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"The soul of a man does violence to
---MEDITATIONS II:16, by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
"Police Officers: Control, Hopelessness, & Suicide"
Turvey, B., "Police Officers: Control, Hopelessness, & Suicide," Knowledge Solutions Library, Electronic Publication, URL: http://www.corpus-delicti.com/suicide.html, April, 1995
Note: Brent E. Turvey, MS is a full partner of
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In the western world, a suicide of any kind leaves painful questions in its wake that beg to be answered. Parents and friends may feel flooded with inadequacy and blame. They may ignore those questions for a fear of unearthing their own short-comings and responsibilities. It is the opinion of the author that societies or cultures can react in much the same way. When a member of a culture commits suicide, it is not unlikely for that culture to collectively ignore the incident for fear of harvesting any blame or responsibility for the incident.
The purpose of this work is not to suggest simplistic solutions. It is to discuss the topic of police suicide in the context of police culture, and to raise questions about the contemporary attitude of that culture towards its members who take their own life. This work presumes to suggest that while police culture produces very controlling individuals who can become extremely cynical because of "The Job", police culture does not adequately provide an appropriate outlet for the natural emotional responses to the extreme stresses of "The Job", either personally, socially or professionally.
CULTURAL VIEWS OF SUICIDE
Every culture has its own contingency of traditions for dealing with suicide.
In Eastern cultures (Suicide), certain kinds of suicide have a distinct social texture to them. The Japanese have practiced seppuku, the art of self-disembowelment, for hundreds of years. For the Japanese, seppuku is a viable method for avoiding any kind of dishonor, and is accepted as a responsible way to deal with one's personal or public failings. In India, many widows have for centuries engaged in suttee, the practice of burning themselves on their husband's funeral pyre as a public expression of grief.
In Western cultures, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam specifically condemn any suicide as a blasphemy to the will of God. It has been that way in recorded history since the early middle ages, with criminal and social penalties for anyone who attempts or commits suicide. Until 1823, criminal and social penalties in much of the Western world were as follows for those who committed suicide; 1) Burial on consecrated ground prohibited, 2) Burial at a crossroads or at least after dark, both with a stake through the heart, 3) Possessions confiscated by the state.
MODERN U.S. CULTURE
In modern U.S. culture, as in the past, people kill themselves.
The suicide rate of the general population in the United States is moderate in comparison with other countries, at about 12 per 100,000. Suicide happens frequently in all age, race, and economic groups. It does not confine itself to gender or to belief system. Every segment of U.S. culture is capable of producing individuals who will decide to kill themselves.
However, certain groups are more likely to commit suicide. Women make more nonfatal suicide attempts than do men. Men are more likely to actually take their own lives, because they use guns instead of pills (Clarke-Stewart). And, although people below the age of 25 are more commonly thought of as the highest risk group for suicide, this is only an affectation of media attention. The highest rates of suicide are found among older adults .
In the United States, there are still intense social and judicial penalties for suicide. The historically assigned spiritual shame persists in many sectors of our culture, and leaves its residue on others.
Stigma has also been a gift that each generation passes to the next. Suicide is not considered honorable. It is currently perceived as a sign of failure and weakness. Those who attempt suicide and fail are remanded to the custody and confinement of a mental health facility until they are no longer determined to be a threat to themselves by two staff doctors. It is commonly felt that those who attempt to take their own life cannot have arrived at that decision reasonably or logically. They must be mentally ill, and therefore in need of supervisory care. No one in their right mind would want to encourage their own death. They must also carry the stigma of their failed attempt with them back into society. The connotations for such an individual are all heavily negative.
THE POLICE CULTURE
Those who work in law enforcement have their own training programs, their own protocols, and their own sets of rules and regulations by which all conduct is ideally governed. There is a chain of command and internal regulatory bodies. They are distinguished further by uniforms, badges, and department issue side-arms. These are some of the basic elements that define the police culture.
