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What’s killing America’s cops?
         Mostly themselves, according to a new study

Police are eight times more likely to commit suicide than to be killed in a homicide, and are three times more likely to commit suicide than to die in job-related accidents, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Buffalo-State University of New York, which is said to be one of the few empirical analyses of police officers’ risk of suicide, homicide and accidental death.

The study, which researchers say is also the first to compare police officers’ suicide risk to that of other municipal employees, found that police commit suicide at a rate up to 53 percent higher than other city workers, according to the study’s lead author, John Violanti, a 23-year veteran of the New York State Police who is now an assistant clinical professor of social and preventive medicine at the university.

Supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, the study analyzed the deaths of Buffalo police officers and those of other city workers caused by external factors unrelated to disease between 1950 and 1991. The researchers looked at 138 deaths, all of them involving white males, including those of 39 police officers and 99 other municipal workers.

An analysis by a panel of medical examiners who verified the causes of death found that 25 of the police deaths were attributed to suicide, three to homicide, six to accidents, and five were classified as undetermined. In comparison, 13 of the 99 other municipal-worker deaths were labeled suicides, four were the result of homicides, 77 were from accidents and five were classified as undetermined.

The panel later reclassified the deaths of four police officers and one municipal worker from “undetermined” to suicide, underscoring the belief that police are in a state of denial about the extent of the deadly problem, Violanti told Law Enforcement News.

The study said that police are at higher risk for committing suicide for a variety of reasons, including access to firearms, continuous exposure to human misery, shift work, social strain and marital difficulties, drinking problems, physical illness, impending retirement, and lack of control over their jobs and personal lives.

 “There’s a very strong denial in policing that this is even a problem,” Violanti said. “Suicide accounts for about 1 percent of deaths in the United States, and I think it’s a little higher in police work. Because there are so few, police departments think that since they happen once in a while, it’s really not a problem. But when you look at the risk factors, do risk-ratios between police and other occupations and compare them to other causes of death, you see that there is an increased risk. That denial needs to be broken through.”

Police officers often erect roadblocks to getting help because they fear being placed on limited duty or being labeled “psychos” by colleagues, Violanti noted. Services offered by departments “are not trusted. They’re looked at as not being confidential and cops are afraid to go to them because they’re afraid their careers will be ruined…. They won’t go, and because they won’t go, they don’t get help.”

Most of the victims of police suicides whose deaths have been analyzed in previous studies never sought help, he added.

Violanti said the denial of the problem “runs right through an entire organization” preventing the establishment of awareness and prevention programs. “Middle management is probably a key place to train sergeants, lieutenants and captains about how to recognize this problem,” he said.

A stress-management program needs to be a key part of any effort to prevent police suicides, Violanti added. He noted that the suicide rate among New York City police officers, 12 of whom took their own lives in 1994, fell drastically following the implementation of a suicide-awareness course. “The suicide risk went down after training, and officers were better able to recognize signs of suicide, not only in themselves but in fellow officers.”

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Nov. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.