Addressing Officer Crisis and Suicide
Improving Officer Wellness
By Brian R. Nanavaty
“There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”
- President John F. Kennedy1
Public safety careers can be stressful and demanding. For over a century, police officers in the United States have protected society from those who harm others. But, who protects these officers from the effects of stress and trauma resulting from years of service? Do law enforcement agencies bear some responsibility for helping these individuals remain healthy throughout their careers?
Often, early warning signs present themselves before an officer is in distress.2 Without proper intervention, the results could be catastrophic. For law enforcement officers, suicide sometimes is the tragic result of a crisis. Is it possible to address the warning signs before they result in the death of an officer?
According to a study of police suicide from 2008 through 2012, the number of officers who take their own lives is twice the number of officers killed by felons.3 A notable drop in the number of suicides occurred from 143 in 2008 to 126 in 2012—credited in part to an increase in peer support programs, a decrease in resistance to professional assistance, and improvement in proactive annual mental health checkups. However, the number of officers taking their own lives remains high, making it uncertain whether law enforcement agencies actually have turned a healthy corner.4
The study presents a general demographic profile of officers who committed suicide—91 percent were male, 63 percent were single, and those between the ages of 40 and 44 with 15 to 19 years of service were most at risk.5 This profile represents a significant percentage of those currently employed by law enforcement agencies. Some of these officers are experiencing mid-career burnout and malaise, but have too many years invested to change careers and are years away from retirement eligibility.
Captain Nanavaty serves with the Indianapolis, Indiana, Metropolitan Police Department.
Long-term organizational commitment to officer survival is paramount. However, while recruits often are told that the job can take its toll, they frequently are not shown ways to minimize its negative effects. Helping officers keep their personal lives intact is not always a top priority for law enforcement agencies. Typically, departments do not provide strategies or prevention plans.6
Predictable emotional changes and difficulties in officers’ lives sometimes are preventable. However, some agencies do little to avert destructive consequences experienced by officers after years of service. Many departments have dedicated police psychologists and Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), although these typically focus on resolving issues once they develop, not on preventing them.7
Can a law enforcement career be made easier, safer, and less emotionally damaging?8 Perhaps, a more holistic approach with a focus on intervention, education, and prevention is key. A computer search for officer assistance, resilience, or wellness programs typically results in findings that focus on physical health or fitness (e.g., annual physical exams) and not on total wellness that includes behavioral and mental health, emotional strength, spiritual fulfillment, healthy relationships, or financial well-being.9 Officers and their families facing challenges frequently must navigate resources on their own, often while already in crisis.
A similar search for peer support, Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), EAP, and police chaplain’s programs indicates that these support programs are available at some, but not all,
agencies.10 However, even when available, these measures often need funding, internal support, and coordination. They frequently have minimal or nonexistent participation requirements. Involvement in these programs typically is the responsibility of the individual officer. Usually, there is no mechanism in place for the agency to follow up to ensure participation, communication, or organizational accommodation.
Safe Call Now is a nonprofit organization that provides 24-hour assistance to public safety employees experiencing crises. This free, confidential service is available nationwide to all public safety personnel—law enforcement officers, first responders, firefighters, corrections officers, professional support staff, and their families.11 The team is staffed with peer advocates who are active and former officers, fire and public safety professionals, and mental health care providers familiar with the demands and stressors of public safety occupations. They are skilled in responding to immediate distress, but also have resources available for treatment referrals for mental health, behavioral, and addiction issues. In addition to the 24-hour crisis hotline, Safe Call Now also provides training to educate public safety agencies on how to improve hiring practices and develop comprehensive organizational resilience and wellness programs.
Peer support officers generally are dedicated, caring, giving people; however, many programs are voluntary and sometimes lack support in areas, such as budget, training, and compensatory time or detail. Some agencies provide peer officers with limited training and referral resources to respond to issues officers experience most—stress and trauma, financial, family, relationship, legal, sleep, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, general health, and suicidal ideations. Peer support is designed to be a short-term, critical-incident crisis response, but sometimes it results in a long-term commitment to an officer in distress. Some peer support officers experience burnout while attempting to help other officers long-term.