The attitude of the police culture towards suicide is reflected in the training it generally offers to its officers on the subject. Generally, there is little and often no occupational suicide training provided for police officers. It is a subject that is almost unilaterally ignored. Furthermore, studies on the subject are few and scattered. This is related to the notion that "...police officers traditionally subscribe to a myth of indestructibility, they view suicide as particularly disgraceful to the victim officer and to the profession," (Violanti). This defines the police culture's contingency for suicide: ignore it.
The common belief in the command echelon of Police culture is that police suicide is not an issue. This is demonstrated clearly by the fact that almost no training involving police suicide is given to recruits at any time. NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Jacksonville Fla. Director W.C. Brown agree that when police officers commit suicide, there is rarely a direct tie to the job. Brown says that all suicides in Jacksonville stemmed from domestic problems. Additionally, the Executive VP of the National Assn. of Chiefs of Police, Morton Feldman, said that the association has not really been keeping track of suicides as closely as deaths by other means (More).
This is further demonstrated by an NYC Police Foundation study (Scott) that states specifically "People kill themselves because they don't know how to solve their problems". The study cites personal problems, substance abuse, and depression as the direct causative factors in suicide, not job stress. Since the aforementioned problems are not job related, then they do not need to be addressed.
That study  was conducted by an associate professor of social welfare at Columbia University. What he lists as causative factors are not; they are problem solving mechanisms. To the trained psychologist, personal problems, substance abuse, and depression are symptoms indicative of a greater problem. The esteemed professor is correct in surmising that people kill themselves because they do not know how to solve their problems, but that is not a deep enough analysis. What do the self-destructive behaviors represent? What has happened to make the individual feel so incredibly disconsolate as to engage in self-destructive behavior, and, ultimately, want to take their own life? That is the question that must be addressed in incidences of police suicide.
The facts of police suicide, if ignored by researchers and the police culture, will continue to erode the fabric of the uniform. The 1994 data are as follows;
1) There were 300 documented police officers suicides in 1994 (Cop, , & Suicide).
2) There were 137 documented line-of-duty deaths among police officers in 1994, 75 (54.7%) caused by shootings, a new record ,.
3) To sum facts 1 & 2, more than twice as many police officers committed suicide than were killed in the line of duty in 1994. This is typical of the year to year data .
4) 12 of the police suicides occurred in New York City, which is a 40 year high for that PD .
5) The Suicide rate for police officers is double that of the general population .
6) Most departments will not release or do keep statistical data on police officer suicides .
7) Harley Stock, a screener for a police department, states that about 90% of the time, an officer is drinking heavily when he shoots himself .
8) 10% of the general population who drink become alcoholics; for police it's 23% .
9) The suicide rate among alcoholics is 270 per 100,000 (alcohol is a depressant).In a recent study of 20 suicides in a large Midwestern PD, 13 of the victims were alcohol abusers .
In the face of the above data, it seems counterintuitive that police training should not include a series of courses and exercises involving the topic of police suicide. Officers of the law are twice as likely to put a gun to their own heads as be killed by someone else, and yet they are trained as if exactly the opposite were true. Again, this is counterintuitive in light of the data.
Violanti states that "When officers lose the ability to cope in normal ways, they may turn to an ultimate solution to relieve the pressure of stress". Now, that's a bit of a statement. In fact, that's what officers are trained to do. They are trained to use the ultimate solution when the situation permits. It is even arguable that officers are not trained in "normal" coping mechanisms.
Control is a primary element of police culture relevant to the question of suicide. Police officers are trained to take control, and are controlling individuals . When they arrive at a situation, they are trained to take charge and establish themselves as the regulatory element. When a situation has deteriorated beyond their verbal control, or they lose control because of some intervening element, they are trained to take physical control. The final solution to a situation that the officer cannot physically control is their weapon (Hall). The gun is control. The police officer is trained to resolve a completely deteriorated situation, one way or another, with their sidearm. The gun, or even its presence on the officer's person, represents that officer's ability to control his environment.
An officer is trained always to maintain control of the situation, and the sidearm represents the extreme that the officer is authorized use to achieve that objective. With that responsibility comes intense stress. "Almost unfailingly officers enter policing with high ideals and a noble desire to help others. Over time, this sense of idealism may transform into hard-core cynicism," . The job, in all of its parts, makes cynics of idealists, and that in itself is incredibly stressful. So, over time, police culture can create an individual trained in the use of deadly force to maintain control, carrying a gun, who is stressed and cynical.
