Battling the loss of police in America: A cop’s desperate call for help

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The following was written and submitted by Lt. Lorenzo Glenn 

He grew up always wanting to be a police officer. He respected the uniform, authority, and, most of all, he appreciated what police officers stood for; to protect and serve. 

He watched police shows like Adam 12, SWAT, and Starsky and Hutch.  At a time when kids played outside, he played cops and robbers and was always was the cop.  He despised bullies and wanted to protect those who could not defend themselves. At the age of 24, he was hired and went to the police academy.  Six months later, he graduated at the top of his class.  Proud to put on the uniform, he started his first day in training.

The dayshift watch commander called the young officer into the office and said these impressionable words, “You’re going to see a lot of bad things in this career.  Don’t take anything personally; suck it up and be professional. Understand?” “Yes, sir,” the officer said and went on his way. 

Tragically, he was on his way not only to a full career in policing, but also to developing symptoms of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the years that followed, like many others in the police profession, he would see things the human mind was not designed to see.  Scores of dead bodies, children victimized, the elderly raped, and murdered. He was forced to shoot and kill two armed suspects in the course of his career.  The officer was cleared in both shootings, yet some of these images and smells have stayed with him after 28 years of service.

He did as he was taught to do; he “sucked it up.”  He rarely talked about his experiences andkept his feelings inside. He would become increasingly bitter, angry, and started to isolate himself from friends and family.  Soon, he was a divorced father of four children.   He had thoughts of suicide but was afraid to go through with it. How, and more importantly, why did this happen? What could his agency have done, or is it an inevitable part of life as a cop? His agency did not have a peer support program, nor were there resources available to officers concerning mental health issues.  

Many years later, peer support, wellness programs, and treatment options for police officers have made it easier for officers to seek treatment for mental health issues.  As they become more commonplace, will they have any impact on police suicide? Would the outcomes be different if they had existed 28 years ago?

 

Background

There are approximately 900,000 law enforcement officers nationwide; according to studies cited by The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), between seven and nineteen percent (7%-19%) of active police officers are experiencing symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). (Thomas, 2018) Many officers are aware of this problem, but are reluctant to seek or receive help due to a culture in policing, and a fear of losing their jobs. 

Many police professionals suffer in silence, or self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or other self-destructing vices.  For example, Fox et al. (2012) studied the prevalence of PTSD, depression, and alcoholism amongst police officers from the New Haven Police Department.  In 2011, four officers from the state of Connecticut committed suicide, which prompted a statewide conference to discuss intervention options for officers to utilize.  Their findings were compelling.  Of the 150 respondents that took their survey, 24% had symptoms of PTSD, 19% cited alcohol abuse, and 9% reported they had suffered from depression.  

This data is consistent with NAMI’s estimates, supporting the conclusion that as many as 170,000 officers and deputies have observable symptoms of PTSD. The good news is there has been a cultural shift in law enforcement in the last few years to acknowledge the need for therapy and treatment coupled with establishing peer assistance and support groups internally.  In addition, there are some cutting-edge types of brain and psychological therapies that are making a monumental difference in helping police officers alleviate depression and isolation so they can lead healthier lives long-term. 

 

A New Psychological and Cultural Change in Policing

The last decade has seen a shift in the law enforcement culture. The mentality of not seeking help is beginning to wane. Police and Sheriff’s departments around the country have peer support or officer wellness programs for their employees.  For example, in 1996, Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA) was founded in New York to assist NYPD officers to prevent and reduce PTSD, marital problems, substance abuse, and suicide.  Similarly, the San Diego Police Department established their Wellness Unit in 2011, a fully staffed unit located in the headquarters of the police department.  The Wellness Unit manages the peer support program, chaplain corps, an alcohol/substance abuse program, and psychological services.  Similar programs and wellness units elsewhere have begun to take away the stigma of being weak and offer resources to the employee’s family members.  (Miller & Sloan 2018)

In addition to programs within police agencies, recruit academies across the nation are teaching recruits about PTSD and police suicide.  The Orange County CA Sheriffs’ academy gives their recruits, “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement” by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin (2002) a must-read for officers and their families.  The reader will understand how emotional changes can lead to physical changes over the career when exposed to critical incidents.

If the officer does not take control of their lives, through therapy or outside hobbies, the psychological effects could lead to depression, substance abuse, and suicide. “Many issues (police officers deal with) are sleep disorders, social isolation, and depression. When you combine those together with the traumas at work every day, we have a very injured psychological population with our police officers.”  (Gilmartin, 2012)

The book was given to an officer that had over 20 years of law enforcement experience, who read Dr. Gilmartin’s book for the first time.  The officer stated he would have been a different father, husband and police officer had he read the book at year one instead of year 20.  “Everything in the book applied to me, I knew being a police officer was going to change me, but I didn’t know how until I read this book.” (Personal interview, Oct 2019)

Although these programs and academy teachings are a step in the right direction, the problem of police suicide has not been adequately addressed.  A review of police suicide statistics from 1997-2016 showed conflicting results with some studies showing lower rates among law enforcement, some showing higher rates and others showing no difference to comparison populations. (Violanti, Owens, McCanilies, Fekedulen & Andrews 2018) Disagreements in police suicide data aside, the fact remains that more officers die at their own hands than are killed in the line of duty (Heyman, Dill & Douglas, 2018).

