Each time a police officer takes his or her own life, the question of whether police are at higher risk for suicide than the general population rears its head. A new study released earlier this year by researchers at the University of Buffalo-State University New York found that police are eight times more likely to commit suicide than to be murdered on the job, and three times more likely to kill themselves than die in job-related accidents.
The study, which researchers say is the first to compare police officers’ risk to other municipal employees, is also described as one of the few empirical analyses of officers’ risk of suicide, homicide and accidental death.
It analyzed the deaths between 1950 and 1991 of 138 white males 39 police officers and 99 other municipal workers. All of the deaths were caused by external factors unrelated to disease. A further analysis by a panel of medical examiners who verified the causes of death found that 25 of the police deaths were caused by suicide, three were homicides, six were accidents, and five were classified as undetermined.
By comparison, 13 of the 99 municipal worker deaths were considered suicides, four were the result of homicide, 77 were accidents and five were unclassified.
The study’s lead author, John Violanti, who served 23 years with the New York State Police and is now an assistant clinical professor of social and preventive medicine at Buffalo, found that police commit suicide at a rate of up to 53 percent higher than other city workers.
There are a variety of reasons for the higher risk of suicide among police, said Violanti, including access to firearms, continuous exposure to human misery, shift work, drinking problems, marital stress and a lack of control over their jobs and daily lives.
Police also fear getting help, said Violanti, because they do not trust counseling services offered by their departments. They are viewed as not being confidential, he said, and police fear that a trip to the counselor will result in a ruined career.
There is also denial on the part of police agencies, said Violanti, that prevents the establishment of prevention programs. “Middle management is probably a key place to train sergeants, lieutenants and captains about how to recognize this problem,” he said.
He noted that suicide among the New York City Police Department which hit 12 officers in 1994 fell drastically following the implementation of a suicide-awareness course.
That did not stop Officer Francis Vasile, 26, from fatally shooting herself Jan. 11 at the City Island home she shared with her boyfriend, another New York police officer.
Nor is New York City alone when it comes to grappling with police self-destruction. Among incidents in other jurisdictions:
¶ In September, authorities in Kaufman County, Texas, found the body of Alfred J. Hurtado, 41, a former deputy in the reserve unit of the county sheriff’s department. A handgun was found beside the body, which had what looked like a bullet wound to the head.
¶ An Oklahoma City police sergeant, Terrance Yeakey, was found dead in May, an apparent suicide. Yeakey was up for a medal of valor last year for rescuing people from the bombing of the Federal Building.