Over the past year, the world has become intimately familiar with—and terrified of—terms such as “pandemic,” “epidemic” and “virus.” Terms that we once only heard in passing have become a centerpiece of our lives, dominating the news cycle and shaping every one of our choices throughout the day.
Covid-19 has brought an awareness, and alarm, to our lives unlike anything seen in recent memory.
What has gotten less attention or awareness is the other epidemic facing law enforcement: suicides.
According to Tara Law in a TIME Magazine article published in 2019, The New York Police Department (NYPD) has seen a disproportionately higher number of suicides among uniformed personnel than has been seen in the city’s general public.
The article concluded:
The rate of suicides among NYPD police officers is already higher than for other residents of New York City. The rate of suicides for uniformed NYPD personnel is 13.8 per 100,000 people (according to 2017 data) while for the city’s population overall it is 6.7 per 100,000 (according to 2016 data).
At the time, the NYPD had seen 10 suicides among their ranks in 2019 alone, including an especially tragic three suicides within 10 days in June of that year.
What’s causing this painful increase in officers taking their own lives?
The external factors seem obvious. We work long and unpredictable hours that inevitably impact our personal relationships. In many parts of the country, officers barely eclipse the livable wage and can only offset that shortfall by adding even more hours just to provide for their family. These factors account for a tremendous amount of stress and quality of life concerns.
Then there is the job itself.
The stress experienced by officers and other first responders is rarely replicated in other professions. It can be hard to explain to those outside of our career the toll that it takes on us to see what can at times feel like a never-ending barrage of death, violence, substance abuse, and mistreatment of children.
We go home and tell our loved ones, but it’s hard to articulate the things we see.
How can we do justice to the indescribable look in a child’s eyes when you tell her to come out from hiding under the bed after she’s watched her strung-out parents beat the hell out of each other… again.
It’s impossible to relay the palpable pain you feel from the mother who just watched us cut down her son who had wrapped a cord around his neck and hung himself. One can almost see her remembering a time she watched a different cord being cut from his navel, the level of euphoria of that day matched only by the immeasurable pain of this moment.
It’s a “story” to those we tell, but it’s a piece of us now.
Dealing with these emotions carries an ironic stigma. Among law enforcement personnel, we try to laugh it off. We develop dark humor and try to laugh away the things we see so we don’t have to truly address them.
To the public, this coping mechanism creates a perception that we are cold and unfeeling. To those among our ranks it is often seen as the only way to manage the pain, because discussing it outwardly and admitting you’re not feeling okay provokes suspicion about your mental fitness for the job.
I know many officers carry this stigma about their fellow officers who are struggling with mental health issues and suicidal ideations well, and for good reason.
I was one of them.
I distinctly remember talking to a good friend who had served several tours in Iraq. He would often stay at my home between deployments and we had been friends since high school. One night he was telling me a story about a good friend of his who he had been to war with in Iraq.
He spoke of his friend glowingly, recalling his comrade’s hilarious antics that kept his fellow soldiers in stitches during their long, hot days with endless gaps of down time. I laughed along with him at the recollections and felt almost as if I had been right there with him. I asked him where that guy lived so we could all hang out sometime.
The easy smile of my friend slowly turned downward, his face shifting from recollecting glee to a somber yet somehow angry face.
“He killed himself last week.”
In an instant, I felt the immense weight of the loss that he seemed to have already processed. The only curious aspect of his coping is that the standard grief associated with the act appeared to be replaced with disgust.
“I’m so sorry, man. Do you wanna talk about it?”
My friend’s face once against shifted, this time to a cold indifference.
“Nah man, happens all the time. I don’t get sad about that shit anymore. The guys who do that are just fucking cowards.”
With that, I could see that he didn’t want to discuss the topic anymore and I felt it best not to press.
I wish I had. I wish I told him that I disagreed. But there was one problem.
I didn’t. I actually completely agreed with him and it made total sense to me. As I continued in my career in law enforcement, that opinion was only strengthened. Of course I recognized the human tragedy of a suicide. But if I (or my partners) allowed myself to soak it in and see all the pain and lost potential of each individual suicide, I wouldn’t be able to maintain a career beyond a few months.
Then this epidemic finally hit me.
The funny thing about a virus is that it must be inside of a living cell to replicate and spread. It can’t exist outside of living cells. Therefore, it’s powerless when it’s external, but is a force to be reckoned with when it enters your own ecosystem.
Of course, once that virus is embedded in your ecosystem, it can wreak havoc.
For me, that was a fellow peace officer we will call “John.”
John came into the department around the same time as me. We weren’t particularly close, except for the odd fact that we ended up being partners during our first few fights inside of the jail. Our reflections on that coincidence caused an inside joke between us where we would roll our eyes whenever we were assigned together, thinking something chaotic was inevitably going to happen that night.
While we never grew particularly close on a personal level and I moved into a different job class, I was still shocked at what I heard when I went to briefing some two years after the last time I saw him.
“You hear? John shot himself last night.”
I initially didn’t believe it. This type of dark humor isn’t unusual in law enforcement, but this admittedly didn’t feel like a fruitless stab at comedy. Upon asking several of his closer friends at the department, it was confirmed.
John was dead.
The sentiments predictably varied. Some of my partners expressed regret. Many stated things eerily similar to my military friend referenced above; anger that thinly shrouded frustration and regret. The most common phrase: “I wish I had known so I could have talked to him.”
But how could they have known?
We all knew the truth; none of us would have ever told each other if we were feeling what John must have been feeling. How could we be mad at him when he simply acted the way we had taught him to act.
I went to John’s funeral and learned more about him in a few moments than I had in the several years I knew him. As videos rolled of him playing with his child as an infant and toddler, making funny noises and carrying them on his head as fathers do, I felt tears well up in my eyes. I thought of my own children and the similar things we do. I couldn’t stand the thought of that child growing up without a father.
I wanted to let go and weep for everyone involved. Weep for John, his family, and most of all, his child. But I was surrounded by my fellow officers; so I bit my lip and held it all in, as we all do far more often than we would like to admit. Stigma had won the day once again.
Now for a bit of good news: Early projections reported by USA Today seem to indicate a potential reduction in the amount of law enforcement officers taking their own lives in 2020.
Experts warn these numbers are often unreliable, due to the fact many suicides aren’t reported as a suicide due to a variety of factors, including privacy concerns and stigma. Families are required to report the suicides and are understandably unreliable. These issues likely indicate that law enforcement suicides have been, and will likely continue to be, largely underreported.
It will take several more months to confirm numbers related to the year 2020. However, one can take solace in the fact that perhaps last year was a small step in the right direction.
The irony of facing this epidemic is of course that the measures to defeat it are the exact opposite of the measures we use to fight Covid-19. We don’t need social distancing and limited contact. We need to fight the stigma that distancing oneself is enviable and be willing to discuss our experiences with one another.
We don’t need to put on masks; we need to remove them. We need to show each other (or whoever we choose) exactly what’s going on behind that mask of indifference.
There is no vaccine, no quick shot in the arm coming. Our only hope is to undertake the hard work of addressing this stigma once and for all.
It’s a matter of life or death.
If you, or any officer you know, is struggling with issues related to the stressors of a career in law enforcement, please reach out to Blue H.E.L.P. – Honoring the Service of Police Officers Who Died by Suicide or your department’s Peer Support group.
Ryan Smith, a Peace Officer in California for the past seven years, wishes to keep the agency where he works unidentified so he can write with candor. He worked in a detention environment prior to moving to his current assignment as a field training officer in patrol. Ryan received his Master’s Degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program from the University of San Diego. He welcomes comments from readers.