A police officer's shadow cast on a wet street
Local forces and federal laws are bringing out of the shadows the need for mental-health support services to stem the tide of officer suicides. Aly Song/Reuters

Local efforts and federal laws are softening the macho culture and opening up new avenues for cops to ask for help.

Ron Clark still remembers the long, sad climb up the stairs of a house in Cornwall, Connecticut. A distraught mother had called Connecticut State Police saying she could not locate her 13-year-old daughter and Trooper Clark was dispatched to her home. The mother told him she had searched the whole house. Clark took a deep breath, and then asked about the basement.

“I knew that was the place to look,” he said. “And so I went down the stairs and took a few steps and well, you know, there she was. Hanging. I’ll never forget her face. Or walking back up all those stairs. To the mother. Waiting for me. To tell her. To this day I can still hear that mother’s screams.”

That was 40 years ago. And Clark, now, 73, hasn’t forgotten.

All officers carry similar memories they cannot shake. Horrific scenes, such as school shootings, can be traumatic, and after years on the job, cases add up and take a toll. Police officers’ everyday routine involves dealing with everyone else’s worst day. Sometimes the burden becomes overwhelming. What happens when the people we call for help in an emergency find themselves in a crisis? Do they call anyone for help?

Rarely. Instead, most police officers across the nation just take it all in until they can’t take it anymore. More than twice as many police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.

A new sensitivity to officers’ needs

Police work is “part of the equation” that provides a “fertile field for suicide,” John Violanti, a research professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University at Buffalo told a 2015 presidential task force on 21st-century policing. Even if officers can deal with the stress of the streets, they may reach a breaking point if a personal crisis is added or if they feel supervisors are treating them unfairly, says Laurence Miller, a police psychologist based in Boca Raton Florida, who  also addressed the task force and specializes in forensic psychology and crisis intervention.

According to Violanti, officers are 69 percent more likely to commit suicide than other workers in America. That percentage goes up to 82 percent for detectives, who investigate the most violent crimes. And the numbers may be even higher, as there is no dedicated federal tracking for police suicides. Some researchers factor in police suicides that are misclassified. They are aware that some departments provide sparse definitive details to protect reputations and ensure survivors don’t lose benefits if suicide is listed as the cause of death. “We did a study a few years back and looked at medical examiners’ reports (for police officer deaths) and found that 17 percent of the cases listed as undetermined and accidental were actually suicides,” says Violanti, who obtains his data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   

Many officers both male and female try to project a “macho” image of being in control and self-sufficient—cornerstones of the hard-nosed police culture. That culture may be hard to change, Violanti says. “One researcher said it’s like bending granite.”

But recently there have been some cracks in that granite, opening up a more broad-minded approach that includes more positive interactions with communities and more sensitivity and support services to address the mental health challenges that come with police work. This new perspective includes a few programming changes, such as yoga classes for officers across the nation, an improv theater exercise between officers and residents in Brooklyn, and a pop-up art show in a Chicago police station to showcase the art and softer sides of officers.

And now there are larger institutional reforms—proposed changes to state and federal laws that show a growing awareness of the psychological challenges the job of policing brings. The bi-partisan federal Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act zipped through the U.S. Senate on an unanimous vote on May 16, coinciding with Police Memorial Week. A companion bill is in the House. The Senate bill was designed to provide law-enforcement agencies with more mental-health resources, including grants for peer support programs, and was sponsored by two senators from Indiana, Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Todd Young.

But even if more resources are made available, one of the biggest hurdles can be convincing officers to use them, says Marla Friedman, a psychologist in suburban Chicago who specializes in treating law-enforcement officers.  Friedman has developed a “Chiefs Lead the Way” program to encourage top brass to go for a mental-health check in, and a “Bring a Buddy” system to reach out to officers reluctant about asking for help.

Clark, who is the chairman of The Badge of Life, an advocacy and support organization for “the psychological survival for police officers,” promotes a “cradle to grave” approach to officers’ mental wellness that includes much more training when officers are new to the force. Recruits need to be better prepared for the emotional stressors of the job, because many will be handling tragic events such as a bloody car crash alone, says Clark, a former state police sergeant, military veteran, medic, and registered nurse.

“A person dying right in your arms in the field when you are the only one there can have a bigger impact than working in a staffed, nice, clean ER,” he says.

Local solutions to prevent officer suicide

A few departments are now pulling back the curtain on the secrecy of officer suicides and the need for more mental health support services for officers. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department in Washington State recently told a local television station that the department was considering classifying some suicides as line-of-duty deaths. The potential change follows the recent suicides of a Pierce County Deputy and a Lakewood Police officer that have left residents reeling and officials looking for prevention strategies. The television report included contact information for Talk2EndStigma, a site for officers in crisis.

Chicago, which has made national headlines for its shootings and violent crime rates, is also looking into ways to beef up its mental health services for officers, according to a police department spokesman. (Last year the city had 762 homicides—which was more than the total of homicides in New York and Los Angeles combined.) This action comes on the heels of a Department of Justice report that said the city’s suicide rate for police officers was 60 percent higher than the rest of the nation and slammed the department for inadequate mental health support services.

Mental health experts say officers may need professional help to deal with the trauma that comes from handling horrific incidents such as a school shooting. All officers deal with stress, experts say, and some have developed their own coping strategies.

Antoinette Alcazar, a police officer in Chicago, stands in front of her painting, “Overwhelmed,” at a recent pop-up show of work by local cops in a police station. (Marla Donato)

Antoinette Alcazar, an 11-year-veteran working in one of Chicago’s highest-crime districts, took up painting when her 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. Alcazar’s daughter recovered and is now in her teens, but Alcazar caught the art bug and was among the officers/artists in the Chicago police district art show. One of her paintings featured a blue body crouching in a corner surrounded by a fiery circle of bright reds and yellows. It was entitled “Overwhelmed.”

Also factoring into this complicated equation of getting officers the help they need are laws and policies that serve as obstacles especially for officers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that can be denied worker’s comp coverage in some states. This year bills were introduced in five states that could change that for first-responders.

Illinois has a law that takes away the firearm ID cards from anyone—including police officers—if they are admitted to a mental hospital. This only applies for in-patient treatment, but many officers avoid out patient counseling as well, believing that if they ask for help they could lose their jobs.

Many fear the fate of Chris Prochut, a former police commander in Bolingbrook, Illinois, who came close to taking his own life, was admitted for in-patient treatment, and subsequently lost his job and went into bankruptcy. Prochut was treated and released, but could not get his job or gun back. He eventually moved his family to Wisconsin where works in the private sector, but is still active in law enforcement—as an advocate with Talk2EndStigma.

He’s frequently invited by departments across the county to share his personal story as a testament to the fact a police officer can survive and even thrive after a mental-health crisis.

“Everyone’s biggest fear is to lose their job, because their identity is ‘I’m a cop’ (and without that) I might as well rip my soul out,” he says. But he adds that there are other things that are just as important. “My kids still have their dad… and (officers) need to realize their family, their kids want their dad and their husband or wife just want them still alive.”

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