Injured On, Indeed: We All Have Some Work to Do for One Another

Imagine how the law enforcement community would react to the following news stories.

Law Enforcement  Hit by Virus,
Killing Hundreds of Officers Annually (Boston, MA) A new study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found a virus that is uniquely prevalent in law enforcement.   “The only possible variable must be something in the routine nature of the police and CO experience,” researchers wrote.

Fed Highway Safety Agency Says Police Gas Tanks Explode at Three Times the Rate of  Same Tanks in Civilian Cars (Washington, DC) The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced today that in 2012 the gas tanks in Ford and Dodge vehicles in police and corrections fleets exploded at three times the rate of the same gas tanks in civilian use.  The same gas tanks are used in both the LE and civilian versions of the Ford Focus and Dodge Charger.  The head of NHTSA suggested, “There must be something in the law enforcement experience that explains the difference.  The gas tanks are the same.”

The above are obviously made-up.  Not just made-up but RIDICULOUS, the reasonable reader would say.  Police unions and police executives would be all over such data.  But consider the real data below about police and corrections officers.  We are not “all over” threats that are endemic in the law enforcement profession right now.  In fact, unions and management both mostly treat the problem as the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room.  Dr. Kevin Gilmartin argues that the hypervigilance required for street survival in policing and corrections hurts every practitioner.  Everyone is “injured on,” indeed.

Suicide is the most tragic and starkest measurement of the effects of hypervigilance. There is debate over how to compare law enforcement suicide rates to the US general population.  Should we measure it against the whole population or just against the white, male population, since white males make up the majority of officers?  Regardless of which comparison group we choose, researchers Andrew O’Hara and John Violanti point out that the police rate of about nearly 17 suicides per 100,000 is taking place in a population that is subject to pre-employment screening, often quite rigorous, to filter out applicants who might be prone to suicide.  If the job were not a factor one might expect suicides among LE officers to be much lower than the general population.

Some data:

  • On average a Correction Officer will live only 18 months after retirement.  A CO’s 58th birthday, on average, is their last.
  • The average life expectancy for a Police Officer is 66 years.
  • CO’s have a 39% higher suicide rate than any other occupation.
  • Police officers most at risk for suicide are in mid-career.  They have about 15 years on the job and are in their early 40’s.
  • Research shows that it is in mid-career that officers also are most prone to hit an emotional and psychological wall that can bring on bitterness and isolation.

The IACP published a fact sheet on suicides.

Why do officers take their own lives? Relationship difficulties play a large role in police suicide. This is a finding consistent with general suicide research as well as military suicide research.

Police suicide rates also have been associated with shift work, inconsistencies in the criminal justice system, alcohol and substance abuse, personal legal troubles, and a negative public image. Alcohol coupled with depression and chronic stress is the most common triad in completed LE suicides.  Another factor may be conflict with the police administration. In addition, some officers may choose suicide to escape from an intolerable or unbearable situation, such as facing prosecution for wrongdoing or public humiliation.

Police culture also appears to be a factor. Police officers may hold unrealistically high expectations for themselves. There is pressure to always be right, but no one can always be right. They are immersed in a culture where they always need to be in control, but no one can always be in control. They are forced to make life-and-death decisions in a split second, and then their decisions are scrutinized in court for months and sometimes years.

There is some support for the idea that near constant exposure to human suffering is a factor. LE officers see more disturbing images in the first couple years of their career than most people see in a lifetime: death, destruction, human tragedy, negative relationships, horrific accidents, and unspeakable crime scenes. In addition, officers can become somewhat desensitized to violence and even suicide. The idea of dying by gunshot is not horrifying and strange; it is familiar and known.

Since LE officers often develop considerable skills in masking signs of distress or trouble, they are less likely to display many of the standard signs and symptoms related to impending suicide.  Officers have immediate access to a highly effective means of suicide. The vast majority (96.1 percent) of LE officers commit suicide with a firearm.

Lastly, in the past, reluctance to obtain professional psychological may have played a role. Many LE officers feared the consequences of admitting to emotional problems. Although younger peace officers appear more comfortable with psychological assistance, even they may be discouraged from seeking assistance if the agency involved does not provide the assistance, does not make assistance well publicized or easily accessible, or creates an environment that pairs seeking assistance with weakness, failure, shame, or job consequences.

Sources: “Stress Management for the Professional Correctional Officer”, Donald Steele, Ph.D., Steele Publishing 2001 “Corrections Yearbook 2000, 2002”, Criminal Justice Institute, Middletown, CT “Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2003”, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 31st edition, NCJ 208756 “Suicide Risk Among Correctional Officers”, Archives of Suicide Research, Stack, S.J., & Tsoudis, O. 1997 Metropolitan Life Actuarial Statistics, 1998 Society of Actuaries, 1994 

Andrew F. O’Hara and John M. Violanti, “Police Suicide—A Web Surveillance of National Data,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 11, no. 1 (2009): 17–23.

IACP

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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