Suicides by police on the rise — (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

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The Las Vegas Review-Journal

Shaun McKinnon

20 February 1994

1. Las Vegas police officers serve as pall bearers at the funeral of Detective Ted Veach, who was buried Feb. 12 with full military honors. Veach shot himself a day after he was awarded a pin commemorating 30 years of service.

2. Police officers, black bands crossing their badges, stand at attention during this month’s funeral for Las Vegas Detective Ted Veach. He was the third current or former officer to kill himself in as many months.  Officers struggle to deal with the pressures of the job and its effect at home _ and many just give up.  Detective Ted Veach was buried with full military honors Feb. 12, four days after he received a pin commemorating his 30 years of service with the Metropolitan Police Department and three days after he walked into the bedroom of his South Nellis Boulevard home and shot himself.

Stricken colleagues used the days before the funeral to wonder why a man they knew as stable, loyal, hard-working and uncomplaining would end his own life.  Was it his physical health? He was battling back from a heart attack and had suffered other ailments in recent months.

Was the depression only a few close associates knew about worse than he let on? He had reportedly begun taking the anti-depressant drug Prozac. Or, most unsettling of all, had the law enforcement profession claimed another victim?

The strain was evident on the faces of the dozens of police officers who attended Veach’s funeral, from Sheriff John Moran down to the uniformed traffic cops. A few jumped nervously as shots from the 21-gun salute echoed across the sunny afternoon. Many fought back tears as a bugler played “Taps.” More than one lost the battle when a kilted bagpipe player put a coda on the day with “Amazing Grace.”

“There are a lot of other candidates (for suicide) in the department,” one high-ranking police official said sadly as mourners trudged away from the grave. “This is a high-pressure job. Most people don’t realize how high pressure.”

It’s something few within the ranks of any police department will talk about freely and no official statistics are kept, but suicide among law enforcement officers is thought to be more common than in the population at large. Some studies suggest the numbers are increasing nationwide.

Three former or current Las Vegas police officers have killed themselves within as many months:

Scott Michael Jackson, 25, who was graduated from the police academy in June 1991, shot himself Nov. 11, eight months after resigning from the force amid charges,  dropped in exchange for his badge, of attempted murder and battery. He was later arrested in connection with the kidnapping of his wife’s 18-month-old baby from an in-law in Oklahoma.

Sgt. Michael McKim, 47, shot himself less than a week later, the day he was placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal probe of allegations he embezzled thousands of dollars from an evidence vault to cover gambling debts.

Veach, 54, the one of the trio who, on the outside, appeared to battle the fewest demons and the one who may be most emblematic of a troubling climb in police suicides around the country.

“There’s something about the job,” said Lt. Carl Fruge, the department’s spokesman, “something about dealing with other people’s emotional distress all day long. When you’re in these situations, people don’t recognize you’re a human being; they recognize you as authority.”

Few hard numbers about police suicides exist, but those that do are telling: In New York City, at least 63 officers on a force of 30,000 have taken their own lives, 31 percent higher than the general population. Last year, eight officers killed themselves _ double the overall rate. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates police officers have a life span eight to 11 years shorter than the average.

Harley Stock, a former police psychologist and a certified SWAT-team member and hostage negotiator, operates a treatment center in Boca Raton, Fla., for police officers in jeopardy of buckling under the pressure. Typically, he said, the cop who commits suicide is a male, white, 35, working patrol, abusing alcohol, separated or seeking divorce and may have experienced a recent loss or disappointment.

Alcohol, Stock said, is the most common thread in police suicides, involved in as many as 90 percent of documented cases.

From there, he said, hard numbers tell a grim story:

“About 10 percent of the general population who drink become alcoholics. Among cops, the figure is 23 percent. The suicide rate among alcoholics in the general population is 270 per 100,000,” compared with 16 per 100,000 overall. “Alcohol at first releases tension but if you drink enough it becomes a depressant. So if you have underlying depression it makes it worse. The suicide rate among people suffering from depression is 230 per 100,000.”

The math is simple.

“What you have,” Stock said in an interview with The Associated Press, “is a psychologically panicking cop full of alcohol, depressed, with access to a weapon. Bad combination. Bad combination.”

John Crank, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has studied the pressures facing the law enforcement profession, and he said he believes alcohol abuse is not necessarily more prevalent _ just more visible.

Alcohol becomes an attractive option in the face of the extreme pressures facing police officers, pressures most people don’t generally understand, Crank said.

“A lot of people think danger is associated with stress,” he said, “but there are other things that are even more incredibly stressful. You get a hot call, then find out it’s bogus. The adrenaline was pumping, there was the expectation … that has a corrosive effect on the system.”

Often it’s the potential for danger, the unpredictability of every call that generates the most stress, he said. “It’s the potential, and the potential doesn’t go away.”

Compounding the stress is a common reluctance by police officers to seek outside help, Crank said.

“On a practical level, when there’s a problem on the street, the officer takes care of it,” he said. Later, when they face personal problems, “they tend to internalize it. They often feel it’s their responsibility to work it out for themselves. They tend to hold it inside and it poisons them.”

Officers also must deal with hostile situations almost daily, situations that can become dehumanizing over time.

“Think about how policing works,” Crank said. “Police respond to a call, and when they show up chances are there’s going to be someone not happy to see them there. There is a sense of tension. The police officer is expected to be the problem solver.

“There’s no way an officer can not get emotionally engaged. They may control it _ they’re taught to control it _ but inside they’re churning. They get called to a violent crime, they may have a genuine mess, and they’re expected to be calm and deal with it in a professional way. That’s an unrealistic expectation.”

In an attempt to help police officers deal with the pressures of their job, the Metropolitan Police Department offers help through the Police Employees Assistance Program, established 10 years ago by Moran. Two officers _ Lt. Ed Jensen and Sgt. Chris Hoye _ have undergone training in peer counseling and are available to any department employee under nearly any circumstance.

“We really are a sounding board,” Jensen said last week. “Some of these macho cops have trouble letting down. It helps to have another cop there to talk to. We help with the emotional side of being a cop, the emotional side of being a human being, really.”

The program is strictly voluntary, except in cases of officer-involved shootings when Jensen or Hoye meet with the officer and refer him or her to a psychologist for additional counseling. Jensen said before the program was established, as many as three out of every five officers involved in a shooting would quit the force.

“Since then, only one has quit because of a shooting,” he said. “If we can help just one officer in that kind of situation, then we’ve paid for ourselves.”

Jensen and Hoye have dealt with the gamut of problems: marriage, divorce, parent-child conflicts, alcohol and drug abuse, and trouble with prescription drugs.

But sometimes troubled officers slip through the cracks, red flags go unnoticed, which Jensen said is unavoidable.

“This is totally voluntary,” he said. “We can’t make anyone come to us.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.