Hopelessness is the most motivating contributor to the suicidal mind set . It is the sense that one does not have control over one's own behavior, feelings, or circumstances. It is a resignation of the self to perceived external elements. A feeling of hopelessness can be perceived by an officer from innumerable sources. It is not sudden. It grows slowly, unabated, until it becomes an insurmountable mind set.
There is an unofficial progression in "The Job" that police counselors have noted in many cases of police suicide and attempted suicide. The idealistic Academy graduate turns into a depressed cop;
"Graduate frequently exposed to blood, gore, and danger. Does not unburden these horrors on spouse. Spouse wouldn't understand. A few drinks with the guys after work to help unwind. Fellow cops don't understand. Can't trust civilians. Can't admit troubles, even to fellow cops; would be considered a wimp. Can't trust fellow cops. Drinking increases. Spouse takes off. Gun is handy," (Loh)
When a police officer commits suicide, it is most certainly an expression of hopelessness within the perspective defined by police culture.
Take for example the case of Capt. Terrance Tunnock, of the NYPD. In July of 1994, he was 49 years old, and married with children. A 28 year veteran in the police department. One morning, while his family made breakfast for him in the next room, he took out his service revolver and shot himself in the head (Levitt). In one article published on that suicide and others, Chief of Personnel Michael Julian was quoted as saying that this suicide could not be clearly traced to problems at work. The same article reported that fellow officers detected no signs of distress beforehand (NYPD). In another article published two weeks later, it was revealed that Tunnock had one week before his suicide spoken to Federal authorities about police corruption involving seized money and drugs. He had just completed the task of informing on a 10 man rogue unit operating within his department to Federal authorities (NYPD).
That case was not typical of police suicides in the U.S. Tunnock had 28 years on the force, and was the highest ranking police officer to commit suicide in 20 years. His case also involved corruption. And from all accounts he had a good relationship with his family. None of these elements are typical. There were, however, typical elements involved, including the fact that he shot himself in the head with his service weapon. There was also reason for perceived hopelessness. Tunnock's hopelessness was likely twofold; feeling responsibility for the corruption in his own department, and the prospect of facing fellow officers after having turned in his own officers. It is also likely that he felt professional shame from the corruption, and being defined as an individual by a "myth of indestructibility," was not able to face his fellow officers or family. He was the Captain; he was supposed to be in control of everything. His sense of self and control had likely been torn from him by this circumstance. Although atypical, Tunnock's case does demonstrate that even the most seasoned veterans are not immune to hopelessness and subsequent suicidal tendencies.
The idea to be understood here is that hopelessness is a function of perspective, and that perspective is defined by culture. It is not possible to separate an individual's perspective from an individual's own culture. The following section will explore other cases that demonstrate how loss of control and persistent hopelessness contribute to suicide within police culture.
The typical officer who commits suicide is a white male, 35 years of age, working patrol, separated or getting a divorce, who has recently experienced a loss or disappointment . As with any profile, these are not hard and fast criteria. These are statistical tendencies. They are a road map for prevention. The most important criteria, or symptom, or red flag , of a suicidal disposition is marital problems , .
Consider the following cases;
January 17, 1994
27 year old Joseph Cibarelli. Seventeen months with the 46th (Bronx) Precinct of the NYPD. After an evening of dining and discussing plans for the future with his wife, he went home and shot himself in the head. He used his off-duty revolver, a chrome-plated S&W handed down from his father to his uncle and finally to him. Fellow officers described him as a sensitive individual who would "take personally things that happened in the rough-and-tumble world that should not have been taken that way," (Rashbaum).
Joseph Cibarelli was young and idealistic. He was married, and making plans for the future. He came from a family with a history in the PD, and probably felt the subsequent pressures of expectation. Off-duty, he carried the symbol of his family's history with him; the shiny S&W revolver. Other than his apparent relationship with his wife, he seems to fit the suicidal profile reasonably well.
