A finalized report of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund website shows a total of 129 police officer fatalities in 2012. Of these, 52 are specified as “traffic-related”. This is in contrast to 49 officer deaths specified as “firearms-related”. The remaining 28 officer deaths are attributed to “other causes.” This is a reported decline of 22% compared to 2011, when 165 officers died in the line of duty (72 firearms-related, 60 traffic-related, 33 other causes).
These fatalities are representative of the primary danger of policing. The primary danger of policing is comprised of the inherent risks of the job, such as working in motor vehicle traffic, confronting violent persons, and exposure to traumatic incidents.
Sadly, there is an insidious and lesser known secondary danger in policing. This danger is often… unspecified and seldom discussed. It is an artifact of the police culture and is frequently reinforced by police officers themselves. It is the idea that equates “asking for help” with “personal and professional weakness”, and in one sense, is truly the number one killer of police officers.
Secondary danger has been implicated in perhaps the most startling of all police fatality statistics, the frequency of police officer suicide. The National Study of Police Suicides (NSOPS) reported that 126 police officers killed themselves in 2012. As tragic as this is, it represents the first decline in police officer suicides since the study began in 2008. By comparison, in 2011, 146 officer suicides were recorded.
Badge of Life, a website dedicated to the prevention of police officer suicide and a supporter of the NSOPS study explained “…for the first time, police agencies are beginning to acknowledge that police suicides can be the result of job-incurred emotional injury, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We attribute the decrease (in police suicides in 2012) to three main causes: the reduction of stigma towards suicide, the increasing spread of peer support programs among departments, and the increased willingness of officers to seek out professional assistance (therapy) not only when they “need it,” but before they need it.”
There is a current initiative in policing to reduce officer line-of-duty deaths to less than 100 per year. There are numerous strategies aimed at achieving this. While the “Below 100” initiative is essential, it is not enough. To act comprehensively, law enforcement agencies must also initiate and maintain programs aimed at reducing the number of job-related police suicides.
Such programs should include efforts to (1) educate officers in stress management, stress inoculation, PTSD, and the warning signs of suicide, (2) engage more pre-emptive, early-warning, and periodic officer support interventions, (3) initiate incident-specific protocols to support officers and their families when officers are involved in critical incidents, (4) create properly trained and clinically supervised peer support teams, (5) provide easy and confidential access to specialized psychological support services, and (6) work to enhance the agency organizational climate so that officers are encouraged to ask for help when experiencing psychological or emotional difficulties instead of keeping and acting out a deadly secret.
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