Law Enforcement Officer Suicide

Law Enforcement Officer Suicide

Daniel W. Clark (Washington State Patrol, USA) and Elizabeth K. White (Riverside County, USA)
Copyright: © 2019 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7672-3.ch021
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Suicide is a serious public health problem that impacts individuals, families, communities, and law enforcement personnel. More than 42,000 completed suicides were counted in the United States in 2014. Suicide has long been a concern within law enforcement. In this chapter, the authors explore the current status of Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) suicide research and dispel the myth that officer suicides are dramatically higher than in the general population. We then review general information on suicide prevention, and supplement this general information with law enforcement-specific risk factors, warning signs, variables, tips, and recommendations for intervention and postvention. Additionally, we suggest a range of available resources for further consideration.
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Review Of Research

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collects data and tracks trends and patterns in the U.S. on mortality, including deaths by suicide. Suicide rates are expressed as X number of individuals per 100,000 in the population (or X/100,000). This allows one to meaningfully compare rates across different groups. According to the American Association of Suicidology’s report for 2014, the suicide rate among U.S. adults ages 18 and older is 13.4/100,000 (Drapeau & McIntosh, 2015).

At this point, it appears deceptively simple to either prove or disprove whether LEOs complete suicide at a rate higher than, equal to, or less than the general population. We need simply compare the suicide rate of the general population with that of LEOs. However, such comparisons are easier said than done. Research related to suicide rates among LEOs has been fraught with problems due to a number of factors. In fact, the greatest challenge in law enforcement suicide research has been the lack of empirical, reliable data on the subject. Previous methodological problems included lack of adequate sample size, inappropriate comparison across different periods of time, no specification of type of police work performed, and/or lack of generalizability (Hem, Berg, & Ekeberg, 2001). Violanti (2010) found support for claims of underreported LEO suicides, and Hem et al. (2001) cited a failure to use appropriate comparison groups, as well as misinterpretations of the research. Studies investigating suicidal ideation and attempts are often difficult due to union negotiated agreements that prohibit surveys and freedom of information demands that are intrusive to law enforcement. There is considerable mistrust on the part of officers that results will truly be anonymous and/or appropriately protected (International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2014; Violanti, 2007).

The police population also differs from the general population in terms of age and ethnicity, which have repeatedly been identified as factors in suicide risk (Aamodt, Stalknaker, & Smith, 2015; Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2016). In addition, LEOs are, by definition, employed, which is often considered a mitigating factor (Milner, Page, & LaMontague, 2014). Other complications include agency culture and environment, which can result in inadequate records or mislabeling the cause of death in an effort to protect law enforcement personnel and their families. The impact of preemployment psychological screening, which further differentiates the law enforcement population from the general population, is largely ignored as a possible contaminant. There is not even an agreed upon definition on who qualifies as an LEO in the literature reviewed (Clark, White, & Violanti, 2012).

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