It is not established why Joseph Cibarelli took his own life, but one evident possibility is inferable from the statements made by his fellow officers. Perhaps he did not feel that he fit in, and having his idealism shattered every day by his job made it worse. Add to that the pressure of his family's history and the subsequent expectation. Perhaps he had feelings of inadequacy that were reinforced by the "rough-and-tumble" comments or behavior of fellow officers. With these elements in motion, it is not difficult to see the recipe for a hopeless, suicidal mind-set being prepared in this case. The only thing missing would be a recent loss or disappointment.
May 20, 1994
Sgt. Ernest Hill. Seventeen year veteran street cop from Elkhart, Indiana. After unspecified medical problems forced him off the street, he was put out working the front desk. After a week of working the front desk, Sgt. Hill believed he was ready for street duty once again, and phoned back to the chief, J.J. Ivory, to discuss the matter. Hill suddenly hung up, and the chief went out to talk with him in person. As the Chief approached, Sgt. Hill pulled his service revolver and shot himself in the head (Police).
This officer was an older veteran. However, he had every bit of control and power, related to his career, his life, stripped from him. He was put behind a desk. For an officer who spent his life working the streets and commanding respect from those on his patrol and fellow officers, the sudden change must have devastated his ego. When he learned that he would not soon, or perhaps ever, return to the streets that were the source of his control and sense of self, this was obviously unbearable. He apparently believed that the situation was hopeless and exercised control over the final thing that he felt he could. He shot himself on-duty, in front of all of his fellow officers.
There is a revenge/ anger element in on-duty suicides that seems to beg further exploration and study.
September 6, 1994
30 year old Dirk Kaiser. Served one day with the NYPD. He graduated August 31 and worked his very first shift on a Friday. On Saturday night he was in custody, charged with drunk driving, and fleeing from the scene of an accident. His 9mm service weapon was taken from him, along with his badge. He was suspended. He shot himself with a .38 to the chest on Tuesday, in his apartment. He left a note that's contents were not disclosed (NYPD).
Recent loss or disappointment. It is likely that Kaiser felt that his career was over before it had begun. His age range was near profile. There's not much room for public speculation in the Kaiser case, but it does raise questions about an officer's personal investment in his or her career. Certain levels of intense investment cannot be healthy. If Kaiser's life had so little value without being a cop, then that speaks to a chronic self-esteem problem.
September 6, 1994
30 year old Steven Laski. An eight year veteran. He was one of eleven patrolmen in his precinct who were transferred to desk jobs the previous May as a result of an ongoing corruption investigation. In April, fourteen officers had been arrested from the same precinct on drug, robbery, assault, and civil rights charges. Laski's handgun and his badge were taken away. He was divorced and living with his mother. He drove his blue Mustang to a deserted street near a cemetery and shot himself in the mouth with a .22 rifle. He died in civilian clothes .
Steven Laski lost everything in his life that he had control over. First he lost his wife. Then he had to move in with his mother, most likely for financial reasons. Laski's personal life was at a low point. Then he lost control over his work; reduced from a patrol officer with a badge and gun and respect, to a desk job. Under suspicion of corruption. The depression was likely gradual, and the perceived hopelessness likely came upon him in stages with each successive reduction in control. He couldn't talk with his fellow officers because they were either involved in the corruption with him, or not to be trusted. He couldn't reach out for help from his family because again his secrets would be revealed. Laski had to keep up the tough facade. He kept tough, drove a tough car, and let the hopeless mind-set grow unabated.
Steven Laski wore the profile for months before he acted out his suicidal fantasy. He had a place picked out. He had a weapon picked out. He privately went away from his mother and his desk job and killed himself in a secluded area. From his point of view, he took control of a hopeless situation.
November 16, 1994
31 year old Daniel Atkinson. Seven years with the 84th Precinct in Brooklyn, New York. Atkinson left early from work for his wife's birthday. He got into an argument with her when he got home. Then he shot himself in the head with his 9mm. He suffered from financial problems. His wife had children from a previous marriage. He had recently passed the sergeant's exam and was on the list for promotion (Jamieson).
