It is the time we talk about cops. Not about police brutality, not about the blue wall of silence, or the latest headlines in uncovered corruption, but about the inside; about what it's like to be a member of a group who never seems to ever catch a break.
Before I begin, I would also like to take this moment to explain that I am in no way justifying the corrupt, the sexist, the racist, or any of the other unethical, dishonorable officers that may be lurking out there. I am simply providing an insight into a serious issue that has been destroying families and the lives of Americans everywhere based on my own personal experiences as well as factual evidence. I’m here to talk about police suicide.
As I grew up, I learned about his abusive and manipulative nature, his need for reassurance, and his need to feel important or in control.
As a child, I saw my father as a hero. A true role model for kids like me everywhere. I was taught that if anything bad happened, you always go to the police because they are the good guys who will protect you. My father was a protector. Even though I lived with my mom, I had a good feeling that my dad was the ‘better’ parent. He risked his life everyday to help people who were in danger because that was just the good guy he was.
It didn’t dawn on my that maybe he wasn’t always the ‘good guy’ until I was much older and could comprehend what kind of a dad my father really was. As I grew up, I learned about his abusive and manipulative nature, his need for reassurance, and his need to feel important or in control. Throughout high school, I shunned him for his alcoholism and for his self-centered behaviors. I witnessed his insecurity first hand as he attempted to convince me that I was taking advantage of him; that I, the fourteen year old, should have been responsible for making his choices for him because I’m “supposed to love him”. It took a lot of research and desperation to finally uncover why my own father had this idea that behaving in such a seemingly immature way was the proper approach to communicating with others. The more I learned, the more I began to understand how my father’s psychological abnormalities may have developed.
Mental illnesses run in our family. After learning to get through my own experiences with having a mental illness, I tried to reevaluate the way I viewed my father. He was anxious, depressed, possibly bipolar, manipulative, and insecure about himself to the point where it had left him alone without a family to come home to. He took to drinking and obsessively working to avoid the fact that his life was not the one that he had wanted for himself. In determining if these characteristics were already bound to happen or if they are just some kind coping method in response to intense daily life, I found it necessary to take a step back to look at the situation. A lot of the person my father is can be attributed to how he's always been; but as the diathesis-stress model suggests, a lot of the person he is can also be attributed to a string of traumatic events which triggered an increase in the severity of his maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. As an inner-city cop, it wasn’t hard to determine what might have caused my father’s abnormal cognitions and behaviors to reach this level of severity.
The diathesis-stress model considers the biological predisposition of developing a psychological abnormality and how extremely stressful or traumatic environments can cause that predisposition to surface. Clearly, having an occupation that is entirely based on stressful, life-or-death situations isn't the best thing for someone such as my dad. For a person already struggling with mental stability, going into horrible situations day after day has an astronomical amount of damage on the psyche. My final conclusion was that my father's job is so psychologically demanding that it has played a larger role in his behaviors than the predisposition could have. If we look at the data collected regarding American police officers and their mental health, issues such as my father's seem to be a common trend.
"... the rate of suicide among officers is four times higher than the national average."
It's not that I blame my dad for taking on a job that involves constant exposure to high-intensity situations. I understand, perhaps even more than him at times, that his job is responsible for a lot of the built up anxiety, conflict, and frustration that he takes out on those closest to him. One of the largest struggles, however, is convincing him to seek treatment for his maladaptive behaviors. In the community and work environment for police officers, there's always been this stigma behind officers admitting that their work does affect their personal lives and their capabilities to function. If an officer is labeled as 'soft', 'unstable', or 'weak', it could not only decrease his or her self-esteem, but it could also damage that officer's reputation in the department. With that comes discrimination and baseless assumptions in addition to a constant internal anxiety on how that officer's superiors and colleagues see him or her. You would think that in a field with so much violence, loss, risk, sacrifice, and trauma that the community would promote honesty regarding mental health. Despite the more or less recent change in approach, hundreds of years of 'toughing it out' and 'not talking about those things' has drilled unhealthy stigmas of sharing one's feelings into the system. Many officers today go through training exercises and debriefing (after an exceptionally traumatic event) to teach officers that it's okay to feel distressed on and off the job as well as healthy ways to cope with that distress.
It's important that we recognize the severity of the rather public issue regarding police officer's mental health. When we fail to acknowledge and treat officers suffering from severe psychological damage, the consequences can be deadly. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that the rate of suicide among officers is four times higher than the national average. This is especially frightening considering that according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the majority of successful suicides are carried out using a firearm, which, of course, almost all officers have access to. In the past years, we have also seen significant changes, reforms, and protests regarding police systems which has undoubtedly only added to the amount of anxiety they face going to work every day. When we factor this into the fact that the already high national suicide rate is growing, we are at risk of facing a very grim future for police officers.
