The California Highway Patrol will begin training officers this month in suicide awareness and prevention after a rash of officer deaths.
Fifteen state troopers have killed themselves since September 2003, according to Public Information Officer Fran Clayder.
None of the officers who committed suicide in that time were local, according to Public Information Officer Steve Skeen, but he said that suicide among law enforcement officials is a problem not only across California, but across the entire country.
“We don’t really talk about it too much,” Skeen said. “It’s very sensitive.”
The National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation has reported an average of 450 law-enforcement suicides in each of the last three years, compared with about 150 officers who died annually in the line of duty, according to Robert Douglas, the foundation’s executive director.
Douglas, who was a police officer for 25 years and came close to suicide himself, said the California Highway Patrol has a higher suicide rate than other law enforcement agencies across the country and the state.
“We have created 673,000 officers across the nation that are tremendous warriors, but we have failed in the respect of showing them how to make the transition everyday from the street to the home,” Douglas said. “We have one of the highest divorce rates of all professions. We have twice the instances of domestic violence of the general population and we have the highest alcohol and drug abuse rates of all professions.”
Law enforcement officials attribute depression, divorce and suicide rates to lifestyle.
“An officer is supposed to be in control, a problem-solver and is called on to deal quickly with society’s biggest problems. It becomes difficult in off-duty times to decompress,” said Truckee Police Lt. Randy Fenn.
The Truckee Police Department does not have a suicide awareness program, but officers do have access to a chaplain who helps officers cope with instances of trauma and stress. The Nevada County Sheriff’s Department and the Placer County Sheriff’s Department have similar chaplain programs.
“There is a romantic perception of being a cop, but then you go out and do the job and realize that there are a lot of tough decisions. You see the depths of human depravity. You see children being abused. You see people dying alone. You can’t always process all of it.”
The CHP’s suicide awareness and prevention program will include elements of education, awareness, intervention and post-crisis care passed from officer to officer through peer training, according to Chief Mona Prieto.
“We are trying to take a holistic approach ” signs and symptoms, recognizing depression and stress, knowing resources,” Prieto said. “It’s through a state mental health program with psychologists, marriage and family counselors, and others. There is a lot to it.”
The program will also address issues on the homefront, which Douglas said are the most likely suicide triggers.
“I’ve known a lot of officers, including myself, who get home and don’t want to deal with any problems or make decisions at all, and that doesn’t work,” said Lt. Fenn. “Your spouse wants to know what happened today, and a lot might have happened, but you don’t want to talk about any of it. You can’t even digest everything yourself.”
Locally, training will begin with front-line troopers within weeks, Prieto said, and eventually all CHP personnel from dispatch to command will hear the message.
“If we do it correctly, we should see a definite reduction in the number of suicides,” Douglas said.