A Police Officers Perspective of Law Enforcement Suicide Prevention in Massachusetts by Mark St.Hilaire

PHOTO police cruiser blue lights images

On Tuesday April 2, 2013, I was invited by Riverside Trauma Center to participate on a Public Safety Panel Discussion at the 2013 Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference in Framingham, Massachusetts.  The Conference is hosted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Suicide Prevention Program and various other Social Service Providers and Veterans Support Programs.

I was honored join this panel with:

Springfield Fire Department Captain Stan Skarzynski, Director of Training who discussed the Firefighters and E.M.S. perspective.

Middlesex Sheriff Office Deputy Paul Meehan, Coordinator of their Employee Peer program from a Corrections perspective.

I discussed Law Enforcement view of perspective.

We discussed what the issues, roadblocks and the future of suicide awareness in public safety professions in Massachusetts.

Clinicians Sarah Gaer and Larry Berkowitz of Riverside Trauma  Center who are currently working with the Springfield, Mass. Fire Department on Suicide Awareness Prevention Education Program made a presentation of the mental health issues facing public safety professionals.  They were the facilitators for the panel and the 65+ participants atteding the workshop. 

Due to the limited speaking time, the following are my comments I presented:

The 2013 Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference

Public Safety Panel Discussion

Suicides from the Law Enforcement Perspective

By Natick Police Sgt. Mark St.Hilaire

I want to first thank Larry Berkowitz and Sarah Gaer for asking me to sit on this panel today representing law enforcement officers here in Massachusetts to discuss this difficult and emotional subject.  I am humbled to be asked to participate.

I am honored to sit on this panel today with Stan and Paul as members of Public Safety agencies and representing our professions where thousands of men and women stand ready around the clock to serve our citizens and visitors to the Commonwealth.

I am very grateful to everyone in this audience today who is attending this workshop.  I hope to briefly share my experience and observations as a police officer over the past 28 years on the subject of law enforcement suicides.

I am grateful that public safety personnel suicides are being recognized. It is a difficult subject to follow statistically, to discuss within our professions, eliminate the fear of stigma, job sanctions and more importantly recognizing and accepting trauma as a line of duty injury in public safety. 

 More Law Enforcement Officers die every year from self-inflicted deaths than in Line of Duty deaths.

I corresponded with Bob Douglas, the founding Director of the Police Suicide Foundation in early March requesting the latest statistics on police suicides in the U.S.

Bob replied: This opportunity to discuss this serious issue of Police Suicide is wonderful!

At the present time THERE IS NO OFFICIAL DATA COLLECTION ON THE ANNUAL RATE OF POLICE RELATED SUICIDES IN THE U.S. 

Bob stated that THERE HAS BEEN RESEARCH DONE OVER THE PAST 25 YEARS WHICH HAS SHOWN THAT POLICE OFFICERS COMMIT SUICIDE ANNUALLY BUT STATISTICALLY, AT WHAT RATE IS NOT OFFICIALLY KNOWN.

SINCE THE ISSUE OF POLICE SUICIDE PREVENTION AT THE PRESENT TIME DOES NOT SEEM TO BE A MAJOR PRIORITY WITHIN OUR LAW ENFORCEMENT LEADERSHIP. THERE IS NO MANDATED TRAINING WITHIN OUR 18,000 LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES IN THE U.S.

In June 2012, Bob Douglas sent a letter to President Obama requesting a DEPARTMENT OF POLICE SUICIDE PREVENTION be established by his Administration.  The Police Suicide Foundation feels this a major OFFICER WELLNESS ISSUE with our Law Enforcement personnel across the U.S.

IT IS THE PROFESSIONAL OPINION OF THE POLICE SUICIDE FOUNDATION THAT A LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER WILL COMMIT SUICIDE EVERY 17-21 HOURS (ONE PER DAY) IN THE U.S.  THE FOUNDATION HAS FORMED THIS OPINION BASED ON THEIR EXPERIENCE TRAVELING ACROSS THE U.S. OVER THE PAST 25 YEARS.

The Police Suicide Foundation is committed to the service of Law Enforcement families and they will continue to do so aggressively and with great passion each day.

Bob Douglas and the Police Suicide Foundation thanks you for this opportunity today.  

The cover of TIME MAGAZINE on July 23, 2012 ONE a DAY which reported about the increase of military suicides.

Since this conference met last year, since May 2012:

4 Law Enforcement Officers have committed suicide in Massachusetts. 

A suicide is more devastating to a to any public safety agency than a Line of Duty death.

Bob Douglas brings up a point about no mandated officer suicide awareness-prevention training across the Law Enforcement community. It’s hit or miss.

Let’s look at training for police officers in Massachusetts today:

Massachusetts General Law mandates that all police officers will attend a minimum of 40 hours in-service training every year.  This was historically hosted at the regional police academies and some larger agencies conducted it in house.

In the last 2 years, the state funding for police officer veteran in-service training has been reduced to an average of $189.00 per police officer.  Vermont spends an average $1,500.00 per officer.  We were ranked 49 out of 50 states.

Guess how much is (estimated) budgeted for FY 2014:    0

So traditionally the 40 hour veteran in-service training have consistently been:

  •        Legal and motor vehicle law updates
  •        Defensive Tactics
  •        C.P.R. and First Responder First Aid
  •        Specialized Crimes

Without the proper funding or a commitment for proper training consistently across Massachusetts. The question is: “where are we going to have the opportunity to discuss the biggest risk in law enforcement today: Suicide through Awareness and Prevention Education?”

