Police Chief Suicide: An Overlooked Issue
By Tony Salvatore, M.A.
In late December 2020, the well-respected police chief of a township in suburban Philadelphia took his own life. Like most suicides, no one close to him saw any warning signs. This death came just 3 months after the chief of a department one county over also died by suicide. Losing police chiefs in this way occurs far more commonly than people think. It also raises questions: How widespread is the problem? What are the risk factors? What can be done?
Lack of Attention
A considerable amount of literature exists pertaining to suicide and suicidal behavior among officers.1 However, there appears to be no research specifically addressing the same for police chiefs. Few studies look at rank as a variable and none as high as chief.2 There are articles on how chiefs can work to prevent suicide in their departments, but none on preventing it among themselves and their peers.3
Two papers on police chief suicide focused on single incidents and their aftermath in their respective departments.4 The subject of one paper allegedly sexually assaulted a woman. In the other report, the chief had a serious gambling problem, misappropriated departmental funds to cover his debts, and was to be interviewed regarding borrowing from subordinates. In the 20 years since these papers were published, police chief suicide does not seem to have drawn any further attention.
Mr. Salvatore directs suicide prevention and postvention efforts at Montgomery County Emergency Service, a nonprofit psychiatric provider in Norristown, Pennsylvania, that trains law enforcement professionals in crisis intervention.
Reports on officer suicide prevention exist that offer considerable information on police suicide as a national concern, significantly increase understanding about the factors involved, and offer sound recommendations for addressing it.5 However, none of these resources speak about chiefs who take their own lives.
Because police chiefs are prominent municipal officials, their appointments, resignations, retirements, terminations, and deaths are generally reported in the local media. Issues that arise during their tenure are also considered newsworthy. Suicides of police chiefs, even of those retired, are sometimes reported if the death is so identified.6
However, no data is available on the consistency of media coverage of police chief suicides. In general, those of officers have a history of being unreported or inaccurately reported.7 Similarly, police chief suicides may not always be disclosed as such by the municipality, department, or media.
A lack of clarity continues to characterize initial media reports of police chief suicides, often described as sudden or unexpected deaths or sometimes as an “apparent suicide.”8 The official cause of death may not be cited as suicide, even when so determined later. Some media reports reference controversies, scandals, or criminal activity on the part of the decedent.9
Police chiefs represent a small subset of law enforcement professionals in the United States. In 2016, there were 15,322 “general purpose law enforcement agencies” in the United States, of which 12,251 were municipal police departments. A “local police chief” has overall command of each agency.10
The only other statistical data for police chiefs is that when last surveyed, in 2008, 97% were men and 90% were white.11 These demographic features have likely changed significantly since that tabulation. However, the prevailing gender/race makeup of police chiefs as a group remains pertinent to their suicide risk because adult white males account for most suicides in the United States.12
Blue H.E.L.P. is a Massachusetts-based, volunteer-run nonprofit that works to “acknowledge the service and sacrifice of law enforcement officers ... lost to suicide.”13 It has tracked police suicides since 2016. The agency’s database includes reports of 120 “command staff suicides,” including those involving 22 chiefs, culled from the media and other sources.14 This suggests there are four to five police chief suicides annually in the United States.
A better measure to determine the suicide rate is computed by dividing suicides in a given time period by the population in which the deaths occurred and multiplying by 100,000.15 Using available data, the crude annual suicide rate for police chiefs is as follows:
4.4 estimated police chief suicides per year
__________________________________ X 100,000 = 35.9
12,251 municipal police chiefs
This rate is far higher than that of many other high-risk groups. It is almost twice the rate for officers and other law enforcement professionals — estimated at 18.1 per 100,000 annually.16 For all branches of the U.S. military in 2019, the overall rate was 25.9 per 100,000.17 Among military veterans, the rate in 2017 was 27.7 per 100,000.18
Better data will soon be on hand. In January 2020, the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act went into effect, authorizing the FBI to accept reports on suicides of U.S. law enforcement personnel.19
Police chiefs may have the same suicide risk factors as adults in the general population, although aspects of their position may amplify some factors.
- Mental disorders, particularly clinical depression
- History of alcohol and substance abuse
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Aggressive tendencies
- Isolation (i.e., a feeling of being cut off from other people)
- Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
- Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
- Physical illness
- Easy access to lethal methods20
“There are articles on how chiefs can work to prevent suicide in their departments, but none on preventing it among themselves and their peers.”
Several factors may contribute to suicide risk in police officers and, by extension, chiefs.
- Job-related values may “take over” and affect behavior and relations outside of police work.
- Social relations and trust may narrow over time to the department, promoting isolation and loneliness.
- Positivity may be lost because of continuous contact with the most negative sides of society.
- A tendency may develop toward control, problem-solving, and fixing things.
- The danger exists of becoming psychologically worn down by always being on duty, dealing with constant stress, and routinely coping with frustration and potential danger.21
Military service is another strong suicide risk factor that may be common in police chiefs.
Chiefs may have any of the outlined risk factors pertaining to the public, as well as the role drift, professional insularity, negative perspective, and wrap-around stress that can affect law enforcement officers. Maladaptive coping styles may also add to their “suicide nexus.”22
Media reports on police chief suicides sometimes mention circumstances that may bear on suicide risk. Professional misconduct, criminal behavior, a gambling or other addiction problem, and retirement are often cited. Each of these may involve involuntary or voluntary loss of status and affiliation with the law enforcement community. Losing both social connectiveness and self-value may increase suicide risk.
Police chiefs facing retirement may experience suicidal thinking pending loss of identity and going “from a life of leading and contributing to one of standing on the sidelines.”23 Blue H.E.L.P. found that almost 40% of retired officers who killed themselves had been retired for less than 1 year.24 The first year of retirement may be similarly hazardous for former police chiefs. Risk may especially accrue among those retiring amid controversy or being forced out.
Politics is another stressor that may have suicide risk implications for police chiefs. A survey of police chiefs identified the “most discouraging, dissatisfying aspect of their job as being frustrated by working in the political environment and dealing with politicians.”25 Mayors and municipal managers may see the police chief as their “servant.”26
Much has been done to identify measures to deter suicide risk in police officers. So far, none have been proposed for chiefs, who may not be amenable to suicide prevention measures designed for line officers. However, some of the approaches may be at least partly applicable.
- Build resilience and healthy coping skills
- Improve access and decrease barriers to mental health care
- Identify and assess persons at risk
- Normalize and increase help-seeking behaviors
- Develop and strengthen peer supports
- Prepare for and assist during transitions (e.g., change of duty, retirement)
- Provide support after a suicide death or attempt27
Police chiefs are tasked with putting such measures in place in their departments, but they receive little guidance on how to relate to them when they are in distress.
“ ... chiefs may have the same suicide risk factors as adults in the general population, although aspects of their position may amplify some factors.”
While other crisis intervention and suicide prevention strategies may be adopted to address police chief suicide, the author offers three readily doable proposals as a starting point.
1) Raise Awareness
Police chief suicide must become part of the ongoing conversation. Programs and strategies for prevention must include all levels of law enforcement, from cadets to chiefs. Prevention starts with raising awareness of the problem, especially because it is not widely recognized. Law enforcement leaders hear much about the suicide risk borne by their personnel but little about their own.
Leadership programs for aspiring chiefs, executive training for current chiefs, and orientations for new chiefs often touch on police officer suicide. Participants should also be introduced to the reality of it in their ranks, learn about the risk factors and warning signs, and recognize what they should do about it.
2) Provide Support
Peer support should be extended to police chiefs in every jurisdiction. However, while peer support has proven an effective resource, it is not yet typically available to chiefs.
A well-received model of such a program exists. The Mid-America Regional Council has operated the Command Level Peer Support Team in the greater Kansas City, Missouri, area since 2018.28 Participants from police, fire, EMS, and dispatch complete a 4-day training program covering topics such as command stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide risk, and line-of-duty deaths. During the program, they can talk to a colleague at their rank with insight into command-specific stressors.29 Police chief associations exist at the county, regional, and state levels and can sponsor such teams to serve their members.
3) Implement Hotlines
Regional or statewide toll-free, closed suicide crisis hotlines should exist for police chiefs. In 1998, New Jersey created Cop2Cop, the first confidential 24-hour hotline for police officers in the United States, in conjunction with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, to provide a crisis intervention resource for law enforcement personnel in the state.30 Calls from every community in New Jersey are answered by retired police officers, mental health clinicians, and peer support specialists.
An organization such as the State Associations of Chiefs of Police could consider creation of four regional hotlines covering multistate areas. These would be staffed by retired chiefs and others with appropriate backgrounds and crisis intervention training. Access to this telephonic resource could be restricted to chiefs.
Police chief suicides receive nominal attention and no action. This may be because they seemingly occur infrequently and, generally, are widely dispersed geographically. Despite Pennsylvania’s recent experience, most states go many years without having a police chief take their own life, and some may never have such a loss.
Nonetheless, police chief suicide is a serious and long-neglected concern. Changing this and moving toward evidence-based prevention starts with raising awareness of the problem through advocacy, research, and education.
“Police chief suicide must become part of the ongoing conversation.”
Mr. Salvatore can be reached at email@example.com.
1 See, for example, John M. Violanti et al., “Law Enforcement Suicide: A Review,” Policing: An International Journal 42, no. 2 (2019): 141-164, accessed May 6, 2021, http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/PIJPSM-05-2017-0061; John M. Violanti, Cynthia F. Robinson, and Rui Shen, “Law Enforcement Suicide: A National Analysis,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health 15, no. 4 (2013): 289-297, accessed May 6, 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24707591/; Daniel W. Clark, Elizabeth K. White, and John M. Violanti, “Law Enforcement Suicide: Current Knowledge and Future Directions,” Police Chief, May 2012, accessed May 25, 2021, https://www.policechiefmagazine.org/law-enforcement-suicide-current-knowledge-and-future-directions/; and Mark H. Chae and Douglas J. Boyle, “Police Suicide: Prevalence, Risk, and Protective Factors,” Policing: An International Journal 36, no. 1 (2013): 91-118, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/13639511311302498/full/html.
2 For instance, John M. Violanti et al., “Suicide in Police Work: Exploring Potential Contributing Influences,” American Journal of Criminal Justice 34, no. 1 (2008): 41-53, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225470566_Suicide_in_Police_Work_Exploring_Potential_Contributing_Influences.
3 John W. Morrissey, “A Chief’s Role in Preventing Suicide,” Police Chief, August 2020, accessed September 1, 2021, https://www.policechiefmagazine.org/focus-officer-wellness-chiefs-role-preventing-suicide/.
4 JoAnne Brewster and Philip Alan Broadfoot, “Lessons Learned: A Suicide in a Small Police Department,” 45-56, and John J. Carr, “Suicide of a Chief Executive Officer: Implications for Intervention,” 67-70, in Suicide and Law Enforcement: A Compilation of Papers Submitted to the Suicide and Law Enforcement Conference, FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia, September 1999, ed. Donald C. Sheehan and Janet I. Warren (Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2001), accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/193528-193589.pdf.
5 For instance, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Education Development Center, and National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, Preventing Suicide Among Law Enforcement Officers: An Issue Brief (Washington, DC, 2019), accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/2020-02/_NOSI_Issue_Brief_FINAL.pdf; Police Executive Research Forum, An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do to Prevent Suicide Among Its Officers (Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 2019), accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.policeforum.org/assets/PreventOfficerSuicide.pdf; and International Association of Chiefs of Police, IACP National Symposium on Law Enforcement Officer Suicide and Mental Health: Breaking the Silence on Law Enforcement Suicides (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2014), accessed May 6, 2021, https://nccpsafety.org/assets/files/library/Breaking_the_Silence.pdf.
6 For example, Larry Celona, Tina Moore, and Alex Taylor, “NYPD Chief Fatally Shoots Self a Month Before Mandatory Retirement,” New York Post, June 5, 2019, accessed May 6, 2021, https://nypost.com/2019/06/05/nypd-chief-fatally-shoots-self-a-month-before-mandatory-retirement/; “New London Police Chief Mike Marko Dies,” Ashland (OH) Times-Gazette, November 20, 2020, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.times-gazette.com/story/news/2020/11/20/new-london-police-chief-mike-marko-dies/6355868002/; and “Grady County Sheriff: Former Cairo Police Chief Died Due to Unintentional Discharge of Gun,” WCTV Eyewitness News, December 19, 2019, accessed May 6, 2021, https://www.wctv.tv/content/news/GBI-investigating-death-of-former-Cairo-Police-Chief-566359791.html.
7 John M. Violanti, Police Suicide: Epidemic in Blue (Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas Publisher, 1996), 10; and Doug Wyllie, “Is Officer Suicide on the Rise?” Police, April 26, 2019, accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.policemag.com/511118/is-officer-suicide-on-the-rise.
8 For example, see Evan Brandt, “West Pottsgrove Police Chief Stofflet Dies Unexpectedly at 47,” Pottstown (PA) Mercury, December 29, 2020, accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.pottsmerc.com/news/west-pottsgrove-police-chief-stofflet-dies-unexpectedly-at-47/article_ffe7c84e-4943-11eb-9753-7b02d4481b44.html; Jonathan Lucas, “Former Stamford Police Chief Found Dead in Apparent Suicide,” Stamford Advocate, June 12, 2014, accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/news/article/Former-Stamford-police-chief-found-dead-in-5549076.php; and Frank Andruscavage and Kent Jackson, “Conyngham Police Chief’s Death Investigated,” Standard-Speaker, September 9, 2020, accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.standardspeaker.com/news/conyngham-police-chiefs-death-investigated/article_b3368b8c-993f-50c9-8813-8f5e97b59789.html.
9 For example, “Texas Police Chief Commits Suicide While Being Served Warrant for Sexual Assault,” KCBD-TV, August 23, 2019, accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.kcbd.com/2019/08/23/texas-police-chief-commits-suicide-while-being-served-warrant-sexual-assault/.
10 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Local Police Departments, 2016: Personnel, Shelley S. Hyland and Elizabeth Davis (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2021), accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd16p.pdf.
11 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, 2008, Brian A. Reaves (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011), accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/csllea08.pdf.
12 Local Police Departments, 2016: Personnel.
13 ”About Blue H.E.L.P.,” Blue H.E.L.P., accessed May 10, 2021, https://bluehelp.org/about-us/.
14 Steven Hough, Blue H.E.L.P., email message to author, January 7, 2021.
15 Ronald W. Maris, Alan L. Berman, and Morton M. Silverman, Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology (New York, NY: Guilford Press, 2000), 74.
16 Michael G. Aamodt and Nicole A. Stalnaker “Police Officer Suicide: Frequency and Officer Profiles,” Police1, June 20, 2006, accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.police1.com/health-fitness/articles/police-officer-suicide-frequency-and-officer-profiles-HFJ5hMgo5cnq6fA0/.
17 U.S. Department of Defense, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Annual Suicide Report, Calendar Year 2019 (US Department of Defense, 2020), accessed May 10, 2021, https://www.dspo.mil/Portals/113/Documents/CY2019%20Suicide%20Report/DoD%20Calendar%20Year%20CY%202019%20Annual%20Suicide%20Report.pdf?ver=YOA4IZVcVA9mzwtsfdO5Ew%3d%3d.
18 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report (US Department of Veterans Affairs, 2019), accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/data-sheets/2019/2019_National_Veteran_Suicide_Prevention_Annual_Report_508.pdf.
19 U.S. Congress, Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act, 116th Cong., 2020, Public Law No: 116-143, accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.congress.gov/116/plaws/publ143/PLAW-116publ143.pdf.
20 “Suicide Prevention Risk and Protective Factors,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/riskprotectivefactors.html.
21 Orlando Ramos, “Police Suicide: Are You at Risk?” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2010, accessed May 11, 2021, https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/perspective/perspective-police-suicide-are-you-at-risk.
22 John M. Violanti, “Police Officer Suicide,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice, October 2018, accessed May 11, 2021, https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.013.87.
23 Police Executive Research Forum, Chapter 2: How Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Are Finding Meaning and Purpose in the Next Stage of Their Careers (Washington, DC: PERF, 2019), 99.
24 Data from Blue H.E.L.P., accessed May 11, 2021, https://bluehelp.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Data2.pdf.
25 Bruce L. Benson, “View from the Top: The Frustrations of Police Chiefs and How to Solve Them,” Police Chief, August 2004, accessed May 26, 2021, https://www.policechiefmagazine.org/view-from-the-top-the-frustrations-of-police-chiefs-and-how-to-solve-them/.
26 W. Dwayne Orrick, Maneuvering Successfully in the Political Environment (Alexandria, VA: International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2018), 9, accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/2018-08/BP-ManeuveringinthePoliticalEnvironment.pdf.
27 International Association of Chiefs of Police, Education Development Center, and National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, Comprehensive Framework for Law Enforcement Suicide Prevention (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2020), accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/2020-11/_NOSI_Framework_Final%20%28002%29.pdf.
28 “Peer Support Programs,” Mid-America Regional Council, accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.marc.org/Emergency-Services-9-1-1/Regional-911-System/Training/911-Peer-Support-Program.
29 Pam Opoka, “A Safe Place to Remove Your Cape: Commander Level Peer Support Team,” Police Chief, May 5, 2020, accessed May 26, 2021, https://www.policechiefmagazine.org/a-safe-place-to-remove-your-cape/.
30 Cop-2-Cop, accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.njfop.org/cop2cop/.