Aamodt, Stalnaker, Police Suicides and Cats in a Tree

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

Aamodt & Stalnaker, Police Suicides, and Cats in a Tree

Badge of Life

As a kid, I remember the puzzle pictures of trees or landscapes that would challenge us to see how many hidden cats or other animals we could find. At first, we would see a couple of the more obvious, but the rest would escape us. It was only by looking and looking that we would begin to see the heretofore hidden images of what we could not see before. Each time, we were surprised to realize that they had all been right there before our eyes from the beginning.

So it is, sometimes, in research. For almost four years, now, our organization has been struggling with the perplexing question of, “Can the stresses and traumas of police work lead to an officer’s suicide?” To us, it’s an idiotic question to have to deal with, as it is to most clinicians familiar with the diagnostic criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the relationship of depression to PTSD and the dynamics of suicide. The terrors and horrors to which so many officers are subjected, daily, for 20 and 30 years are such fertile turf for trauma in the healthiest of officers that the answer should be obvious.

But it’s not obvious—not to many. To listen to some groups, it may be possible enough for an officer to experience “stress.” Additionally, they will admit, an officer just might even “catch PTSD” on the job. Is it possible, however, for that PTSD to lead to suicide? Never! Police suicides, they will tell you, are caused by mean wives, by overcharging one’s credit cards, or simply by being a “bad officer.” If none of these apply, it’s just a shock and a mystery to be forgotten—as quickly as possible.

One is forced to ask, if no suicides are caused by police work, why do police departments have suicide prevention programs!

We tracked almost 300 police suicides in the United States during 2008/2009. Not a single one was attributed by a department to PTSD or the stress/trauma of the job. Wives were blamed, misbehaviors were blamed and “Gosh-no-one-knows” became a favorite.

An officer who dies falling from a ladder while changing a light bulb in the station receives a motorcade, a full-honors funeral and his name inscribed on the wall of heroes. On the other hand, the officer who has been nearly killed, horrifically traumatized by a near-death experience(s) or some other dark and ghastly event(s) will be shamed for finally succumbing to the PTSD that resulted from those events, will be buried in near secret, and then forgotten. On Police Memorial Day, his wife and children will be allowed to watch from outside the gate as the first officer is honored.

So what does this have to with a childhood puzzle and finding cats in a tree?

Table 9.

Table 9 is the last set of data included in the famous Aamodt-Stalnaker study of police suicides in 1999. This is a study some love and others love to hate. Some use it to argue that police suicides are high; others that police suicides are low. One of the flaws in the study was in the interpretation of data that led the researchers to conclude that the police suicide rate for officers age 25 - 54 is lower than a comparable group of white males in the general populace (they totally overlooked the fact that officers begin at the starting line certified as "healthy" by psychological screening, whereas the general populace is not and includes the criminally insane, mentally ill, and a wide sampling of others).

Nonetheless, data is data and, while theirs was not the best, some parts were sound and did reveal some things worthy of note. Herein lies the rub.

Few people have stopped to dwell on the very end of the study, where sits the very lonely Table 9—“The Reasons for Police Suicides.” Perhaps this is because (as always) “relationships” are given as the leading cause of police suicides (the “family argument the night before,” the wicked spouse who left the loving officer). “Legal Problems” are given next, although no one knows what that means—if they are problems in the course of employment or criminal activity or a dispute with the family landscaper.

But as many times as I have looked at this puzzle tree of Table 9 for the cats, I’ve missed something very obvious—that if there is any value to the Aamodt-Stalnaker report, it is not about the rate of police suicides or whether that rate is high or low. Not at all.

What the Aamodt-Stalnaker study clearly shows is what many police departments continue to ignore--that 11 to 31 percent of police suicides are directly attributable to stress related police work.


TABLE 9. Reasons for Police Suicides

police suicides
Excerpted data from Table 9, Aamodt Stalnakers Police Officer Suicide, Frequency and officer pr

Of the 398 officers included in Table 9, the difference of 11 and 31 percent (16 or 45 officers) lies in the definition of “legal problems.”  The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that “legal problems” means “bad cop.”   Even with this category eliminated, however, we have a significant percentage of officers who died of line of duty emotional trauma which resulted in suicide.

CONCLUSION:  Since our 2008 - 2012 national study of police suicides (the National Surveillance of Police Suicides, or NSOPS), Badge of Life has estimated the percentage of line of duty police suicides to be in the range of 20-25 percent of the total suicides among officers.  The Aamodt study suggests this is not an unreasonable figure.

The sad fact remains, however, that until police leaders awaken to the fact that this line of work is toxic, emotionally, and that they must be proactive in their emotional self care training—instead of continuing archaic suicide prevention programs that rely on waiting until an officer is “in trouble” to do anything—the macabre dance will continue.  Until a police chief, somewhere, is willing to recognize that his officer has died a line of duty death and shows the courage to speak the truth (laws and regulations and stigma to the contrary), these facts will continue to be ignored.

Police chiefs continue to ignore the emotional well being of their officers.  For more, and for the alternatives, visit Badge of Life at www.badgeoflife.com  

Visit Badge of Life