Daniel Atkinson was fairly typical of the profile. He was the right age range. He worked the bridge handing out summonses, so he didn't see a lot of action, but he been on the job seven years. He had financial problems, he couldn't get evening overtime , and subsequently he had marital problems. Atkinson also had a 9mm handgun with which he was trained to solve his problems and take control. Confronted by a succession of compounding marital and financial circumstances that threatened his control, he exercised his training. In his perceived financial and marital hopelessness, he took control using the coping mechanisms he had been trained with.
Captain Dwyer, the Precinct's commanding officer said, "I saw him every day. I've had no problem with him. He's been a good officer,".
December 26, 1994
26 year old Timothy Torres. Three years on the force, Midtown South Precinct. An officer on foot patrol. After a half-hour meal break with his partner he took out his .38 service revolver and shot himself in the head. It was 4:15 a.m. He was severely depressed about his divorce six months previously. It was the morning after Christmas. A few hours earlier, Torres had responded to a report of an emotionally disturbed person in need of help. "You've got a young man grieving over a divorce, missing his ex-wife on Christmas, and, coupled with dealing with an emotionally disturbed person just a few hours earlier, it obviously was too much for him to take," a fellow officer said. His father is a retired police detective. He worked out at Gold's Gym to keep in shape. He killed himself shortly before dawn (Forero & Forrest).
The Torres case fits the suicidal officer profile very well. In fact, Torres fit the profile for about six months. He was on foot patrol, he saw normal people at their worst on a regular basis, and he had recently lost his marriage. Then came holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas; loneliness and depression grew unabated. Then the pressures of the job. Control was slipping. The job made him more cynical. Things looked hopeless. Gun was handy.
Of the case, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, "It is very difficult to accept something like this in the middle of such a beautiful season. But unfortunately sometimes during the holiday season these pressures get even greater and greater for some people," (Pyle).
February 20, 1988
James Earl McDonald. A police Sergeant from Santa Ana, California. In April of 1986, McDonald was demoted from Sergeant to Patrol Officer after an accusation that he failed to submit a shooting incident report and then compounded matters by lying about failing to submit the report. He denied those accusations. After his demotion, McDonald requested a 30 day disability leave. He failed to return to work after his disability leave was up, and was notified of his termination during a therapy session. McDonald claimed that he didn't know his leave was up and asked to be reinstated. That request was denied. In February of 1988, McDonald abducted, handcuffed, and raped a 14 year old girl in his riverside home. He had befriended her at a scuba diving class where he was currently employed. Immediately after the incident he drove into a small town in the mountains and shot himself with a .38 revolver. McDonald's first wife successfully sued the city of Santa Ana for Workers' Compensation and was awarded the sum of $147,000 for the care of her two children. Her attorney, Seth Kelsey, stated of the incident, "No one will ever be able to dispute that the criminal act that that he did play a part [in the suicide], but no one can dispute the humiliation he suffered from being demoted and fired also played a part. This is a tragic event for everybody, including the victim of the rape and a loss of the father for the children (Nalick)."
The individual here was not a police officer when he committed suicide. However McDonald was on the force and it has been agreed, by albeit prejudiced sources, that his tenure was a compelling factor in his suicide. Despite any misgivings, that agreement has cost the city of Santa Ana $147,000.
McDonald's life seemed an exercise in avoiding responsibility on all fronts. He performed his job as a police officer poorly, avoiding that responsibility. He avoided taking responsibility for performing his duty poorly. He filed workman's compensation claims and took time off after he was demoted. He seemed to use the system to keep himself from having to take responsibility whenever he could.
McDonald's reason for committing suicide would appear to be to escape the responsibility of crime against the 14 year old girl. Her rape would have unavoidable consequences. He had a year and a half to become despondent and kill himself over losing his job as a cop, but did not do so. He found other ways to regain control. When that exercise of control took the form of rape, his situation became immediately hopeless. That is, there was no hope of avoiding responsibility.
The author includes this case not because it is an exemplar of the aforementioned profile of a suicidal police officer. Clearly, the McDonald case does show how recent loss or failure contribute to a suicidal mind set. However, the case also raises the issue of using suicide as a means for avoiding consequences and responsibility. That issue is one of note and deserves further study.
