Police Officer Suicide: How to cope, how to heal

Practical Police Psychology
with Dr. Laurence Miller

Q: The recent suicide of Lt. Derrick Norfleet of the Oakland Police Department has left the local law enforcement community in shock. This kind of event also reverberates with police departments across the country. How does a law enforcement agency deal with this kind of tragedy? What can we do honor our colleague and recover as a department?

A: You took the first step – you asked the question. There are no easy answers, but there are some answers. In an earlier column, I dealt extensively with what fellow officers can do to help prevent or stop the suicide of one of their colleagues. Here, I’ll focus more on coping with the aftermath of a tragedy that’s already happened.

Why Do They Do It?
Although each person has their own history and their own story, there actually are a set of fairly well-understood reasons why people in general – and police officers in particular – choose to take their own life. These usually boil down to some combination of anger, helplessness, hopelessness, and/or shame. Many cops live in an either-or, black-or-white, you’re-only-as-good-as-you’re-last-screw-up kind of world, where anything less than total perfection all the time is considered intolerable. When such a rigid belief system is stressed by perceived failures at work, and perhaps further strained by personal problems at home, the whole system is at risk of imploding and the officer now feels that there’s “no way out.”

Paradoxically, for other officers, it may be the opposite problem. After a suicide, or more commonly, an arrest, many colleagues may be stunned to learn that their seemingly golden-boy colleague was engaged in all kinds of illegal, corrupt, and unethical behavior, at work and in his personal life, and now his evil ways have caught up with him and it all comes crashing down. This, too, may lead to a “no way out” scenario where the accused officer believes there’s nothing he can do to shake himself out of the web of trouble he’s woven himself into.

A third pattern may be more noticeable to colleagues, the “train wreck.” This is the officer who everyone knows to be a general goof-off, screw-up, or just plain pain in the ass. This is the guy or gal who always seems to be jumping from crisis to crisis and putting out brushfires. He wears his crap on his sleeve, so to speak, never really crossing the line into major malfeasance, but accumulating a pile of petty complaints and disciplinary write-ups, until the sheer weight of these molehills tips over into a mountain of woe and he’s now facing serious trouble at work or at home and, again, feels like there’s “no way out.”

Finally, otherwise competent officers may suffer from clinical depression or another kind of mood disorder that they just happened to inherit from their family gene pool and that may have been further entrenched by a psychologically unhealthy childhood upbringing. These cases can usually be very successfully treated with a combination of medication and short-term psychotherapy but many officers needlessly suffer in silence because they’re afraid that bringing this to someone’s attention will brand them as a “head case.” A particular problem with some mood disorders is that the officer’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior can often turn on a dime, changing over the course of just a few days from normal and outgoing to suicidal despair. This is often the scenario that leads stunned colleagues to comment, “Killed himself? What do you mean killed himself? I just saw him last shift and at a barbecue over the weekend, and he was talking and joking like he always does. I can’t believe it!”

Prevention: What Can Fellow Officers Do?
As noted above, the subject of police officer suicide prevention is covered more comprehensively in that May 2007 column. Here, I’ll just summarize the main points.

Education. Bring this topic out into the open. Virtually every officer who has suffered in silence thinks they’re the only ones who’ve felt this way. Through departmental mini-seminars, role call in-services, continuing education programs, or printed matter, let people know that this a problem that can be helped. Back it up with appropriate training in crisis intervention and peer counseling.

Policy. I guarantee no one is going to report any kind of mental problem if they believe that it will automatically result in administrative suspension, confiscation of their weapon, light duty assignment, or immediate referral for a fitness-for-duty evaluation. A departmental policy for dealing with officers in distress de-stigmatizes such reporting and makes it clear that unless there is a specific reason for taking any kind of administrative action – i.e. the officer is an immediate danger to self or others or is obviously unfit for duty at the present time – the first response will be to refer the officer for the proper kind of help and back that up with confidentiality and departmental support.

Warning signs. Very few suicides happen without somebody somewhere having observed something that might have clued others in that the person was in distress. Be alert to the warning signs of suicide and depression, such as making threats to others, making threats to oneself, acting like the officer has nothing to lose, becoming preoccupied with morbid death scenarios, especially past police suicides or line of duty deaths, packing more weaponry than usual or necessary, expressing feelings of being overwhelmed, or making final plans.

Peer intervention. You’ll be in a position to observe your partner, colleague, or supervisee long before any shrink gets to see him, so don’t be afraid to step in and offer assistance if you can. Help your fellow officer define and clarify what’s bothering him. Ensure that he’ll be safe until he can get further help. Provide support and let him know you’ll back him up if he does the right thing. If he’s feeling hopeless, help him examine alternatives to checking out; maybe there are real things he can do to fix the situation that he hasn’t thought of and you have. Make a plan and get some kind of commitment: if he can’t handle things on his own, he’ll make an appointment with the EAP counselor or a mental health professional of his choice, but just as you wouldn’t let him go out there with a defective weapon, vehicle, or radio, you won’t walk away and just let him percolate in his own misery.

A number of once-suicidal people have told me that their initial reaction to the helping efforts of others was some version of, “Get the f*** away from me and mind your own f***ing business!” but that later they went back to those same people and told them, “I’m really glad you didn’t f***ing listen to me when I was being an asshole and that you f***ing hung in there and made me get some f***ing help. Thanks.”

Reactions of Fellow Officers to an Officer Suicide
Sometimes, the worst happens and now you have to deal with it. How? The first step is to understand some common reactions of officers to a colleague’s self-inflicted death.

Shock and disbelief. “No, it can’t be him.” Many officers just refuse to believe that the person they knew and worked with could do such a thing. In other cases, there were inklings that something was wrong, but no one ever expected it to go this far. In still other instances – e.g. in the “bad boy” or “train wreck” cases noted above – the death, while sad, really comes as no big surprise, inasmuch as it appears to be just the capping event of a long string of dysfunctional behaviors. What is most disorienting, however, is when the suicide seems totally out of character for the officer you thought you knew.

Identification. “Shit, it could’ve been me.” Underlying almost all of these reactions is a powerful identification factor. One comment I hear over and over again from cops whoâ
€™ve lost a colleague to suicide is something along the lines of, “I’ve felt pretty bad at some points in my life. How do I know I won’t do it?” Answer: because you’re you and everybody’s personality and adaptive coping resources are different. The kinds of stresses that could destabilizes one person’s psyche enough to make them want to check out may, for someone else, impel them to try to repair the situation or to seek help from someone who can guide them. If there’s any kind of a silver lining that can come from black cloud like this, it should be to heed the warning signs in yourself and others and do something about it.

Symptoms. No, you’re not going crazy, but there are some strange symptoms that can occur after the traumatic death of a family member – blood family or work family – that may weird you out. For example, even though they know their friend is gone, many officers say they expect to see the deceased colleague sitting at his desk or in his patrol car. A few may actually report seeing the deceased colleague or hearing his/her voice but, under the circumstances, these quasi-hallucinatory experiences are usually normal and temporary. Don’t be surprised if you dream about the deceased officer; some of these dreams can be scary when the dreamer imagines himself in the place of the officer, about to do the deed. Others are “rescue dreams” in which the dreamer is trying to stop the suicide but fails. More common symptoms involve disorientation and emotional numbing, just “going through the motions” at work and at home.

Sadness. No shit, Einstein, how do expect us to feel – happy? The reason I mention this is that many people, and a number of mental health clinicians, often confuse the natural sadness and grief of a traumatic bereavement with clinical depression. In fairness, the signs and symptoms – impaired sleep and appetite, low energy, loss of motivation, difficulty concentrating, irritability and agitation – of both syndromes frequently overlap. But just like you’re not a hypochondriac if your stomachache is caused by a bullet hole in your abdomen, you’re not necessarily clinically depressed if your psycheache is caused by a hole in your soul. In a few cases, people can suffer from what’s called pathological grief, but this usually involves serious disability far beyond the point when most people have been able to move on.

Guilt and anger. These have a way of cycling with each other and feeding off each other. Anger can have several targets. You may be angry at the deceased for doing this to himself, for leaving you and the other guys and gals to cope with this grief, even as you feel guilty for feeling this way – the guy’s dead, for chrissake. You may feel angry at the deceased because his suicide rattles the cage of your own identification factor and forces you to wonder what it would take to push you over the edge. You may feel guilty for maybe not taking more action that could have averted the death, but then feel angry at the deceased for putting you in that position, or angry at others who overtly or implicitly imply you should have done more: “Who died and made me this guy’s personal social worker?” You may be angry at the department for not being more proactive and protecting the troubled officer from himself. You may be angry at the deceased’s former partners, family members, or others who you feel were making his life miserable and pushing him closer to the brink. Finally, you may be mad at the whole freakin’ world for just not getting what you guys sometimes go through to try to keep the rest of us smug, selfish, unappreciative citizens safe.

