More cops die by suicide than in line of duty, study says

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By JOSHUA VALIQUETTE
Capital News Service

LANSING — A new national study shows that police officers are at higher risk of suicide than any other profession, and Michigan cops are among those most at risk in the country, according to an organization that tracks police suicides.

Blue H.E.L.P,  a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, reported seven suicides by police in Michigan last year. 

Meanwhile, changing attitudes are making it easier for officers to seek help, according to police in several Michigan departments.

There were 228 suicides of law enforcement officers in 2019, which was higher than the 132 killed in the line of duty, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a Virgina nonprofit honoring officers who lose their lives in the line of duty.

New York led the nation with 27 suicides last year, followed by California with 23. 

In 2019, Detroit police officer Rasheen McClain was the only one in Michigan killed in the line of duty, according to Officer Down Memorial Page. He was fatally shot while responding to a domestic violence call.

A study of post traumatic stress disorder reported that officers who experience a threat of death or major harm have the greatest risk for PTSD among U.S. police officers. 

The common symptoms of PTSD can be severe anxiety, loss of sleep and emotional detachment, according to a study by Karen Lansing, a California psychotherapist and expert in traumatic stress.

Suicide is often a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD, which stems from constant exposure to death and destruction, said a study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

On any day, a standard police call can turn into a close brush with death, says Big Rapids police Sgt. Liz West.

She recalled one experience in 2016 when a man attacked her and her partner while they followed up on a complaint. 

While opening the door of the man’s apartment, he shot an arrow that missed West by inches, she said. Her partner tried to detain the suspect while he tried to gouge her eyes out. 

They didn’t know at the time that the suspect also carried a large hunting knife. 

For years after the event, even the idea of going back to the same apartment complex bothered her.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said.

The department sent her and her partner to therapists trained in treating first responders and encouraged them to take time off to recover.

“Cops don’t talk about their feelings,” West said, although she said she believes that stigma is changing.

Lt. Joseph Steffes of the Wyoming Police Department said there was an “attitude change” in his department when its management changed in 2005. 

Dealing with the stresses of the job went from “hey, we had a tough night last night. Let’s go to the bars” to “you are a friend of mine. I just wanted to make sure you’re good,” Steffes said 

Treating an officer’s mind is just as important as caring for physical safety because their risk of suicide is higher than dying in the line of fire, according to Officer Down Memorial Page. 

Allowing officers to seek help anonymously is important in helping them take the first steps to getting necessary care, said Mike Kohler,the chief of police in Ishpeming Township and a retired detective lieutenant in the Marquette Police Department.

For example, the Marquette department provides a phone number so its officers can make confidential  appointments for mental health help, he said. 

“One of the hardest things to do is “admitting to weakness internally, Kohler said.”