The Police Taboo That Might be Quietly Contributing to Brutality

May 29th 2015

Thor Benson

Mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are illnesses often associated with veterans and active soldiers, but it can also wreak havoc on police officers. In fact, more officers die from suicide than from being killed in the line of duty, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It is likely the suicide rate is actually higher, as many suicides are not reported as having been suicides.

The mental health of officers is a serious policy issue for police department and city governments. Lt. Brian Rice, the highest-ranking officer indicted in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, is believed to have a history of mental illness. Records obtained by the Associated Press show that Rice, who was the first to pursue Gray when he began to run away, was hospitalized due to mental health concerns in 2012. His guns were confiscated by the department at the time, and he was quoted saying he "could not continue to go on like this" during the incident.

So why don't we talk more about the mental health of police officers?

One major issue with police and mental illness is the culture often found in police departments. Most people have an idea what they're getting into when they decide to be an officer, at least to some extent. They know they will have to deal with witnessing the effects of murders, rapes, terrible car accidents, and a laundry list of other tragedies. Because some level of trauma is expected, there is a culture in police departments that officers have to be tough and learn to live with such events. However, everyone has a breaking point, and too many officers try to ignore that to continue their work.

"Our collective silence only compounds the problem," retired California police chief Craig T. Steckler wrote in Police Chief Magazine in 2013. "By ignoring the issue we implicitly promote the unqualified expectation that cops must, without question, be brave, steadfast, and resilient. Our refusal to speak openly about the issue perpetuates the stigma many officers hold about mental health issues—the stigma that depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide are signs of weakness and failure, not cries for help."

Badge of Life is an organization that focuses on police suicide and mental health. The organization reports that the suicide rate for 2009 was 11 per 100,000 people for the general public, 17 per 100,000 for police officers, and 20 per 100,000 for the Army. In 2012, their study found that 126 officers took their own lives. The average age of officers who committed suicide in 2012 was 42 years old.

A Badge of Life representative told the Denver Post last year that it is estimated that one in eight police officers has at least some PTSD symptoms. "This is one of the most dangerous psychological jobs in the world," Badge of Life chairman Ron Clark told the Post. "We have a nation of ill-educated chiefs, sheriffs, commissioners who don't understand PTSD/mental health." Symptoms of PTSD can include: flashbacks to traumatic events, suicidal thoughts, extreme anxiety, depression, a feeling of emotional numbness, paranoia, and difficulty sleeping. Alcohol and drug abuse are common responses to PTSD symptoms.

The 2003 report "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Law Enforcement" by the Criminal Justice Institute says "two-thirds of officers involved in shootings suffer moderate or severe problems and about 70 percent leave the force within seven years of the incident." It also says being an officer is third on the list for jobs that cause premature deaths.