Aamodt & Stalnaker, Police Suicides, and Cats in a Tree
Badge of Life
As a kid, I remember the puzzle pictures of trees
or landscapes that would challenge us to see how many hidden cats or other animals we could find. At first, we would see a couple of the more obvious, but the rest would escape us. It was only by looking and looking that we would begin to see the heretofore hidden images of what we could not
see before. Each time, we were surprised to realize that they had all been right there
before our eyes from the beginning.
So it is, sometimes, in research. For almost four years, now, our organization has been struggling with the perplexing question of, “Can
the stresses and traumas of police work lead to an officer’s suicide?” To
us, it’s an idiotic question to have to deal with, as it is to most clinicians familiar with the diagnostic criteria
for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the relationship of depression to PTSD and the dynamics of suicide. The terrors and horrors to which so many officers are subjected, daily, for 20 and 30 years are such fertile
turf for trauma in the healthiest of officers that the answer should be obvious.
But it’s not obvious—not to organizations
like the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Law Enforcement
Memorial Fund, police departments and far too many who claim to be in the “police suicide prevention” and peer
support field. To listen to these groups, it may be possible enough for an officer
to experience “stress.” Additionally, they will admit, an officer just
might even “catch PTSD” on the job. Is it possible, however, for that PTSD
to lead to suicide? Never! Police suicides,
they will tell you, are caused by mean wives, by overcharging one’s credit cards, or simply by being a “bad officer.”
If none of these apply, it’s just a shock and a mystery to be forgotten—as
quickly as possible.
One is forced to ask, if no suicides are
caused by police work, why police departments have suicide prevention programs!
We tracked almost 300 police suicides in the
United States during 2008/2009. Not a single one was attributed by a department to PTSD or the stress/trauma of the job. Wives were blamed, misbehaviors were blamed and “Gosh-no-one-knows” became a
An officer who dies falling from a ladder while
changing a light bulb in the station receives a motorcade, a full-honors funeral and his name inscribed on the wall of heroes. On the other hand, the officer who has been nearly killed, horrifically traumatized by a
near-death experience(s) or some other dark and ghastly event(s) will be shamed for finally succumbing to the PTSD that resulted
from those events, will be buried in near secret, and then forgotten. On Police Memorial
Day, his wife and children will be allowed d to watch from outside the gate as the first officer is honored.
So what does this have to with a childhood
puzzle and finding cats in a tree?
Table 9 is the last set of data included in the
famous Aamodt-Stalnaker study of police suicides in 1999. This is a study some love and others love to hate. Some use it to argue
that police suicides are high; others that police suicides are low. One of the flaws in the
study was a major gaffe in the interpretation of data that led the researchers to conclude that the police suicide rate for
officers age 25 - 54 is lower than a comparable group of white males in the general populace (they totally overlooked
the fact that officers begin at the starting line certified as "healthy" by psychological screening, whereas the general populace
is not and includes the criminally insane, mentally ill, and a wide sampling of others).
Nonetheless, data is data and, while theirs was not the best, some parts were sound and did
reveal some things worthy of note. Herein lies the rub.
people have stopped to dwell on the very end of the study, where sits the very lonely Table 9—“The Reasons
for Police Suicides.” Perhaps this is because (as always) “relationships”
are given as the leading cause of police suicides (the “family argument the night before,” the wicked spouse who
left the loving officer). “Legal Problems” are given next, although no
one knows what that means—if they are problems in the course of employment or criminal activity or a dispute with the
as many times as I have looked at this puzzle tree of Table 9 for the cats, I’ve missed something very obvious—that
if there is any value to the Aamodt-Stalnaker report, it is not about the rate of police suicides or whether that rate
is high or low. Not at all.
the Aamodt-Stalnaker study clearly shows is what many police departments continue to ignore--that 11 to 31 percent of police
suicides are directly attributable to stress related police work.
TABLE 9. Reasons for Police Suicides
| Excerpted data from Table 9, Aamodt Stalnakers Police Officer Suicide, Frequency and officer pr
Of the 398 officers included in Table 9, the difference
of 11 and 31 percent (16 or 45 officers) lies in the definition of “legal problems.” The knee-jerk reaction is to assume that “legal problems” means “bad cop,” but
the heroic Lieutenant Michael Pigott of NYPD, who was driven to suicide by his own department’s threats of legal ruin,
would be the first to argue with that. Even with this category eliminated, however,
we have a significant percentage of officers who died of line of duty emotional trauma which resulted in suicide.
Since our 2008 - 2012 national study of police suicides (the National Surveillance of Police Suicides, or NSOPS),
Badge of Life has estimated the percentage of line of duty police suicides to be in the range of 20-25 percent of the total
suicides among officers. The Aamodt study suggests this is not an unreasonable
The sad fact remains, however, that until police
leaders awaken to the fact that this line of work is toxic, emotionally, and that they must be proactive in their emotional
self care training—instead of continuing archaic suicide prevention programs that rely on waiting until an officer is
“in trouble” to do anything—the macabre dance will continue. Until
a police chief, somewhere, is willing to recognize that his officer has died a line of duty death and shows the courage to
speak the truth (laws and regulations and stigma to the contrary), these facts will continue to be ignored.
Police chiefs continue to ignore the emotional well
being of their officers. For more, and for the alternatives, visit Badge of Life
are, of course, the feeble excuses used repeatedly for ignoring the problem, and we should include them.
1. We can’t
afford the expense to honor them. (Honor and doing the right thing have something
to do with money?)
2. They “chose” to take their own lives—“by
their own hands.” (Hardly—they were under the grips of a terrible
traumatic disorder that rendered them incapable of such a rational choice.)
3. “We hadda program and they didn’t take advantage
of it.” (Yes, you “hadda program.” You told them about stress for a couple of hours in the academy, taught them the “signs of suicide”
to watch for in others, and told them you were there to help if they “needed help.” Otherwise, you ignored them and let the years of horrors eat at them.
When the suicides happened, you never saw them coming.
4. Money, image, ego and ignorance,
you see, will win over honor and right every time.
will have the courage to stand for these fallen heroes?
|Visit Badge of Life