I can only imagine the psychological repercussions of experiencing such a horrific event... feeling the entire community you've been risking your life to protect despises you to the point where they even murder you.
I am not fighting the legitimacy or the importance of the protests regarding the harassment and killing of unarmed colored individuals by racially biased police officers. When discussing topics that relate to these matters, I feel that it is necessary to disclose that I am a Black Lives Matter supporter, however, I am not anti-police. By now, I hope that everyone recognizes that there is a major difference between the two. Regardless, there has been a spike in evidence-based accusations relating to racial profiling and bias in police departments across the nation in these past years. It isn't a coincidence that many protests followed the Ferguson protests which were undoubtedly handled poorly by some protestors as well as the law enforcement. One of the 'protests' that followed was the Milwaukee riots in which a black officer fatally shot a reportedly armed black suspect that was fleeing the scene. Violent riots soon erupted after which resulted in many uninvolved officers being assaulted; their cars being destroyed as they attempted to go home to their families, bricks being thrown at them as they simply tried to follow orders. Officers in District 7 weren't even allowed to leave the building based on the violent nature of the protestors and the attempts from the protesters to burn the building down. Thankfully, the protestors failed to set the building aflame, but it would not have been the only touched building those two nights.
There is no question that there is a serious racial disparity in Milwaukee and that it should never have even existed in 2016 Milwaukee or in current day Milwaukee, as a matter of fact. However, a perfectly justified officer-involved shooting does not entitle rioters to the looting and torching of establishments in any sense, especially in their own community. The Milwaukee riots were a prime example of how twisted and manipulated some of these movements have become. As unfortunate as it is, there is no denying that with the Black Lives Matter movement came to a racial-injustice-fueled, anti-police movement which has clearly infected and tainted the system. It's not as if civilians didn't already look down on the police as quota-seeking pigs, but now people feel that there's some sense of justification to their violent actions against all officers, regardless if they were involved in a controversial situation or not.
My father was one of the officers that were forced to remain in the District 7 building while protesters threatened to burn it down with him inside of it, so I am a bit implicitly bias (I try to not let that interfere with my reporting, but it's almost impossible if it's implicit). He's had to undergo a tremendous amount of training regarding how to cope with the effects of the situation, but I know it still affects him to this day. To make matters worse, it wasn't long after that an old colleague of his was shot in the head while sitting in his squad car. He was killed simply on the basis of being a police officer. Of course, news outlets never cover stories such as these in a society that is so convinced that no officer is a good person unless proven so. I know my father isn't the only person that's experienced these situations either. I can only imagine the psychological repercussions of experiencing such a horrific event... feeling the entire community you've been risking your life to protect despise you to the point where they even murder you.
It is no wonder why the prevalence of depression in officers is twice as high as the average, one-third of officers receive less than six hours of sleep a night, and why nearly 20% of officers experience PTSD.
The protests, the riots, the introduction of body cameras, and the skepticism of the integrity of the police are only a few of the things that have flooded officers with more anxiety. If you've read Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking or have ever taken a psychology class, you know that an officer's decision to act in an intense situation isn't an easy one. The ability to react accurately to the minuscule amount of time the situation occurs is practically non-existent. To expect every member of law enforcement to make the perfect decision in any given scenario is outrageous and unrealistic even after years of training and practice. They are not only acting to protect themselves, but they are typically acting more so to protect others from a potential threat. That is their job.
After living the majority of life on edge repeatedly knowing that any mistake you make in that millisecond could cost someone their life as well as your own (including your entire career), it is no wonder why the prevalence of depression in officers is twice as high as the average, one third of officers receive less than six hours of sleep a night, and why nearly 20% of officers experience PTSD. As expected, it's not uncommon for there to be conflicts in the family leading to divorce or the loss of custody over the children. However, it is also important to note that about 63% of officer suicides were of single officers, bringing to light that having a supportive family is almost essential to create a healthy, supportive environment to combat the psychologically demanding extremities of an officer's work life. This percentage may also represent some officers who once had a family, but had lost it due to stress and harmful behaviors as well as lack of motivation to get help for those behaviors.
At the end of the day, it's important to recognize that our boys in blue are hurting, too.
Regardless of your opinion on BLM or police conduct, the facts don't lie.
To ignore that our officers are struggling mentally is just as wrong to deny that minorities face discrimination by members of law enforcement. Perhaps one of the first steps we should be taking in counteracting the existent corruption and bias is to make sure these officers are psychologically sound. There's no telling what consistent counselling, psych evaluations, and healthy coping skills can accomplish not only for the individual officer and his or her family, but also for the community as a whole. At the end of the day, it's important to recognize that our boys in blue are hurting too; that they aren't all corrupt puppets looking to make a quota or to satisfy some impulse to kill a person of a different race because they can.
For the sake of our communities and our community's officers, its time that we begin discussing a topic that most officers would rather not discuss.
For resources regarding police mental health, feel free to check out: