PTSD: The Hidden Killer of Law Enforcement
By William Peppard

Any time a law enforcement officer is killed in the line of duty is a cause for sorrow. Police agencies are traumatized with the death of one of their own. There is nothing sadder than attending a police funeral, however there are other dangers that lie in wait for officers that are just as terrible, but are never discussed in the open.

One of the most lethal is the threat of suicide in law enforcement.

How lethal? Studies place the rate of police suicides at anywhere between 125 and 150 per year, or about 17 suicides per 100,000 officers. According to the “Badge of Life” website, this rate is three times the number of officers who are killed by criminals each year, and double those killed in traffic crashes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that law enforcement officers are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

According to “Law Officer Magazine,” during 2017, a high number of suicides continued to plague the law enforcement community. As of the year’s end, a raw number of 102 self-inflicted deaths have been identified. Research shows some critical data, such as every 17 hours a law enforcement officer commits suicide. Also, that 75 % of officers have been divorced and well over 40% of first responders are involved in domestic violence. Based on recent statistics, the average age for a police suicide was 42 years old, and the time on the job averaged 16 years.

In fact, the suicide rate for officers is still as high as or higher than the number of officers killed in the line of duty each year. So, while the rate is not as high as is often reported, it is nonetheless significant when you compare it to line of duty deaths. So significant, in fact, that police suicide has been labeled “the other line of duty death.”

For first responders, a direct effect on their souls is what they observe and feel while on the job. This leads to an emotional toll from the impact of seeing the human condition at its worst. Not every call ends when the paperwork is filed. In truth, those issues may only be symptoms of a bigger problem: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

WebMD defines Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, as a severe condition that can occur after an individual has experienced traumatic events in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened. PTSD is a long-term effect of trauma that induces intense fear, helplessness or horror.

Any law enforcement career is perfect environment that can produce PTSD for many officers, because of the long hours of shift work, fatigue, stress and health issues, and not at all least, the trauma and tragedy that many officers are exposed to. From all that, it is easy to understand how PTSD is related to higher suicide rates among officers.

Living through a traumatic event is hard enough for an officer; admitting that you are having problems related to that event is even harder. PTSD is far more rampant in law enforcement than anyone is really willing to discuss. An IACP study on suicide called “Breaking the Silence” showed that the symptoms of PTSD exist in approximately 85 percent of all first responders. Also, recent research indicates that 1/3 of active-duty and retired officers suffer from post-traumatic stress, which comes out to an estimated 150,000 officers.

Our law enforcement leadership can no longer ignore the silent suffering of officers with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD can no longer be a shameful secret in the police culture, because it is an established reality. The effects of PTSD must be openly recognized and discussed throughout all of law enforcement. Preventing suicide in law enforcement is every leader and every officer’s responsibility.

Even if the first step is achieved and leaders recognize that there is a critical problem, then the challenge becomes finding an effective solution to the problem. One path which will be difficult for both officers and supervisors is to implement the significance of having confidential and professional help for law enforcement, where the focus needs to be on our agencies to encourage officers to take advantage of mental health professional services for routine and voluntary mental health checks. Voluntary is key, otherwise officers who are mandated without cause to see a departmental specialist or participate in the employee assistance program will be suspicious that any discussion or admittance of stress, depression, or anxiety will find its way to the agency’s leadership and result in negative action.

Strongly encouraging personnel through positive peer influence and possibly even compensating them to safely see a private professional outside the department overcomes that problem and can be the way to achieving a healthy and productive career. Leadership should see this as a positive benefit to both the individual and the agency. This practice will allow a safe environment for personnel to discuss, vent, explore and resolve issues that may have developed because of the job. This positive interaction between officer and counselor allows for issues and stressors to be identified and together along with friends and families, to seek and learn healthy coping mechanisms.

Law enforcement is a demanding, often stressful career on both the officer and his or her family. Every day, these men and women are exposed to the worst components of society, and in these situations they are called upon to make critical, even deadly decisions in seconds where there is no room for error. Despite leaders knowing about these stressors, law enforcement mental health is an often-overlooked component of officer safety and wellness that needs to be changed.

William Peppard has over 20 years experience with the police and the military. He’s had multiple deployments including Haiti as a Peacekeeper, and Iraq as a Reserve Investigator with NCIS. He is an adjunct professor who holds a Masters in Management and Administration, and is currently an MBA Candidate in Project Management. He is a detective with the Bergen County Sheriff’s Professional Standards Unit, and an Air National Guard Sergeant assigned to Emergency Management & CBRNE.