By Craig T. Steckler, Chief of Police (Retired), Fremont, California, Police Department
aw enforcement agencies are like families. A special camaraderie forms in a department where men and women work side by side in service to their communities. Not unlike more traditional family units, police departments are shaken to the core with the death of one of their own whether an officer or a professional employee. The response, organizational and individual, is even more complex when that death comes at the employee’s own hand. In a profession where strength, bravery, and resilience are revered, mental health issues and the threat of officer suicide are “dirty little secrets”—topics very few want to address or acknowledge.
But our collective silence only compounds the problem. By ignoring the issue we implicitly promote the unqualified expectation that cops must, without question, be brave, steadfast, and resilient. Our refusal to speak openly about the issue perpetuates the stigma many officers hold about mental health issues—the stigma that depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide are signs of weakness and failure, not cries for help.
The truth is our police officers, and professional employees, are not immune to the stresses of the job. Arguably, they are more susceptible given the nature of police work. But continuing to ignore police suicide—to act like it doesn’t happen, or that it won’t happen in our department—is doing our officers, and professional employees, a grave disservice.
In reality, officer mental health is an issue of officer safety, and we should treat it as such. From body armor and seatbelt use polices, to self-defense and verbal judo training, we can all list a variety of measures available to ensure our officers’ physical safety. But what are we doing to actively protect and promote their mental and emotional health? Sadly, in many cases, it is not enough. If one of your officers is in crisis, would he or she know where to turn? Would he or she feel comfortable seeking help, or fear career ramifications? Are you, as chief, or your officers, as peers, prepared to intervene? What if one of your officers took his or her own life? How would you react and respond? How would the department react and respond? These are all hard questions.
The IACP has long recognized that there is an urgent need in the field for leadership on the issues of law enforcement officer, and professional employee, suicide and mental health. In 2008, the IACP’s Police Psychological Services Section, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and EEI Communications, partnered to produce Preventing Law Enforcement Officer Suicide, a CD compilation of resources and best practices. Copies of this CD are available today.
Three years ago, then-IACP President Michael Carroll declared 2010 the Year of Officer Safety. Immediate Past President Walter McNeil renewed that pledge in 2011 further stating that suicide prevention would be a major initiative of his presidency. I am proud to carry on this noble and vital effort.
Officer suicide was covered extensively at the 119th Annual IACP Conference in San Diego in 2012, with several related workshops and a plenary session. Attendance at all these events exceeded expectations, offering a clear indication of the level of interest and need. The IACP’s Center for Officer Safety and Wellness section of the IACP website (www.theiacp.org/About/CenterforOfficerSafetyandWellness) also highlights existing suicide prevention resources with more resources to come.
Our next steps are to provide the field with meaningful leadership and guidance. With assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the IACP will host Breaking the Silence: A National Symposium on Law Enforcement Officer Suicide and Mental Health this summer. Our goals for this symposium follow:
The IACP is committed to raising awareness among our members of approaches to preventing suicide and providing resources to guide them in developing prevention, intervention, and response programs that will save lives. ♦
- Raise awareness regarding suicide and mental health issues in law enforcement and move toward a culture of support and understanding.
- Identify and evaluate existing resources, best practices, and training related to suicide prevention, intervention, and response programs.
- Create a strategic plan to guide police chiefs in taking proactive measures to mitigate the risk of suicide and openly address officer mental health as a core element of officer safety.
Please cite as:
Craig T. Steckler, "IACP: Breaking the Silence on Law Enforcement Suicides," President’s Message, The Police Chief 80 (July 2013): 6.