According to journalist Andy Grimm (January 2017) in a Chicago Sun Times news article, it was noted that within a recent book-length report on the failings of the Chicago Police Department was a telling statistic: The rate of suicide among CPD officers is 60 percent higher than other departments across the U.S. Among the ranks of the nearly 10,000 patrol officers of the CPD, an average of three officers will take their own lives each year. Given the increasing levels of violence and homicides in Chicago over the last few years, one could make the correlation between higher stress levels and harsher work conditions for officers as a potential influence on suicides, however, this only addresses the surface of the issue. I was curious, how does the CPD administration approach these suicides? What messages are agency leaders conveying with their communication approaches about the importance of mental health, or equally as impactful, the lack of acknowledgement of the serious issues that lead to suicide? What role does silence and shame play in the perpetuation of this issue?
Positive social change with regards to the openness to discuss suicide issues has been slow in occurring. I was recently contacted by a police officer who shared with me the loss of one of his colleagues from suicide. While this was tragic enough, the most striking aspect of the story was that the deceased officer would not have an agency honor guard, the typical police funeral rituals, or the presence of his colleagues at his service in full uniform. I inquired whether the officer had any serious misconduct or investigative history that would prevent a show of honor at his funeral. While I can (on some levels) understand the need for police leaders to distance themselves from the tertiary appearance of acceptance of suicide by attending in uniform and through ritualistic displays, the absence of this can also speak much louder than words. It can send a chilling message to officers that those who choose suicide will be rejected. In this situation, this officer had a successful career, his only “crime” was struggling with depression and completing suicide and all the years and dedication to his agency and the public went unnoticed. His family, who stood by his side through years of service, likely watched the lack of support, perhaps when they needed it the most.
I have met countless police leaders who openly express their concerns regarding police suicide, yet, when it occurs within their own agency, the secrecy and disapproval remains ever present though both their verbal and non-verbal actions. The shame is heavy. The questions as to why an officer would choose this path are numerous. However, there are those who seek the approval of police administration in terms of how these issues are approached. They often carefully watch for the openness of the dialogue and the non-verbal acceptance of grief following suicide.
I challenge police leaders to do the following to directly confront the devastating stress and trauma leading to and following a suicide in their agency:
- Implement a suicide prevention program for both active and retired officers.
- Address cumulative and critical incident stress issues through on-going training and periodic mental health check-ups.
- Employ a trained mental health professional with specific training in the cultural and psychological aspects of law enforcement.
- Acknowledge the need for an open and accepting dialogue on the issues of PTSD and suicide.
- Examine policies on approval of honor guards and rituals at funerals for officers who died by suicide.
- Attend training on police suicide to recognize the signs and symptoms.
- Require sergeants and other mid-level supervisors to attend these trainings.
- Understand the impact policing has on your own mental health so you can serve as a role model through having a balanced life and career.
- Most importantly, recognize the powerful influence you, as a police leader, can have on the acceptance to seek help. Your words and actions speak volumes and could potentially save a life.
– Tina Jaeckle, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., B.C.E.T.S., F.N.C.C.M., Associate Professor and Program Director, Criminology, Internship Coordinator, Sociology and Criminology, Department of Social Sciences, Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida