Brake Lights Halfway to Eternity: Officer Suicide

Posted by Dr. Dorothy McCoy on November 7, 2013 at 12:40 AM



 Brake Lights Halfway to Eternity: Officer Suicide

What to do…

Brake Lights Halfway to Eternity: Officer Suicide

Law Enforcement Today Article

November 4, 2013 in Featured, Mental Health, Posts by dr. dorothy mccoy

I have been following the research in officer suicide since 2006, when I was a Lead Instructor at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. I am convinced that we can significantly reduce the number of officers lost each year.

The death of an officer is a personal tragedy that ripples throughout the entire community. Suicide comes as a jolting shock to everyone touched by the tragedy. The individuals left behind are deeply wounded. The officer suicide rate is a national tragedy. We can work together to find effective solutions. We can offer our officers reasonable options to their concerns. We can offer our unwavering support.

If you would like to be a powerful advocate for officers at risk, learn more about the resources offered by your agency or organization and the options available. We can reduce the occurrence of officer suicide by understanding the underlying factors and by influencing those factors. PTSD and other stress related disorders can be treated.

Alcohol use can be targeted. Supportive services can be provided for troubled officers and their families. Communication throughout the agency can be optimized. Members of the law enforcement community can be educated to recognize and initiate aggressive action against suicide. Suicide and its underlying factors are our enemies and we must be willing to take a courageous and steadfast position.

We labor diligently to decrease crime and officer shootings, yet our ability to control these events is appallingly limited. Suicide, similar to patrol car accidents, is more amendable if we acknowledge the dire necessity for change and begin the arduous task of making those requisite changes.

Brake Lights Midway to Eternity

A former law enforcement officer turned publisher told a story that was so profound in its implication that it shook me. He said, “There are some very high bluffs overlooking Dana Point Harbor and the Pacific Ocean…I have been called to many suicides on those bluffs…the last one drove off. Witnesses saw his brake lights come on halfway down.” What were the driver’s desperate thoughts at that moment? How many suicide victims would have “applied the brakes” if it had not been too late?

A study in 2002 indicated that suicide remorse may be higher than we might have imagined. Nearly 90 percent of people who ask their doctors for assisted suicide later change their minds. Remember, these patients are seriously ill and in severe pain. If they choose life when given the opportunity, how many officers who committed suicide would have chosen differently if they had been given another chance?

My goal is to provide troubled officers a chance to choose life before they commit to death. You can contribute to reaching this goal by educating yourself and your associates and becoming an active advocate for comprehensive stress management resources.

US LEO Suicide Rates

Do you realize that suicide among law enforcement officers and emergency workers is quite similar to the number killed in the line-of- duty? Why are the good guys and gals killing themselves, rather than pursuing suspects?

The National Police Suicide Foundation (NPSF) suggests that high stress levels and a lack of information about signs, symptoms and prevention techniques of suicide are the major contributors. It appears that education is an easy and inexpensive way to deter suicide. According to Violanti (2007), to confound estimating the approximate number of officer suicides, it is believed that an unknown number of police suicides are routinely misclassified as accidents.

It is important to understand the depth and breadth of the problem facing law enforcement. Michael Aamodt (2006), states,

“Law enforcement suicide rates were computed and compared to suicide rates in the general population. The best estimate of suicide in the law enforcement profession is 18.1 per 100,000. This figure is 52% greater than that of the general population but 26% lower than that of the appropriate comparison group (white males between the ages of 25 and 55). Thus, the notion that suicide rates are abnormally high in law enforcement was not supported by the data (

I discussed the same conclusion at a conference for the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology in 2006. Dr. Aamodt is also a member of the Society and a respected researcher. However, let’s consider this dissimilarity between the groups; officers are normally thoroughly vetted by their departments before they are hired. Members of the general population are not.

Real Officers: Lost Lives

The New York Post reported a police suicide on September 2, 2003. According to the article, it appears that a 39 year-old Bronx officer, an 11 year veteran, used his 9 mm service weapon to kill himself after a disagreement with his girlfriend (also an officer). He was the father of three children; the youngest was 10 months old.

This is only one heartbreaking story of the many in the New York area. Multiply this incident by 126 (the estimated number of officers who committed suicide in the US in 2012) and you will have some indication of the enormity of this threat to law enforcement.

In October of 2003, a 61-year-old Houston Detective came to work as usual and went to his desk in the Homicide Division. According to the Houston Medical Examiner’s office, after sitting down he pulled out his service revolver and put a bullet in his head. Co-workers were absolutely stunned when this popular detective took his life. It was unusually quiet in the Homicide Division as fellow detectives struggled to accept and understand the tragedy.

Why had Detective X taken his life? A chaplain, who had known Detective X for more than 20 years said, “There’s going to be an overwhelming number of people very shocked and in disbelief about it” (The Houston Chronicle, 11-1-03). According to friends, he had suffered several losses in the last few years of his life. He was recently divorced, his children moved away from home and his dog died. It is not unusual for suicide to be the aftereffect of several distressing incidents or losses rather than one catastrophic event. Police suicide wears many faces, although commonalities exist. Depression, overwhelming stress, trauma, family issues, criminal or civil charges, department discipline and alcohol are frequently antecedents.

The Instrument

The most frequently used instrument of suicide is the officer’s service firearm. It is there. It is lethal. It is familiar. In San Bernardino County, California, a young police officer shot himself and his 26 year-old wife. They left behind two small children. The article doesn’t tell us “why” this tragedy happened. However, we can make some educated guesses. Unresolved critical stress almost certainly played a significant part. Perhaps, anger flared beyond normal limits. We will never know why these two young parents died.

We can work to stop the dying by enlightening officers and their supervisors about the causes and symptoms of police suicide. A spokesman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office was quoted in the LA Times saying, “I don’t know if we’ll know why it happened, and it’s a shock and surprise to all of us.” Does that mean there were no warning signs before this officer put his gun to his head and pulled the trigger? Not necessarily. It might mean that no one correctly interpreted the warning signs and took appropriate action.

If we all work together we can reduce the officer suicide rate. Though the rate has gone down slightly since 2008, it is still a stain on law enforcement and it questions our ability to take care of our own. That is not acceptable.



Badge of Life

The Department of Justice


Hotline number: 1–800–267–5463

This is a national hotline exclusively for law enforcement officers and their families. It is staffed by retired officers and a therapist with law enforcement experience to help active officers with the psychosocial stressors they face at work. The website also has some resources on officer suicide.

In Harm’s Way: Law Enforcement Suicide Prevention

In Harm’s Way offers training seminars and workshops on suicide prevention, including an eight-hour train-the-trainers program that provides a comprehensive approach to stress management and suicide prevention for law enforcement professionals. The website contains numerous resources, including a toolkit to help provide suicide prevention training.

Law Enforcement Wallet Card

By Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) (2008)

This wallet-sized card contains some of the warning signs for suicide and some basic steps that officers can take if they think a fellow officer is considering suicide.

National Police Suicide Foundation

This organization provides several different kinds of training programs on suicide awareness and prevention as well as support services that meet the psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs of law enforcement officers and their families.

Police Suicide Law Enforcement Mental Health Alliance

This network of groups and individuals promotes education and advocacy for new research and mental health strategies for police officers. The website provides access to a large number of written materials on police suicide and mental health.

Dr. McCoy is a psychotherapist, master instructor, published author and consultant (personality and training). She is a former South Carolina. State Constable and worked at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, where she researched, created and implemented the Master Instructor Program. She also taught in the South Carolina Leadership Institute. Her most recent law enforcement manual on retraining emotions, is in the hands of a publisher. Dr. McCoy also volunteered in the Cold Case Squad at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. Reach Dr. McCoy via





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