Yesterday, the LAPD’s chief psychologist, Kevin Jablonski, told the Police Commission that cops were twice as likely to kill themselves as to be killed in the line of duty. And to help turn those stats around, the Los Angeles Police Department is starting its first suicide prevention program. (Both the Daily News and the LA Times have short articles on Jablonski’s report.)
The LAPD’s suicide rate is higher than that of New York’s police and most other big city forces. Most, but not all. San Diego’s is higher. Higher still is the FBI. And highest of all are the suicide rates for US Customs officers.
The National Police Suicide Foundation has some interesting articles on the subject. Here’s a thoughtful clip from one of them:
Ernesto Banuelos did not die on the street. He shot himself to death one morning in 1997. Despite a growing acknowledgement of the problem, the topic of suicide remains taboo among much of law enforcement’s rank and file. To some extent, psychologists say, that is merely a reflection of society as a whole — uncomfortable with the idea of people taking their own lives. But experts say that those who make their living projecting strength and control are especially reluctant to admit that they need psychological help. They fear they will be perceived as weak.
”Cops don’t talk about that kind of stuff,” says Jerry Sanders, former San Diego police chief. ”They either do it. Or they don’t.”
In many departments, ”if it’s known you’ve thought about suicide, or you’re depressed, it’s next to impossible for you to progress through the ranks,” says Ivanoff, who worked on a 1994 project that evaluated New York City police officers’ attitudes about suicide. ”Because of the negative effect it can have on your career, officers are extremely reluctant to identify each other as needing help and will go to great lengths to ‘protect’ somebody who needs help rather than helping them get it.”
The stress that often leads an officer to commit suicide is at least partially the result of unrealistically high expectations of being a successful cop. ”If you’re a carpenter and you drop your hammer, you bend over and pick it up,” says Don Sheehan, director of the stress management program at the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. ”What happens to a police officer who drops his gun during a bank robbery or misspeaks during a trial? They have to always be in control. Officers learn very early on that they have to always be right.”
It’s been my experience that police officers, like soldiers, often feel that there are few others outside their own ranks with whom they can discuss the intensity of what they experience on the job—and that’s not good.
Not an easy problem to solve. But kudos to the LAPD for taking it on.