A widow of an officer that committed suicide spoke to members of a Southern California police agency recently. She told the group after his death, she and her family never received any help or assistance. (Personal interview,Oct. 2019)  Her 15-year-old daughter said, “My father gave his life to being a police officer, but once he died, it was as if he never did anything for you.  Why?”  Sadly, the officers in the audience did not have an answer. 

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Battling the loss of police in America: A cop's desperate call for help

 

Police suicide is a problem in law enforcement, and every agency needs to address it. Often, though, it is ignored. In 1999, 174 new names were added to the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial in Washington, DC.  According to the National Police Suicide Foundation, 300 law enforcement suicides occurred during that same period. The suicide rate for law enforcement officers is two to three times the rate of the general population.  

The suicide rate could change, though, if we utilize brains scans at various intervals of an officer’s career. Brain single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging has been used to show before- and after-treatment effects.  (Lansing, Amen, Hanks, & Rudy 2005)The goal of utilizing brain scans is to compare the results during the life of the officer to find indicators of PTSD and effectively treat officers once those symptoms begin to surface.   

 

New Funding & Successful Treatment Therapies Available for Law Enforcement

In October of 2019, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released a report called “An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do to Prevent Suicide.”  Executive Director Chuck Wexler described the report, “As one of the most important reports PERF has ever released.”   The report was released as The New York Police Department reported their 9thsuicide in 2019. PERF had several recommendations to prevent suicide. The most critical of those recommendations are:

  • Routine mental health checks- Agencies should consider requiring or, at minimum, offering mental health checks for all employees on a regular basis, such as once a year, to reduce stigma and “normalize” a focus on mental health.
  • Leadership from the top- Police Chiefs, sheriffs, and other leaders need to speak out about the issue of police suicides within their agencies and in the community. Leadership from the top is crucial to getting this issue out of the shadows.  The leadership must be enforced at all levels of the organization, including middle managers and first-line supervisors.
  • Gun removal policy- Agencies should carefully structure their policies on the decision to take a firearm away from officers who are seeking mental health services, to minimize the risk of suicide, without discouraging officers from seeking help, Professional psychologists should be involved in making those decisions.
  • Family Support- Following a police suicide, agencies should reach out to surviving family members and provide support, including assistance with obtaining any available benefits, and appropriate funeral honors.  Family support should be emphasized throughout an officer’s career.

Along with peer mentoring and PERF’s report, brain scanning techniques are aiding in understanding PTSD. Many studies have shown Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) to be an effective treatment for PTSD (Wyllie, 2016).  EMDR therapy is a therapeutic approach that goes ‘beyond words’ to resolve the memories that get stuck,” said retired officer Pat Monaghan. 

Monaghan received EMDR treatment 13 years after an on-duty crash that killed his partner.  EMDR therapy targets the memories, the underlying problems, and present situations that trigger PTSD symptoms. Wyllie (2016) The patient, with the assistance of the psychologist, will be able to manage the thoughts in the future.

Dr. Daniel Amen founded Amen clinics in 1989 as an outpatient health care clinic that offers brain SPECT imaging to diagnose and treat PTSD.  Amen clinics have been studying brains for over 30 years and have effectively treated police officers. 

According to their data, 79% of diagnoses and treatment recommendations were different after the clinicians used the information from the brain SPECT scans compared to current diagnostic methods. Unfortunately, most doctors never look at the brain with brain scans, so they can’t detect the brain patterns identified with PTSD. Instead, they only assess symptoms, which is why people often go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed and given the wrong kind of treatment. (Amen clinics 2019)

 

A Call to Action

Brain scans at intervals throughout the officers’ career can lead to healthier officers. Data and research have shown the benefits of EMDR therapy and brain SPECT scans.  Together with the recommendations from PERF, law enforcement can address police suicide and lower the number of officers killed by taking their lives.  The time to act is now as the law enforcement community cannot afford another police suicide. The following statement was taken from Amen Clinics website. 

Our first responders deserve more support. Helping them understand that “mental health” problems are really “brain health” problems is an important step in ending the stigma associated with seeking treatment. Thinking of these issues as biological rather than psychological may encourage more of these heroes to get the help they need so thatheartbreaking suicides may be prevented.”

The culture has changed as evidenced in research, PERF’s report and the resources available to officers and their families. The benefits of taking advantage of this type of therapy far outweigh the costs.  Officers’ health and wellness should be a priority for police departments and the communities in which they serve.  

The ultimate goal for any police officer is to be healthy, both physically and emotionally, given the demands of the police profession.  With effective treatment and abundance of proper resources that prevent suicide, it goes a long way in helping a traumatized officer to be whole again. This will undoubtedly benefit the profession, the public, and the officer’s family.  

 


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