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