John M. Violanti
All too often we emphasize the dangers of police work, but seem to neglect the hidden psychological danger of this profession. Suicide is a consequence of that hidden danger. It is a clear indication of the intolerable strain placed on the police officer’s work and life roles. Policing is an occupation replete with stress and traumatic incidents. For example, witnessing death, encountering abused children, and experiencing violent street combat weigh heavily as precipitants to depression, alcohol use, and suicide among police. Ideas as far back as Freud’s aggression theory relate to the police because officers cannot legally express anger and aggression outwardly and turn it within. Following Freud, other studies examined the frustration of police work and how it was turned inward. Other theoretical ideas concerning police suicide that have emerged over the years are included in this article—police cultural socialization, strain theory, and interpersonal suicide theory.
Scientific research on police suicide has helped to focus on this topic. Much research is on suicide rates in an effort to determine the scope of this problem. Several recent studies are discussed in this article, including a national study. Such studies, however, are not without controversy and more work is necessary to clarify the validity of findings. There is lack of data available on police suicide, which adds to the problem of research. Many believe that causes of police suicide are really no different than those in other groups in society, such as relationship problems, financial difficulties, or significant loss. While scholars cannot yet be certain that police work is an etiological suicide risk factor, we can with some assurance state that it serves as a fertile arena for suicide precipitants. Culturally approved alcohol use and maladaptive coping, firearms availability, and exposure to psychologically adverse incidents all add to the suicide nexus.
Last, and most important, the issue of police suicide prevention is discussed. Likely the biggest challenge in prevention is convincing officers to go for help. The police and societal culture at large attach a stigma to suicide which is difficult to deal with. Additionally, the police culture does not allow for weakness of any kind, either physical or psychological. Several promising prevention approaches are discussed. Given the reluctance to report the deaths of police officers as suicides unfortunately leaves us in a position of “best guess” based on what evidence we can collect. Looking to the future, the development of a national database focused on police suicide would help to establish the actual scope of this tragic loss of life. Interventions need to more efficaciously target at-risk police officers. More research, using longitudinal study designs, is needed to inform interventions and, in particular, to determine how suicide prevention efforts can be modified to meet the unique needs of law enforcement officers.