EAP programs receive mixed reviews from officers. Counselors are licensed; bound by confidentiality; and usually skilled, caring professionals. However, many face difficulties when dealing with law enforcement officers who may be suspicious or distrust outsiders. Jurisdictions fortunate enough to have a contracted EAP provider often must deal with contracts open to annual bid. This can result in disruption of the therapist-officer relationship because it takes time for a clinician to develop rapport with a client. Officers often experience unique and complex issues, and even the most skilled counselors determine they need to develop a basic understanding of law enforcement culture.
The best programs and practitioners often are ineffective without organizational policy, promotion, and coordination. Some agencies have no referral policies—with the exception of an EAP requirement as part of a departmental sanction—and rely mainly on officers voluntarily seeking assistance. Brochures are available in human resource offices, and posters are displayed at roll call; otherwise, there frequently is minimal advertising of available services.
Sometimes, there is no easily identifiable contact within the agency when an officer is in crisis and needs resources beyond EAP, such as psychiatric counseling, medication management, substance abuse evaluation or treatment, or an organizational accommodation, like administrative leave, detail, or change of assignment. Many public safety organizations still must progress to ensure their officers do not become victims. Ideally, agencies would hire healthy people and keep them well throughout their careers.12
Safe Call Now’s Bulletproof Administrator training focuses on improving hiring practices and developing comprehensive organizational resilience and wellness.13 The first hurdle in “bulletproofing” any organization is identifying stakeholders to achieve officer and agency well-being. Administrators and union officials must support health initiatives, and incentives certainly exist. A recent study identified the cost for an organization to provide early intervention at approximately $5,000, while the cost to treat or terminate that same employee would be over $100,000.14 Unions spend huge sums of money defending officers from charges and actions that in part emanate from mental, emotional, or behavioral health issues. According to the president of the Indianapolis Fraternal Order of Police (IFOP), the challenge of defending officers charged with organizational or criminal sanction is a financial and emotional drain on everyone.15
Studies have shown that healthy employees are more productive. Individuals who are satisfied with their organizations have lower absenteeism rates. Employees view comprehensive wellness programs as representative of a caring and supportive employer.16
Officer mental and emotional wellness possibly are the most ignored, but among the most critical, aspects of law enforcement careers. In early 2010 IFOP partnered with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) to support a unique, proactive officer wellness and development program. This included improved applicant screening; a focus on recruit physical, behavioral, and mental health; formal mentoring beginning the day of hire; spouse and family education and support programs; career development; and financial and retirement planning—agency programs that frequently are not available.17
With support from the union and police leadership, IMPD created a full-time, confidential officer advocacy program that partners with police officers through their retirement, beginning the day they are hired. This program encourages officer development through formal mentoring and regular education on distress issues and identification of available resources.18
The IMPD wellness and development program oversees physical and mental health referrals through a network of prescreened resources—medical, professional, clinical, and educational—to help officers get healthy and return to work. It is credited with helping officers salvage family relationships, lives, and careers. In a 4-year period, the IMPD program reduced disciplinary referrals by 40 percent and increased voluntary interventions and referrals by over 300 percent.19
Healthy, happy officers usually are indicative of a healthy, productive organization.20 To recruit healthy applicants and retain successful officers, law enforcement agencies should create partnerships with other stakeholders and promote proactive, holistic officer wellness and development programs. As these programs become the norm, organizations will develop momentum in hiring and sustaining healthy officers.21
As law enforcement agencies reflect on the first 100 years of modern American policing and embark on the second century, leaders must consider the mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges of officers as a priority. Officer distress does not happen overnight. If untreated it, can fester over time and have severe and tragic consequences. The unacceptable number of officer suicides indicates that changes are needed to prevent more officers from becoming victims.
Leaders must take charge to ensure that the next century does not elapse with the same levels of officer distress experienced in the first 100 years. Law enforcement’s greatest assets are its officers—their health and well-being are of the utmost importance.
For additional information Captain Nanavaty may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.