Badge of Life: Police Suicide Among Retirees
by Andy O’Hara
Badge of Life Suicide Prevention Program
January 29, 2009: A
retired police officer died in his home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Eddie was 62, a military veteran, and had
served 26 years as a police officer, retiring in 1998. It was learned that he lived alone and could find no one that
could stay at the hospital that day with him, a requirement, for routine surgery on his foot. He had also lost much
of his retirement savings in the recent stock crash and had recently been robbed and assaulted, considered a humiliation by
many cops. An officer at the nearby station had agreed to take him and drop him off and then return to pick him up,
but the retiree was afraid the officer wouldn't be able to stay through the procedure. He was afraid to ask.
are control freaks," said one mourner. "We are. We think we have control over our lives, but we don't. I think Eddie felt
he was losing control over his." It was noted that active police officers "spend inordinate amounts of time together,
protecting each others lives while protecting others, and then go out and spend time with each other again." Focusing
on retirees, the police chaplain noted, "We need to reach out to each other. We need to reach out to our retirees
like Ed. ... Ed died alone. But Ed was never alone. God was always by his side."
Eddie’s story made the news. But far too many similar stories involving
retired police officers happen across the country and go unnoticed. While researchers suspect that the suicide rate for retirees
is high for retirees, the specific number and rate nationally is unknown because they’re impossible to track. Retirees
move, the years pass, and it’s often forgotten that they were even law enforcement officers.
John Violanti (1997) feels that “police officers continue to experience
the ‘residual’ of trauma after separating from police service. Lengthy research (and the only complete research
to date) completed by Dr. Violanti in 2012 (http://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2012/08/policestress/ )
revealed the following: “The notion that retired officers are more likely to commit suicide
was examined using employment, retirement, and mortality records for a larger group of Buffalo police officers who worked
for five years or more between 1950 and 2005. Suicide rates were 8.4 times higher in working officers as compared to separated/retired
“The notion that retired officers are more likely to commit suicide was examined using
employment, retirement, and mortality records for a larger group of Buffalo police officers who worked for five years or more
between 1950 and 2005. Suicide rates were 8.4 times higher in working officers as compared to separated/retired officers.”
In the past, unfortunately, a single, unpublished doctoral dissertation
by a C.W. Gaska from over 30 years ago confused matters by using scattered information and stating a suicide rate for retired
officers of 335/100,000 (for active officers the rate is 17/100,000) and, Gaska estimates, for disabled officers a suicide
rate of 2,616/100,000. Carried to its full logic, it would
mean that retired police officers would be gunning themselves down at a rate that is not just epidemic, but full-blown carnage. These erroneous figures were quoted all too frequently.
Nonetheless, few departments recognize the impact retirement in general
has on an officer. From practically the first day in the academy, a cadet can tell you roughly when they will retire. At varying
times during their careers, they will maintain a focus on that approximate date, which will become more and more concrete
as they grow closer to it.
It has been suggested, however, that one of the most vulnerable times
for a police officer is that period nearing retirement and the first year or two after. Before actual retirement comes uncertainty—the
uniform will be hung up for the last time. More pressing on the officer may be financial fears, depending on pension arrangements
and individual debts. The possibilities of employment because of age and disability (in a real world) may be lessened. Far
too many departments still stubbornly refuse to recognize--at all--the role of emotional trauma on police officers and make
the disability and eventual departure a living nightmare.
A random survey of 25 police departments in California by Captain Valerie Tanguay of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department (2008) found that only one had any kind of retirement counseling
with retiring officers and their spouses--and that was in a program offered to all city employees. That program in and of
itself was of interest, however: it is six weeks long, with couples meeting once a week for three hour sessions. In the first,
couples were separated and asked to draw a picture of what they felt retirement would look like. Coming together, they often
found wide differences in their idea of "happily ever after," which led to dialogue and, ultimately, a far smoother transition
by planning joint and separate activities to avoid miscommunication.
One wonders why. If the things troubling a retiree were related to the
job, why didn’t they come out before retirement? The truth is, they often do—but officers are masters of “shoving
things down,” of masking the things that bother them. This is easier to do when one is working full time in the same
occupation for 15, 20 or 30 years. But the “emotional quiet” of retirement too often allows the suppressed memories
of the past to wreak their havoc.
Further, not all trauma is of the “critical” or “dramatic”
kind. Many of the things that haunt an officer the worst are the “little things”--the mistakes that affect other
lives, the embarrassments, the betrayals, the near-death experiences often known only to the officer himself. These are often
shoved away and “forgotten,” only to resurface later in a variety of forms after retirement. They appear in the
form of anxiety, strange or frightening dreams, insomnia, anger and irritation, or unexplainable isolation.
Not long ago, I was contacted by a retiree who “wanted to talk.”
He couldn’t understand the waves of anxiety he was experiencing, and felt some of it might be associated with his police
career. We met for breakfast—and he didn’t want to talk about it.
He was trying to “reach out” but was unable to, just like
Eddie. As police officers, that’s the last thing we ever did unless it was a request for backup. Most certainly, we
never reached out for emotional help. Why would it be any easier for us now, as retirees?
It’s important that, as we grow older, we not isolate. We need
to learn from Eddie and reach out to one another, maintaining contacts on a regular basis and learning the importance of “being
there” for one another. It’s called realism. Round out your associations—reach out beyond the police retirement
community. You don't have forever--John Violanti, noted researcher on police mental health, estimates that the average police
officer lives to age 66, or about 10.6 years after retirement (adjusted for age and gender).
And, along with your physical health, it’s crucial that you add
a good therapist to your yearly list of “things to do.” It a way to see how you’re doing—not only
with old police issues, but with issues of aging, loss, and coping with life’s new challenges.
Eddie would be the first to tell you.
The Badge of Life is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to the
health and wellbeing of police officers, retirees and survivors of police suicide. For
more information, visit them at http://www.badgeoflife.com/