A Chief’s Role in Preventing Suicide

by

John W. Morrissey

Chief of Police (Ret.)

Kenosha Police Department, Wisconsin

Just imagine your phone rings at 4:11 a.m. on a warm June night in 2010. As a chief of police, you are expecting it to be a phone call about a homicide or a traffic fatality, but when you answer, the person on the other end of the phone tells you that one of your officers took his own life.

When you hear the officer’s name, perhaps you’re not surprised—maybe your first thought is “I just served him a sick leave abuse letter yesterday morning taking away 10 percent of his pay.” Once you make sure the department is aware of the death, you meet with the family.  As the days and weeks after the funeral become months, you think about the death now and then, but you change nothing, because no one is shocked in this particular case.

Just imagine your phone rings again at 4:02 a.m. on October 31, 2010, and the person on the other end of the phone says an officer from your department took his own life. It happened again within five months of the first one. This time, no one can believe the officer took his own life. He couldn’t have; he was one of the most beloved and respected officers in the department. There is outrage in the department demanding that the officer be given a full funeral as if he died in the line of duty. There is outrage both internally and from the family because when the first suicide happened, nothing was changed to prevent future ones.

Two suicides of active duty officers within five months at the Kenosha, Wisconsin, Police Department made officer wellness an immediate priority for myself. After these incidents, I started looking for programs that other departments had implemented to help with suicide prevention only to discover there were very few programs available specifically for law enforcement officers. Suicide was still a topic that was not openly discussed; in some case, it was considered a stain on the agency. Organizations such as the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention had resources for suicide prevention, but nothing specific to law enforcement or public safety professionals. Still, the agency had to start somewhere. Things have improved in that area—the Action Alliance now has a dedicated task force for public safety personnel. They have partnered with several organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), to get a better understanding of public safety personnel needs.

“Let’s stop officers from ever getting to the point that they consider suicide as an option.”

AGENCY SUICIDE PREVENTION: LESSONS LEARNED

Messaging: One of the things learned over the last several years is that law enforcement needs to change the message being displayed and provided to the officers. Change the messaging at the agencies to one of hope, resiliency, and inclusiveness. Change the culture to where it is a sign of strength to ask for help or to acknowledge you are struggling, instead of the perception that it is a sign of weakness. Emphasize that a psychological injury is no different than a physical injury. Acknowledge and recognize that no one single safety message serves every audience and purpose. Balance suicide intervention and postvention messaging with prevention messages of resilience, access to help, and self-care. Let’s stop officers from ever getting to the point that they consider suicide as an option.

For law enforcement, posters with a picture of an officer holding his or her head that read, “If you need help, call this hotline” aren’t necessarily effective. Those resources do need to be available if there is an officer who needs intervention, but the daily message needs to focus on changing the culture to one of self-care and wellness. It’s important to remember that not every officer who has a psychological injury is at risk for suicide and not every officer considering suicide has a psychological injury.

Leadership: Officers need a leader who is a good listener but is still able to take charge. One who earns respect and commitment from his or her employees, yet still drives results. One who can admit when he or she is wrong and is willing to use the insight of others to reach practical, sound conclusions. True leaders care deeply about their employees. They know that despite the critical role that performance numbers play, the way to achieve results is through their employees. It is obvious when a leader truly cares—caring, effective leaders are constantly asking, “What can I do to make this agency better?”

In the case of suicide prevention, leaders can start making changes in their agencies by establishing local or regional peer support teams. Studies show officers will reach out to fellow officers before they will reach out to other professionals. Train the entire workforce on the signs and symptoms of someone who is in psychological distress and possibly considering suicide. Highlight solutions to destigmatize rather than focus on the problem of stigma. Write policies to ensure officers can return to work if they need to take some time to address a psychological issue. Write policies that address how the department will handle officer deaths, including instances of suicide. Make sure the officers are aware of the policies; if possible, have the officers help write them. Work with them in an inclusive manner on their health and wellness and emphasize the importance of self-care.

Open Dialogue: The most important step in effective suicide prevention is to acknowledge that it is a crisis in law enforcement. Identify those in your agency who might need help and provide them assistance in getting help so the tragedy of suicide is averted. Those whom you help can become the agency’s greatest assets in suicide prevention and officer wellness.

Effective law enforcement suicide prevention matters, not only to the officers, but to their colleagues, families, and the communities they serve. As a leader, it should matter to you as well.

This article was originally published in the August 2020 Issue of the IACP Police Chief Magazine which be downloaded here.