By Their Own Hand:
Suicide Among Law Enforcement Personnel
In 1998, the Psychological Services Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) empanelled a committee to examine the issue and to propose specific recommendations to address law enforcement suicide. This article, a longer version of which was previously published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in “Suicide and Law Enforcement,” and highlighted by The Police Chief magazine, reviews that work and the committee’s findings.
According to the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation, Inc., more than 300 law enforcement suicides occurred in 1998. This figure is often quoted in comparison to the 174 new names that were added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., for line-of-duty deaths during that same year. The statement that twice as many peace officers die by their own hand as are killed in the line of duty implies a suicide rate for law enforcement personnel of epidemic proportions. Although the loss of any peace officer by his or her own hand is tragic, do sworn law enforcement personnel really have a higher-than-average suicide rate?
What Is Known
A review of the literature only adds to the confusion, leaving more questions than answers. Findings are wildly different and often contradictory. In examining 25 separate studies, dating back in some instances to the 1930s, suicide rates of law enforcement personnel per 100,000 sworn ranged from a low of zero to a high of 203.
The discrepancy among reported suicides rates can be attributed to a number of different problems:
- Lack of homogeneity: The term law enforcement personnel, while often used as a general descriptor, may not describe as homogeneous a group as once thought. In particular, existing studies have included different classifications of personnel (retired personnel, custody officers, etc.) in their studies and/or have failed to define their population, making meaningful comparisons difficult.
- Regional factors: Just as with the general population, suicide rates among law enforcement personnel can vary significantly across states and counties.
- Variables related to agency culture and environment: Differences in suicide rates between agencies, even within the same geographic area, suggest that agency characteristics may be an important factor.
- Lack of records: Law enforcement agencies seem to be reticent to share (or even keep) statistics of this nature. Most of the existing studies are retrospective, based solely on the recollections of responding agency personnel.
- Mislabeling cause of death: Some research suggests a tendency for line staff and agencies to erroneously label a possible (or even obvious) suicide as an accidental death. While this may be done with the best intentions to protect the peace officer and his or her surviving family members, it further complicates the process of obtaining accurate numbers.
- Suicide as a low-frequency event: Statistical difficulties occur when analyzing data for events that occur infrequently.
- Preemployment psychological screening: The presence or absence of preemployment screening is a contaminant, as is the lack of uniformity between agencies in terms of how such evaluations are conducted.
- Prevention and intervention programs: The presence or absence of various organizational interventions may be factors affecting the different rates of suicide found among various agencies. Does the agency, for example, train supervisors and/or line personnel in early identification and intervention with individuals at risk for suicide?
- Definition of law enforcement personnel: Existing studies have included different classifications of personnel (retired personnel, custody officers, etc.) and/or have failed to define their population, making meaningful comparisons difficult.
Dr. Michael Aamodt examined all the different findings to date, including the 1995 Fraternal Order of Police study involving 38,800 of its members in 24 different states. Dr. Aamodt calculated the suicide rate for law enforcement personnel as 18 per 100,000. This contrasts with 1996 data from the National Center for Health Statistics, which reports the rate of suicide among the general population as 12 per 100,000. While at first blush law enforcement rates appear significantly higher, the answer may not be so simple. When controlling for age, race, and gender, the findings change dramatically. Among the general population of white males, suicide rates average 21 per 100,000. While certainly law enforcement organizations have striven to diversify their workplace, the average peace officer in the United States is most likely to be a white male between the ages of 21 and 65. It appears then, that law enforcement personnel may actually have a lower rate of suicide.
Several other issues that on the surface appear to be clear, look much muddier when examined more closely. Owning a firearm results in a five-fold increase in rates of suicide among the general population. The effect on law enforcement, all of whom by definition possess a firearm, is not so clear. In the general populace, males use a firearm 63 percent of the time when committing suicide. This contrasts with law enforcement personnel where 90 percent of all suicides are committed with a firearm.
One interesting study examined whether job characteristics such as shift work or the presence of physical danger played a role in suicide statistics. Hill and Clawson (1988) examined mortality rates for different occupations and found that peace officers had significantly higher suicide rates than other occupations that involve physical danger and/or shift work.