How to Cope, How to Heal
I’m not going to pretend to give you a formula, because there isn’t one, but there are some things you can do to help one another get through this and honor the memory of your deceased comrade.

Talk about it. I know, takes a real genius to recommend that one, right? But I mean talk productively. Try to understand what happened, without recrimination. I’m not saying spill your guts to people you don’t know well, but among a group of your trusted colleagues, try to achieve what psychologists call cognitive control: coming to a rational understanding of what took place so you’ll feel better prepared for next time. In essence, this is not dissimilar to the kind of operational debriefing many special units do following an officer-involved shooting or hostage crisis. Know what went right and what went wrong. I always teach my classes that 20/20 hindsight = 20/20 insight = 20/20 foresight. Also, use communication to deal with the feelings and symptoms noted above. Let your colleagues know you’re going through the same things they are. Despite the circumstances of his death, try to find something to honor the deceased.

Alcohol. Okay, let’s live in the real world here. We all know that most of these discussions are not going to take place over soy milk and Gatorade. Retiring to your local tavern for your group therapy is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the alcohol is used moderately and constructively to oil the mechanism of self-expression in a supportive atmosphere, not self-destructively to drown feelings by getting totally smashed or drinking alone and stewing in one’s solitary grief. However, if alcohol has been your particular demon in the past, don’t compromise your recovery by placing yourself at risk. Honor your deceased comrade by taking care of yourself and find the proper way to express your feelings without danger.

Clinical services. By this I mean anything that might involve the participation of a licensed mental health professional, including a formal critical incident stress debriefing or individual psychotherapy. Most of the time, these measures won’t be necessary, but if they are, don’t be afraid to avail yourself of anything that might help.

Grief leadership. The brass should provide a model of constructive mourning of the deceased officer. They should be the ones who exemplify the fact normal expressions of grief don’t make you a weak person and that showing your honest feelings in a dignified way is actually a sign of respect for the deceased and for each other. Police leaders take note: your people will take their cue from you as to what is an appropriate and healthy response to a comrade’s suicide and what constitutes dysfunction and dishonor. Departmental leadership should also be proactive in advising their people on how to deal with the media which, of course, always love “crazy cop” stories. In brief, the key is to not appear too defensive, while striving to maintain confidentiality and privacy of the officer, the department, and the families. When in doubt, always check with department legal counsel and issue all media statements through your public information officer (PIO) or the chief’s or sheriff’s office.

Families. And speaking of families, don’t forget them, either. However you’re dealing with your colleague’s suicide, can you imagine what his spouse is going through? His kids? His parents? Without being intrusive, offer your support to grieving family members, but don’t be surprised if you find your helping efforts initially spit back in your faces by distraught, grieving families who are funneling their pain and anger against the department who “drove” their loved one to this. In that case, just let them know you’re there if you need them and back off. Crises that family members will have to endure in the coming weeks or months include harsh recriminations by others who may want to blame them for the officer’s suicide, intense media scrutiny, possible legal action, and coping with children’s reactions to the death. Ideally, the department should have some kind of program for families dealing with line of duty deaths and this should not discriminate as to cause of death.

In summary, the goal is not to “get over” the untimely death of your colleague: you won’t, and the experience will al
ways be a part of you. But you will heal, you will move on, you will learn from this tragedy. You will never forget, you will never waver in your efforts to reach out to colleagues in distress, and you will never fail to take care of yourself, your comrades, and your loved ones.

Laurence Miller, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and law enforcement educator and trainer based in Boca Raton, Fla. Dr. Miller is the police psychologist for the West Palm Beach Police Department, mental health consultant for Troop L of the Florida Highway Patrol, a forensic psychological examiner for the Palm Beach County Court, and a consulting psychologist with several regional and national law enforcement agencies. Dr. Miller is an instructor at the Criminal Justice Institute of Palm Beach County and at Florida Atlantic University, and conducts continuing education and training seminars around the country. He is the author of numerous professional and popular print and online publications pertaining to the brain, behavior, health, law enforcement, criminal justice and organizational psychology. His latest books are “Practical Police Psychology: Stress Management and Crisis Intervention for Law Enforcement” (Charles C Thomas, 2006) and “Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement” (Looseleaf Law Publications, 2008). Contact Dr. Miller at (561) 392-8881 or online at [email protected].

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