A few days ago, I received a text message from a friend. A former coworker of ours had killed himself. This was someone who was a good cop and a great sergeant. He had been through a lot over the years, more than most, and had always seemed to come out the other end ok. But maybe that is what we chose to see. Unfortunately, we will never know for sure.
This is not the first time I’ve experienced the suicide of a current or former coworker. Early in my law enforcement career, a friend of mine killed himself a year after separating from the agency. He had many demons he was dealing with, which had led to his separation, but I didn’t see his suicide coming. It had been about a year since he left the force, so I figured his demons were behind him and he was ok. I was wrong, as were many others.
That happened back in the late 1980s and here I am some 30 years later still dealing with the same issue. I wish I could say these were my only two experiences with suicide. There have been numerous other former coworkers and friends who have treated a temporary problem with a permanent solution. I fear it will not be the last time I receive such news. Unfortunately, this is a shared reality among those who work in law enforcement and other public safety professions.
Growth of Suicide Prevention Programs
In recent years, public safety agencies have finally started addressing the issue of suicide among their ranks. When I was first sworn-in back in 1987, suicides were often reported as “died while cleaning service weapon.” Fast-forward a few decades, and suicide has slowly become an issue that is talked about publicly and not just quietly in the halls and the briefing room.
As public safety professionals, we tend to do a really great job of helping and comforting others in times of need. Now we need to learn to take better care of ourselves and our coworkers.
Fortunately, strategies have emerged to help those dealing with pain and trauma. More officers are coming forward saying they wrestled with depression and thoughts of suicide and beat the demons back. This encourages others to do the same and seek help.
Many have written about the need for continued commitment to physical fitness among the members of law enforcement. The benefits of keeping in shape are well known. Going to the gym, running, rowing, exercising, etc. on a regular basis can keep the body ready for when peak physical performance is needed at a moment’s notice. Why don’t we see the same commitment to mental fitness?
Talking with others, meeting with a mental health professional, and reading about steps that can be taken to improve mental health are all things that can be done to keep your mind ready for when intense situations develop. More importantly, it can also help to deal with the aftermath of such an incident. As important as it is to prepare for potentially triggering events, we also need to improve post-incident assessments of mental health issues. We can see when a body heals from an injury. How many can say they know when a mind has healed from one?
Furthermore, we must continue to monitor and work with law enforcement professionals even after they leave the force. Tools like employee assistance programs and critical incident debriefings can help those still active in the field. But when someone retires or steps away from the profession, where can they turn for help? While they may have insurance that can cover some related services, they may feel far more comfortable talking with someone who can relate to their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Agencies should let these individuals know that they can still reach out to their critical incident team or even a local agency if they move away.
Hopefully old friends and coworkers will also be there to reach out to. I have no idea if I could have helped my old friend if he had called. All I know is that I would have tried.
About the Author: Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu.