Police Suicide Statistics and Chicken Little, from Badge of Life

A Study of Police Suicide in 2008-2016
Girl's Letter to School
Police Suicide - What It ISN'T
Master Police Coaches - Building a Better Cop
PTSD - The "Hidden Injury"
Police Suicide - Making a Difference
The Importance of Therapy
Police Suicide - the SOLUTIONS
Interview with the BOL Chairman
So-Called "Helpers"
2016 Police Suicide Study
Annual Mental Health Checks
Stigma - The Human Stain
2016 Police Suicides: the NSOPS Study
Police Stress vs Trauma--a difference?
Does PTSD Cause Violence? from the Badge of Life
A New Police Suicide Prevention Program for the 21st Century
Police Suicide, Just a Bad Choice?
Chiefs Lead the Way
"Bring a Buddy"
Cumulative PTSD - a Silent Killer
Dealing with a Suicidal Police Officer



On the Risks and Dangers of Disseminating Unverifiable Information



by Andy O’Hara

Badge of Life Psychological Survival for Police Officers




For several years, the popular numbers given for annual police suicides were catastrophic--300, 400 and even higher.  The numbers were so high it was believed nothing could be done.


“Every 17 to 21 hours,” cried one source, “a police officer takes his own life!”  (This equalled as many as 515 officers per year.) 


In fact, 450 police suicides per year works out to an annual suicide rate of 56/100,000.  In comparison, the US Army had a suicide rate of 20/100,000 in 2008 and the Marines 19/100,000.  The general public was 11/100,000.

The figures handed out for law enforcement were, indeed, exciting numbers, snatched up enthusiastically by police officers and the media alike.  Unfortunately, no one had ever bothered to question their validity--or do the math to realize they don’t work.


We contacted the group primarily responsible for disseminating these numbers, the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation, and asked, several times, that they provide us enough information (even minus names) from their database (if they had one) for any one year that would allow us to follow up and validate their numbers.  Each time, our requests were refused with  excuses that all their information, no mattter how far back, was some kind of "living document" that couldn't be revealed and, when pushed, that they simply "didn't have to."


This only made us question it more. 


In January, 2008, we began a study of our own, this time a scientific one, with the intent of accurately measuring the number of police suicides in all 50 states.  It was based on actual suicide cases gathered through a web-based year long surveillance of news reports on police suicide.  Thousands of suicide-related news articles were read during the year for information relating to police suicides in the United States.  In addition, daily checks were made of police websites, forums, blogs and emails sent by contributors and verified.  A 17% error factor (based on research) was given for misreported suicides and another 20% for missed suicides. This meant a 37% error factor.


We also watched for the supposed "mystery" suicides--suspected of occurring in secret, disguised as "murders," covered up as accidents, or otherwise planned such as driving into bridge abutments, etc. Between our vigilant examination of such cases and our 37% error factor, we were satisfied with the result.


The results showed 141 police suicides in 2008.  The study was published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health.


We repeated the study through 2009 and 2012, yielding 143 and 126 suicides respectively.  Both year’s results were in keeping with CDC/NOMS data and revealed a police suicide rate of 17/100,000 (not 56/100,000). By comparing our information to other sources available, we were satisfied that these figures were a valid representation of the actual trend in police suicides.   



We repeated the study through 2009 and 2012, yielding 143 and 126 suicides respectively.  Both year’s results were in keeping with CDC/NOMS data and revealed a police suicide rate of 14 - 17/100,000 (not 53/100,000). By comparing our information to other scientific sources available, we were satisfied that these figures were a valid representation of the trend in police suicides. 



Is it important that we ask sources to back up the supposed data they give us?  Of course it is, particularly when we're dealing with lives and programs that are designed on the basis of that data.  "Just trust me" isn't good enough. With our study we can provide the full year's material from which our data was derived. 


Why is it be dangerous to put out inflated numbers?  Because it costs lives.  It creates the illusion that police officers are killing themselves so fast that nothing can be done.  Further, without good data, it's impossible to do good planning.  

The 141 suicides we verified in 2008 were almost three times the number of officers killed by felons.  Yet for every officer who commits suicide, there are a thousand more officers still working and suffering from extreme stress or from work-related trauma.  We need to focus on them, just as much as we do the suicides.  It’s not, in other words, just a matter of waiting until the officer is suicidal or “in crisis.”


Improved mental health programs, ongoing throughout an officer’s career, teaching them how to improve their resilience and be prepared for stress and trauma long before it even occurs, is what will solve our suicide problem in the long term.  Simply waiting for them to cry for help, to get into crisis, has never worked and never will.  Suicides continue to climb.


Reacting to panic cries, like those of Chicken Little, won’t do us a bit of good. We need sound, visible information from which to work so that we can plan our programs effectively and find long term solutions, for all our officers. 


The first place we can begin is by insisting on the best possible information with which to plan for the future.

For a copy of the 2008 study, contact the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health.

For a law enforcement copy of the 2008 or 2012 study, contact us at BadgeOfLife@gmail.com

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