Police officer suicide needs to be addressed, not hidden, officials say

Published: Saturday, Dec. 7 2013 4:25 p.m. MST

Some Utah law enforcement officials say the topic of officer suicide needs to be talked about openly and not swept under a rug. (Jordan Allred, Deseret News) Some Utah law enforcement officials say the topic of officer suicide needs to be talked about openly and not swept under a rug. (Jordan Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Brave. Strong. Courageous.

They are words typically used when describing Utah's men and women in blue. Not words like scared, depressed and sad.

"Because we're the warriors. Warriors don't talk about things like mental health. It's not something our culture is open to," said Salt Lake Police Sgt. Lisa Pascadlo.

On Tuesday, Tooele County sheriff's deputy Steve Hansen, 37, took his own life in his home. He is survived by a wife and six children.

In March, West Valley police officer Michael Valdes went missing for two days before his body was found in his car near Green River, Wyo. He died from a single, self-inflicted gunshot wound.

"As a department, obviously we were very much affected by the suicide of one of our own, Mike Valdes. He was a very well-respected officer, very well-liked. And that had a pretty significant impact on a lot of people in our department," said West Valley Deputy Police Chief Mike Powell.

But what is sometimes forgotten, Pascadlo said, is officers are like everybody else when they go home. "We're all human beings." And like all humans, police officers sometimes deal with depression, psychological scars — and sometimes even thoughts of suicide.

"We have emotions. We have feelings," added Powell.

But both Powell and Pascadlo believe police suicide, and suicide in general, is a topic that isn't discussed enough, both among officers and in the general public.

"I think suicide just has such a dark connotation that a lot of professions and people in general just won't talk about it," Pascadlo said.

In August, the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health published a study of police suicides, compiled by the group Badge of Life. The study found that 126 officers nationwide committed suicide in 2012. It was the first drop in the annual number of suicides since 2008.

But the rate of officers committing suicide is still above the national average, according to the study. In 2008, 141 officer suicides were recorded, or about 17 per 100,000. The rate for the general public was 11 per 100,000, according to the report.

"Two to three times as many officers commit suicide than are killed by the guns of felons," according to Badge of Life, a group comprising active and retired police officers, medical professionals and the families of officers who have committed suicide.

The website www.officer.com reacted to the study by publishing: "The bad news is it didn’t drop enough; 126 law enforcement officers committed suicide last year. Additionally, in 2012, 129 officers 'died in the line on duty.' This is sad folks. Way too many officers are dying. And even worse, cops are killing themselves at the same rate as they do in the line of duty."

Nationwide, there are an average of 125 to 150 suicides by officers every year, according to the group. But the group also recognizes that not all officer suicides are reported or classified as a suicide. Some cases are simply classified as "accidents," the report states.

John Violanti, a former New York state trooper who researches officer suicides as a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, told the Oakland, Calif., Tribune in September: "Police officers are about 69 percent more likely than the general population to take their own lives."

Oakland officials called for more to be done to help officers following the suicides of two of their officers in less than two months.

In part, because of the Valdez incident, West Valley police are putting a greater emphasis on a peer support program. The idea is to give officers an outlet to talk to a fellow West Valley law enforcer about any problem, "rather than keeping it in and not expressing those concerns. That's what leads us to the issues and problems such as suicide.

"They're not there to diagnose and they're not there to act as a counselor. They're there to act as a listening ear," Powell said.

If it's determined after that initial contact that more help is needed, the officer can be referred to a professional.

Salt Lake City police have had two officers commit suicide within the past five years, including one in 2012.

Pascadlo said the issue of officer suicide prompted Salt Lake police officers to develop their own peer support system to give officers the resources to talk about whatever issue they're having trouble with, whether it's job-related or issues at home such as relationships or financial problems.

The stresses that officers face both in the job and at home will in one way or another affect the other, she said. Issues of drug and alcohol abuse can also be factors.

"We have the warrior mentally. You kind of have to to be in any first responder situation. We're all alpha people, as it were, and we're expected to go in and take charge. And when you're not in charge of your own life anymore, I think that scares some first responders and they don't know what to do with it," the sergeant said.

"I mean, they do, but they won't. We go out and help people through crises like these every single day. But when it comes down to helping ourselves or our fellow first responders through them, I'm not sure we're as good as it as we should be."

Last year, a 24-hour crisis hotline was established at the University of Utah for local firefighters who may be suffering from possible post-traumatic stress disorder.

Police officers often are hesitant to talk to anyone who isn't a fellow law enforcer. Pascadlo said she knows of one officer who tried to see a therapist, but the therapist told the officer that all his stories of what he had seen were lies, "because the therapist could not believe people did those things to each other."

That's why it's important, she said, for officers to "have the courage to care enough about the person you go to battle with everyday to say, 'Hey, what's going on?'"

It's also important for officers to seek out help rather than keep their pain and stress bottled up inside, she said, and not be ashamed to admit you have a problem.

"To see the worst in man every single day, sometimes for decades, has to have an effect you," Pascadlo said. "A lot of times, it's good just to have a fellow co-worker willing to listen. I'm big proponent of asking people if they're OK."

Another resource for officers to find help is In Harm's Way, a federally funded program offering training seminars and workshops nationwide on suicide prevention.

"It is a well-known fact that law enforcement officers do not hesitate to protect their fellow officers when they are in danger — even if it puts their own lives at risk. But the stigma and taboo attached to psychological and mental health issues within the law enforcement community prevent officers from taking action," according to program founder Donna Schultz, whose husband, a Vietnam vet and FBI agent, took his own life in 1995.

Information on help can be found at policesuicide.spcollege.edu/indexIHW.htm or at badgeoflife.com/.

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