Several authors also found that job-related concerns such as being under investigation, being suspended, or experiencing a significant professional failure were often identified as a precipitant for suicide. The other common precipitant was a relationship problem. Janik and Kravitz (1994) found that marital problems increased the risk for suicide almost 5 times and being suspended increased it almost 7 times. The presence of both marital problems and a suspension resulted in an approximately 22-fold increase in the likelihood of a suicide attempt. More studies such as these, which interviewed individuals who had attempted suicide in the past, must be conducted to better evaluate the role of such precipitants in law enforcement suicide.
A final precipitant appears to be retirement. Gaska (1980) found that retired law enforcement personnel were 10 times more likely to commit suicide than age-matched peers. Law enforcement personnel who retired because of a disability had a suicide rate of 2,616 per 100,000 compared to age-matched peers with a rate of 34 per 100,000. As noted previously, close examination of all of these studies leaves more questions than answers.
Getting the Answers
The end result of the IACP committee’s research points clearly to the need for improved data gathering on a national level. Since archival data cannot adequately answer the questions, forward-focused research that controls for the problems identified earlier, must be conducted.
While any future research should include an examination of the effectiveness of various types of prevention and intervention programs, the immediate need to prevent both loss of life and secondary trauma to affected personnel dictates the following common sense steps be taken:
- Conduct psychological preemployment screening of all law enforcement applicants.
- Assess individuals seeking high-risk/high-stress job assignments (undercover, special weapons team, homicide, etc.) for personality/job match and the ability to cope with the inherent stressors.
- Provide education to personnel and their family members regarding depression, suicide, stress management, and available employee assistance or counseling resources. This is particularly important because McCafferty et al. (1992) maintain that 80 percent of people who commit suicide have communicated their intent to commit the act. Ivanoff (1994) found that 29 percent of her survey sample of New York police officers admitted to knowing a fellow officer who was in crisis or had contemplated suicide.
- Conduct middle-management education on depression, signs and symptoms of suicide, and appropriate policy and procedures should an employee be identified as possibly suicidal.
- Make resources, including chaplains, peer support, 24-hour hot lines, and mental health personnel available to department personnel and their family members.
- Track individuals who meet specific at-risk criteria either because of life events (divorce, under investigation, for example) or because the individual shows significant signs and symptoms of distress (sudden drop in performance, increase in complaints, anger, negativity).
- Debrief after high-stress incidents.
- Reexamine department polices that require sworn personnel carry a firearm off duty.
- Provide retirement transition seminars and assistance to prepare individuals for the emotional and social changes that will occur.
Historically, law enforcement agencies have spent significant financial resources to address issues of officer safety, with great success. Sadly, only a small fraction of most organizations’ budgets goes toward addressing the psychological needs of their officers and families. While law enforcement suicide does not appear to be the epidemic we feared, any chief executive can confirm the enormous cost and devastating impact that even one suicide has on family, friends, co-workers, supervisors, and even the chief him/herself. Isn’t it time we spend as much to maintain our personnel fleet as we do our vehicle fleet? Think about it.
The IACP recently announced the release of a new CD-ROM, Preventing Law Enforcement Officer Suicide: A Compendium of Resources and Best Practices, compiled by the Psychological Services Section with the support of the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Dispatch offers more detailed information about its scope, content, and how to order here.
Gaska, C.W. The Rate of Suicide, Potential for Suicide, and Recommendation for Prevention among Retired Police Officers. Doctoral Dissertation. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne Sate University, 1980.
Hill, K.Q. and M. Clawson, “The Health Hazards of Street-Level Bureaucracy: Mortality Among the Police,” Journal of Police Science and Administration 16(4) (1988): 243–248.
Ivanoff, A. The New York City Police Suicide Training Project, 5–15, New York: Police Foundation, 1994.
Janik, J. and H.M. Kravitz, “Linking Work and Domestic Problems with Police Suicide,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 24(3) (1994): 267–274.
Labovitz, S. and R. Hagehorn, “An Analysis of Suicide Rates Among Occupational Categories,” Sociological Inquiry 41 (1971): 67–72.
McCafferty, F.L., E. McCafferty, and M. McCafferty, “Stress and Suicide in Police Officers: Paradigm of Occupational Stress,” Southern Medical Journal 85(3) (March 1992): 233–243.
Stack, S. and T. Kelly, “Police Suicide: An Analysis,” American Journal of Police, VXIII (1994): 73–90.
Violanti, J.M., (1996). Police Suicide: Epidemic in Blue. Springfield, Illinois: Charles Thomas, 1996.
Violanti, J.M. and F. Aron, “Ranking Police Stressors,” Psychological Report, 75 (1994): 824–826.