by Tim Rutledge,
Director at Mississippi Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support (LEAPS)
Suicide in law enforcement is certainly nothing new. What is relatively new is our courage to address it.
In recent decades, an effort has begun to address LE suicide. Employee Assistance Programs began giving a safety net for officers and many have taken advantage of these. But the EAP mechanism is not perfect. The programs are led by behavioral health professionals who rarely understand the mindset of an officer. Additionally, city and county administrators who pay the bills often know the identity of the officers who utilize these programs. Whether these are actual flaws of your program or not, most officers share these perceptions.
Another method to deal with law enforcement suicide was pioneered by Bob Douglas of Baltimore. By educating officers/deputies as to what to look for and what to do about it, suicide rates in law enforcement dropped. This tool is still absolutely essential and is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago.
Now, we are finally seeing peer support networks formed across the country. Pockets of these networks existed here and there, but nowadays statewide peer support programs are the new norm. These teams are trained to recognize a suicidal officer/deputy, have networks of trusted behavioral health professionals, and have a legal privilege when another officer uses their service as a peer support officer. The statewide concept allows the sharing of trained team members between agencies, affording a higher level of confidentiality.
When peer support members within the same department are utilized, there is always some level of baggage. Perhaps there has been competition for a promotion, a shared bad boss, or even a divorce among them. There is also a higher pool of members who have shared a similar experience. While sharing a similar experience is not necessary to provide help, it does bring immediate credibility for the peer support team member. Officers are generally more likely to share deeper thoughts and emotions with someone they know will not reveal issues to others. By using members who don’t know other members of the same department/office, there is much less risk of inadvertent revelation.
The Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support has intervened in dozens of potential suicides, many of which were imminent. Peer support members have even taken the gun from the member of law enforcement seconds before a suicide and, then, gotten behavioral health help for them. In time, those individuals saw their full return to law enforcement duties. One of these officers is now the assistant chief of his department. No one but the peer support member and a counselor knows the suicide was literally within seconds of occurring just a few years earlier.
Studies show most law enforcement officers have seriously contemplated suicide, and most have even had a detailed plan on how to carry it out. Thoughts are prevalent among us, but if someone has a plan to commit suicide, they are in great danger. Most individuals at that point don’t want to commit suicide; they just need a friend in that moment to get them a little help.
Consider it this way: If an officer/deputy had a heart attack, others would quickly respond. 911 would be called, CPR performed if necessary, family would be called, and so on. The same is true if the officer was having liver failure. Or, even, perhaps, a fentanyl exposure. A host of physical ailments would prompt immediate emergency attention.
We need to consider that brain is simply another organ. It, too ,sometimes needs attention, and may even need emergency attention. It we think of it as a “brain attack” instead of a heart attack, it might help with better understanding. The brain can also ‘play tricks’ on the person in high stress or deep depression. One part of the brain may be trying to convince the person that death is the best option, while other parts are fighting hard to live. We as peers should be trained to recognize the symptoms, and know how to keep the person alive until there is professional help.
Every officer/deputy should have the Suicide Hotline programmed in their phone: dialing 1-800-273-8255 will get instant 24 hour a day backup. This could be a call someone makes for themselves or a call a friend makes on someone else’s behalf. The suicide hotline provides an expert for whatever the situation calls for, wherever it may occur. Blue Help (bluehelp.org) is a breath of fresh air law enforcement. They are making major progress in addressing police suicide on all fronts. Visiting their website provides many more tools to address a friend in need.
We train in use of force, liability issues, de-escalation, new laws, court decisions, and a host of other needs. All of this training certainly makes us better law enforcement officers. But there is a three times greater chance that an officer will kill himself or herself than they will be killed by a bad guy. It is time we train in what to look for in potential suicides and what to do about it.
The next step is to establish statewide or regional peer support teams. These teams would deal with the issues such as severed relationships or PTSD that cause the initial suicidal thoughts, thus preventing suicides.
If a co-worker shows signs of suicidal ideation, the best advice is to get the person alone and ask them about it. Most will indicate they need help. Once they acknowledge the need, professional or peer support can help them get through it.
Helping another officer/deputy through a potential suicide is not publicly rewarding. No other person may ever know. But the greatest Christmas message you may ever receive one day is, “Thank you. I was able to play Santa last night because of you.”