By Audrey L. Honig, Director, Employee Support Services Bureau, Los Angeles County, California, Sheriff's Department; and Immediate Past Chair, IACP Police Psychological Services Section
ost members of the law enforcement community—line officers, supervisors, managers, and chiefs—will face the issue of suicide within their ranks at some point in their careers.1 Even agencies well prepared for these tragedies are hit hard by them. Unfortunately, however, many agencies lack the resources to prevent officer suicide, and others are unprepared to respond effectively to it when it does occur.
What Agencies Need
To prevent as much tragedy as possible, all law enforcement agencies should have a suicide prevention program in place. But, even the best prevention program cannot guarantee 100 percent success. For this reason, it is critical that every agency be prepared with an intervention program. Just as it is best to develop a logistical plan for managing a police incident before the incident actually occurs, the same is true for cases of employee suicide. Both intervention and restabilization protocols are critical to minimizing the event’s negative impact. The failure to have such a program in place can have both short- and long-term effects; for example, some officers may need extended time off, and employee productivity may decrease.
Help Is Available
The IACP Police Psychological Services Section has developed comprehensive, informative, and easily reproducible materials covering all the phases of suicide prevention, intervention, and restabilization. Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and EEI Communications, the IACP has made a valuable set of resources available on CD-ROM to help law enforcement agencies prevent and respond to officer suicide.
Preventing Law Enforcement Officer Suicide: A Compilation of Resources and Best Practices is a collection of materials from leading agencies around the United States. This interactive CD-ROM contains sample suicide prevention print materials, presentations, training videos, reference publications, and much more. The purpose of the CD-ROM is to provide the law enforcement community with samples and resource materials to initiate a suicide prevention program.
All materials were compiled and vetted by the IACP Police Psychological Services Section. EEI Communications and BJA volunteered to design and reproduce the CD-ROM at no cost, enabling the IACP to bring this much-needed product to the field quickly.
Agencies can order copies online through the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) at www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/AlphaList.aspx.
Preventing Law Enforcement Officer Suicide Contents
- Developing a law enforcement suicide prevention program: Five steps for initiating a campaign using public health principles
- Sample suicide prevention materials: Examples of brochures, posters, wallet cards, and program summaries
- Sample training materials: Examples of training presentations, videos, and brochures used by law enforcement agencies
- Sample presentations: Examples of PowerPoint presentations on a wide range of suicide-related topics, both for the general public and specific to the law enforcement community
- Sample funeral protocols: Examples of funeral protocols; death notifications; and other, similar procedures
- Additional reading: A wide range of supplemental reports, research, articles, and links to related online resources
- About the CD: Acknowledgments and valuable contact information for key content contributors
For more information, readers can contact Kim Kohlhepp at 1-800-THE-IACP, extension 237, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For additional police psychological resources, readers should visit the IACP Police Psychological Services Section Web site at http://psych.theiacp.org. ■
1Alison Leigh Cowan, “Suicide Bigger Threat for Police than Criminals,” New York Times, April 8, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/nyregion/08suicide.html (accessed June 15, 2009).
|The Day After: “The Silence Was Deafening”|
Note: The following depicts the scene of a hypothetical police department the day after one of its officers committed suicide. The story does not describe an actual event.
The silence was deafening in the squad room—an eerie kind of calm and quiet. In the background, small groups of employees began to congregate and mutter to each other. Displays of emotion were muffled but noticeable. Most of the facial expressions were stoic, though tears were clearly forming in the eyes of some. They were quickly, almost surreptitiously, wiped away so no one else would notice. Others expressed anger, almost outrage. One group could be heard to say repeatedly “why?” “what did I miss?” and “he could have talked to me—I would have listened.”
A voluntary information/rumor control briefing was set up at shift change. Employees were informed via flyers, e-mail messages, and word of mouth that this was an open gathering that any employee could attend. The intent was to be as inclusive as possible in an effort to control the runaway train of rumor and gossip and ensure that everyone was working off the same page. Implied was the fact that no one had any reason to feel shame. This officer had invested almost 15 good years of his life here; the other employees were his second family. He was in good standing with the department. He should be remembered for his accomplishments, not for his misguided attempt to stop his personal pain.
It was standing room only in the briefing room. Everyone had come to hear the news for themselves. Prior to the meeting, the consensus among the employees was that agency leaders knew more than they were saying. The suicide couldn’t be true; it was a setup. Only cowards or the mentally ill would take their own life—certainly not a good officer like him, with all those years in the department. Had they even considered homicide? The suspect could still be out there. Why weren’t they all in the field trying to catch the guy who did it? Maybe it was just a freak accident—anything but suicide.
The chief walked into the room, his expression solemn, his eyes covered with a watery film. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. Following closely behind him were two homicide detectives, the first two patrol officers on the scene, the department chaplain, and a psychologist known around the department simply as “Doc.” They were all there to share information and to try to get ahead of the innumerable rumors that would otherwise abound. They also wanted to take the opportunity to share good memories of the deceased officer.
The widow had given her permission to share the details of her husband’s death, knowing herself how much he considered the department to be a part of his family; of course, she reasoned, all of his family had a right to know. Maybe someone else could be helped, and another family spared the devastation she is feeling. She still had not figured out what to tell their 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.
The chief started off sharing his experiences over the years with the officer as well as sharing some of the stories that the widow had shared with him. They had been up well into the night talking, crying, and consoling one another. Next to speak were the homicide detectives, who walked everyone through the crime scene and what they had found. They had even quickly prepared a PowerPoint presentation so that the crowd could get a better feel for the scene. The detectives discussed the autopsy report and openly accepted questions from other officers. Emphasis was placed on the fact that this was the time to ask, so that no one would go away with the “yes, but” feeling.
Next up were the first two officers on the scene. You could see it in their faces how difficult this was for them, but they also felt that their statements would add facts and credibility to the investigation and preliminary findings. That all the speakers were convinced this was a suicide was critical to the acceptance of this view by fellow officers.
Speaking next to last, Doc shared information about the grief process: that it is different for everyone; and that some may feel anger, some guilt; and that some may find the event brings up memories they thought they had tucked away long ago, perhaps about a suicide in their own families. Doc facilitated the officers’ sharing of some positive memories and stories, and even a few smiles and chuckles could be heard from the crowd. The importance of ritual and of marking happier times was discussed, with heads nodding throughout.
The briefing closed out with a few words from the chaplain, anticipating the typical questioning of faith that often follows the death of a loved one. At his conclusion, the chief again opened the floor to questions and promised that department leadership would do its best to determine what could have been done to identify the early warning signs and intervene. One loss of life from suicide was one loss too many. The chief just never thought that this could happen in his department.