Build a better internal support team

  • Agency administrators must establish a clear policy ensure that the agency's objective is to get officers healthy and back to full duty as quickly as possible.
  • Supervisors have tremendous influence over their officers and therefore must lead the charge for better mental health by setting the example.
  • Identify credible mental health resources in your area that understand police culture. If you don’t have someone, then find someone who is willing to learn our culture and teach them.

Want to learn more preventing officer suicide and changing the narrative around this issue? Join Karren at Accelerate 2019 to meet her and hear her speak in more detail.

About the Author:

Since 2014, Karen has been giving a voice to the thousands of officers in the field who can’t or won’t speak out. She has interviewed hundreds of law enforcement officers and their families to gain insight into the field, trauma, stress, and both physical and emotional survival. Karen is a national speaker, author, columnist and advocate. Her books Hearts Beneath the Badge and The Price They Pay are used in citizen’s academies throughout the country and endorsed by law enforcement leadership. Her articles can be found on Calibre Press, PoliceOne, LawOfficer and Law Enforcement Today. Married to a police officer for sixteen years, Karen understands today’s challenges and puts her knowledge to work on behalf of the entire profession. Karen has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Eckerd College. She’s a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) and the Public Safety Writers Association.