So as many agencies are scrambling to either provide some on-line training which is not effective or conducting their own in-service training programs like my department has done for several years.  There is in-consistency.

Suicides may have many factors to which a person may be in such emotional pain that they would decide to end their own life to stop this pain.

As a profession, we know there is a problem with suicides within our ranks.

  •    Some Police Leaders are addressing it. (FEW)
  •     Some Police Leaders don’t know how to address it (MANY)
  •    Some Police Leaders are still living in the dark ages (FEW) 

I believe that many personnel problems today in law enforcement are a result of UNTREATED TRAUMA that many of our personnel witness first hand every day.

We do not have the proper services available statewide to help our personnel address the effects of trauma and other emotional issues facing our law enforcement personnel.

Thank goodness we are very fortunate to have many volunteer C.I.S.M. teams across the state.  Boston Police Peer Unit, the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, for example provide services but there is no consistent sanctioned mandate for first responder agencies to follow.  The Statewide C.I.S.M. Network has a protocol and an established call out system staffed by dedicated volunteers under the supervision of the Fire Marshal and the Department of Fire Services Division.

From my experience working in the law enforcement profession for the past 28 years, untreated trauma along with daily job stress, facing unknown violence which creates a hyper-vigilant officer on and off duty, media and public scrutiny is constantly changing because we as a profession are held to a higher standard.

We are very accountable as a profession and we are constantly questioned about our actions and behavior (on-off duty), we live under a microscope or the fishbowl.

As we have seen in the area of mental health like a lot of traditional services which have been reduced in our communities, when something happens and when all else fails it is the cops, our law enforcement officers who are called.  The police are the first in and the last to leave in many tragic events.  We do the dirty work in our free society.

Putting this all together, policing like the fire services, E.M.S., Corrections professions change people.  We work day in, day out in a negative environment which is challenged every day dealing with untruthful people and witnessing the misery of people in our community.  Add the pressure of the public’s high expectations (There is no room for error) on top of issues mentioned and this gives you an idea of why the public complains about perceived rudeness, gruff and in-sensitive behavior.  This may lead to further problems as our people descend into dysfunctional behavior such as substance abuse (alcohol is glorified as part of our culture).  We decline into committing stupid behavior which creates more problems at home and in the department.

UNTREATED TRAUMA is one of the issues creating the perceived Malcontents and Discipline Problems in our departments.  It speeds up BURNOUT, COMPASSION FATIGUE, UNMOTIVATED PERSONNEL WHICH MAY DECLINE FURTHER INTO SICK TIME ABUSE AND USE OF FORCE ISSUES.

This decline may eventually lead to suicidal thoughts or the act.

Many police suicides are (estimated 90%) committed by a firearm.  

We are observing a scary trend of officers committing suicide while they are on duty.

The major obstacle for law enforcement seeking help is about trust if they seek professional mental health assistance.

  • ·        Fear of job loss
  • ·        Fear of being labeled- the stigma
  • ·        Fear of be penalized professionally-loss of career advancement
  • ·        Fear of losing their own sense of control- being vulnerable
  • ·        Fear of recognizing they have lost their own individual identity as a human being  

We are blessed in Massachusetts to have some professional clinicians who understand the first responder culture and profession.  We have some who understand cops. 

We are blessed with the various volunteer C.I.S.M. teams working across the state which follow the guidelines of the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation which utilizes the Mitchell model.  The Department of Fire Services have been providing most of the funding to help train these volunteer peers.

Boston Police Peer Unit is constantly contacted for assistance and they are seeking more police peer volunteers to help out for service requests across the state.

My vision for providing assistance to Law Enforcement in suicide prevention in Massachusetts:

1.   Educate L.E. Leaders and our Government Officials, Board of Selectmen, Mayors, Town Administrators that first responder trauma is a line of duty injury.  A first responder suicide is a line of duty death.  

2.  Coordinate all Resources: C.I.S.M, Hotlines (Safe Call Now) and provide good wellness and suicide awareness training across the Commonwealth. Don’t penalize the first responder when they need help. We need to educate our Cops: From the Recruitment stage through retirement.  In the recruit training and veteran in-service.

  •         AWARENESS: Prevention-Intervention Education
  •         RECOGNIZE: Refer our peers to get the professional help without penalty or stigma.
  •        AFTERCARE: Counseling services without the stigma or penalties.

 

Develop an expectation mind set: This may happen to you, how you can get assistance and this is part of job and our work culture.  This is our new sense of normal,

3.   Support and pass House Bill 2205 and Senate Bill 834 which is legislation to provide confidentiality to first responders and the volunteer C.I.S.M. members.  To legally protect peers, chaplains and clinicians who volunteer to assist our people from legal action to disclose client information.

This legislation would be a great way to honor Retired Massachusetts State Trooper Gil Bernard who was the stress officer who stood up in the courts maintaining the confidentiality of another officer he was assisting.  In 1995, the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court ruling became an honored case law across most of the U.S. that a full time stress officer has confidentiality protection similar to a licensed social worker.

Today 30+ states have this legislation to protect the confidentiality of first responders.  It is time for Massachusetts to provide this protection.

Thank you.