Police officers are trained to be in control, and to use their sidearm to maintain that control. Police officers see people at their worst all day every day. They become very cynical very quickly. They can become depressed, like the rest of humanity. They can become hopeless, like the rest of humanity. But when a police officer becomes depressed and perceives hopelessness, he does not cease to be a police officer. An officer is expected, by his culture, to endure. An officer is expected not to talk about his problems or his concerns with his spouse or with his fellow officers. He is expected to maintain a surface immunity to his own humanness.
Police culture does not adequately provide appropriate outlets for human responses to the extreme emotional stresses of "The Job", either personally, socially or professionally. Socially, anything other than stoicism or drunkenness is seen as a sign of weakness by fellow officers. At home, officers extend their stoicism. Their spouse wouldn't understand, or they want to protect their spouse from the harsh realities of their job. Or they simply lack the interpersonal skill to talk about their emotions towards their job with their spouse. Professionally, the upper echelon of police command does not acknowledge that there is a problem, despite the fact that twice as many officers commit suicide than are killed in the line of duty. Consequently there are few, if any, provisions in training dealing with the subject of police suicide.
The above has the overall effect of providing the psychological development for a socially isolated individual. That kind of perception at work extends into the home. It ruins marriages. The most common factor among those police officers who commit suicide is relationship problems, either divorce or constant arguing or take your pick. The result of that is a depressed officer, who does not feel connected to his personal world, who is unable to express his pain to those around him every day, who does not feel as though his culture is invested in him, and who carries a gun.
The problem appears to be that police culture is inadequate to the task of caring for itself on an emotional level. That has not been its function. The function for police culture has been to protect and serve the citizens and property of the United States. There is an emotional price to be paid for individuals who take to that task, personally, socially, and professionally. Until the police culture recognizes that reality with heavy training, and learns to destigmatize the expression of emotions through continued education, police officers are going to keep killing themselves at a rate twice as fast as the rest of us.
1) Clarke-Stewart, A. Lifelong Human Development, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1988) pp. 430-432
2) "Cop Suicides Listed at 300 For This Year" New York Newsday, December 31, 1994, pg A7
3) Forero, Juan & Forrest, Susan "City Cop from LI Commits Suicide" New York Newsday, December 26, 1994, pg. A6
4) Hall, John C. "Constitutional Constraints on the Use of Force" FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February, 1992, pp.22-31
5) Jamieson, Wendell "Another Cop Suicide, NYPD Grapples with Epidemic" New York Newsday, November 16, 1994, pg A29
6) Levitt, Leonard "Confidential Police Suicide: No New Answers" New York Newsday, August 8, 1994, pg A18
7) Loh, Jules "The Man with a Gun is a Cop; The Gun is in His Mouth" The Oregonian, January 30, 1994, pg. A24
8) "More Police Died in Suicides Than in Line of Duty" Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1994,Pt. A Col. 4
9) Nalick, Jon "Santa Ana to Pay Family of Officer Who Killed Self" Los Angeles Times, April 22, 1992, pg B6
10) "11th NYC Cop Commits Suicide" Associated Press, November 15, 1994
11) "NYPD Captain, Cop Kill Selves" Associated Press, July 26, 1994
12) "NYPD Suicide Death Toll Grows" Associated Press, September 7, 1994
13) "Policeman Kills Himself" Cape Times, S.A., May 2, 1995, pg.3
14) "Police Officer Commits Suicide" Associated Press, May 21, 1994
15) Pyle, Richard, "Despondent Policeman Kills Himself" The Oregonian, December 27, 1994, pg. A8
16) Rashbaum, William K. "Cop Kills Self; Follows String of 1993 Suicides" New York Newsday, January 17, 1994, Sec. NEWS, pg 20
17) Scott, Gale "Job Not Guilty in Cop Suicides" New York Newsday, September 15, 1994, pg A23
18) "Suicide Claims Lives of 300 Police This Year" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 31, 1994, pg. A3
19) "Suicide" Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, 1994: Compton's New Media, Inc.
20) Violanti, John "The Mystery Within, Understanding Police Suicide" FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February, 1995, pp.19-23
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