We are not doing an adequate job teaching young police officers and other public safety employees about what most threatens their safety, their health and their careers, and providing them with skills and resources to protect themselves. The facts speak for themselves.
During a class I help teach at the Washington State Basic Law Enforcement Academy we ask police cadets who are about to graduate what aspects of their new career they are the most concerned about. Their answers; killed or maimed by a suspect while conducting enforcement, a traffic accident driving priority to a call, being pilloried by a hostile media after a controversial use of force, abandonment by their agencies senior management for political expediency.
Our police academies and FTO programs don’t sufficiently prepare our new officers to deal with the full spectrum of threats issues that pose them the most risk. Death from suicide or off-duty accident, job loss because of alcohol or prescription drug abuse, PTSD and depression, these are all issues that pose a serious threat to law enforcement officers. How many hours of training does your academy provide addressing them?
How great is the danger? A the 2009 National Surveillance of Police Suicide Study published in the Journal of Emergency Mental Health by Andrew O’Hara and John Violanti on annual officer suicides puts the numbers at 125-140 per year. This is three times the number of officers killed by violent criminals in the average year.
There’s not a lot of research available on the other issues but our collective experience is strong evidence. Here’s a challenge for any reader with more than 10 years of service. Get out pen and paper; divide the paper into four quadrants by drawing both a vertical and a horizontal line.
In the upper left quadrant write the name of every LEO you know that has died in the line of duty, by accident or homicide.
In the lower left quadrant write the name of each public safety employee that has been fired due to excessive use of force, policy violations, or had their career ruined by spurious and inaccurate media reports.
In the upper right quadrant add the name of every LEO you know or suspect committed suicide, or died from health problems related to alcohol, DUI accident, or prescription drug overdose. The bottom right quadrant is for everyone you know whose career was ruined or terminated early due to alcohol related misconduct, prescription drug abuse, PTSD, depression or other mental health or mood disorders. Now compare the left with the right.
I first did this while I was waiting to present at an annual in-service training program for another agency. A knot in my gut grew as the list got longer. When I got up to speak I transferred just the initials for each of my fallen brothers and sisters onto a whiteboard and said a few words about them. I then asked folks to make a mental list like mine and saw sadness fill their faces as they did so.
Either we don’t want to talk about these problems or we don’t quite know how to. We certainly don’t have the same reluctance to discuss other issues that threaten us. Any experienced police administrator or officer will recall safety related equipment failures of recent years. How differently and energetically we react to them.
The Ford Crown Victoria was once the most popular police vehicle in the country. They had a defect. If struck from behind in an accident, there were bolts mounted in such a position that they could penetrate the gas tank and cause sparks sometimes resulting in a dangerous fire. Since 1983 an estimated 30 LEOs died in car fires that involved Crown Vics.
A similar case involved the defective manufacture of protective vests. The most cool and comfortable body armor I ever wore was made from a miracle fiber called Zylon. Heat and humidity cause Zylon fiber to break down much faster than the manufacturers predicted. Between a street cop’s uniform and their body is a hot, damp place to be and in 2003 Police Officer tony Zeppetella was killed and Forest Limbacher seriously injured when their vests failed.
The response was swift and predictable in both cases. Evidence emerged, risk identified, outrage followed, lawsuits erupted and corrective action taken. The unions and the law enforcement executives alike were in uproar. There were recalls and the problem vehicles were outfitted with a plastic shield to prevent the bolts from having this issue. Second Chance went out of business due to the resulting lawsuits.
Those cases illustrate the potential of the public safety community to recognize, discuss and take decisive action when something threatens our members. Unfortunately the silent epidemic of officer suicide, alcoholism, prescription drug abuse, PTSD, and depression claimed more lives and ruined more careers but receive comparatively little notice.
It’s not a perfect comparison. It’s far easier to identify and correct an equipment failure than to diagnose the complex and varied human condition. The causes of equipment or tactical failure are usually simple. They are also external. An officer suicide may be the death of a thousand cuts, the aggregate of many tiny acts of trauma, spiritual neglect and poor mental hygiene that collect over the course of a long career and finally coalesce into one desperate act.
Stigma still exists against admitting to problems with mental illness or substance abuse. Though improved from years gone by police culture remains one of the last bastions of socially acceptable problem drinking. “Choir practice”, cop bars, conferences, charity events and training characterized by widespread drunkenness are still common.
In the last year I attended a conference where a local “expert” recommended getting drunk to deal with symptoms of PTSD. We did an intervention on an officer who was sitting in agency sponsored police training drinking straight vodka out of their water bottle.
The experienced officers I consider friends don’t hesitate to take fellow officer aside and give them clear guidance if they observe them doing something unsafe on a warrant service or a traffic stop.
Let that same friend be observed dragging-ass into the squad room day-after-day with bloodshot eyes and a haggard look on their face, displaying signs of increased anger, isolationism and cynicism, watch their behavior change after a traumatic incident and fail to revert to normal after several months. Do these warning signs draw the same concern, questions and mentoring?
When an officer dies in the line of duty they instantly become a hero. High ceremony accompanies their burial and memorial services; bagpipes, funeral processions, impassioned speeches. A retirement after a long and successful career brings accolades, parties, grand gifts and speeches.
Suicide funerals, though, are hushed and anguished affairs, honors and ceremony are avoided, sometimes even prohibited by agency policy. There are few monuments and memorial websites decided to these fallen warriors. A mid-career officer who takes a medical retirement due to depression and post-traumatic stress is not likely to bask in glowing retirement speeches and receive awards and gifts. Perhaps it’s human nature to turn away from what is ugly and difficult to understand.
Peer support teams and crises referral services staffed by LEOs who have successfully recovered from their own challenges can help. Police officers are sometimes reluctant to take advantage of agency-provided or commercially available counseling services.
Those of us who work in crises referral have found that there are three common reasons for this. First they fear that any admission of weakness or failure may be used against them by their agency. Second, they are concerned about being shunned or ostracized by their peers. And third, that they are so indoctrinated into police culture that they worry they won’t be able to relate to civilian mental health providers.
In Washington State there is a law that provides confidentiality for crisis referral services that provide assistance to public safety employees. Code 4 Northwest (http://www.code4nw.org/) provides confidential peer support and crises intervention in state and Safe Call Now operates in a similar manner on a nationwide basis (http://safecallnow.org/). Because both of these operations are based in Washington State even out of state calls to them are protected by the law. The International Association of Chiefs of Police website http://theiacp.org/psych_services_section/ and the Badge of Life (http://www.badgeoflife.com/) website have excellent resources for police psychological survival.
We have to look out for each other. We wouldn’t let a friend continue to use unsafe police tactics that threatens their life without trying to help them. Why would we ignore their mental, emotional and spiritual health if that’s what threatens them?
Gabriel Russell is a Deputy Regional Director with the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service, a Sergeant Major in the Army National Guard, Founder and Managing Partner at Takouba Security LLC, and a volunteer at Code 4 Northwest. He has a Master of Science Degree from Central Washington University and a Bachelor of Arts from the Evergreen State College.