Badge of Life aims to lower suicide
risk among cops
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Published Sunday, Dec. 07, 2008
Far more police officers killed themselves with a firearm last year than were gunned down by criminals, according to research developed by a Citrus Heights-based support group.
That grim firearm-fatality reality spurs the efforts of the nonprofit Badge of Life, a band of retired cops, working officers, clinicians and researchers. Its members take their message into police academies whenever possible. To help ensure their "psychological survival," members tell police recruits to schedule at least one mental health checkup each year.
"We spend hours training officers on how to shoot others. We need to spend more time teaching them how to avoid shooting themselves," said Andrew O'Hara,who runs the group's Web site (http://www.badgeoflife.com/) from his Citrus Heights apartment. The shoestring operation provides materials and speakers to a growing list of police agencies throughout the United States and Canada. Nobody is getting paid. So far the group has survived on a few grants, donations and the illingness of its members to open their own wallets.
"We're broke," O'Hara said cheerfully.
One agency taking advantage of the group's services is the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. It encourages Badge of Life members to talk to recruits who may be bound for jobs in the department. The Sheriff's Department also has a health and wellness program that recognizes many of the mental health goals promoted by Badge of Life. Retired police officers get recruits' attention, said Sacramento County Sheriff's Lt. Rick Anglemoyer, health and wellness program coordinator. "When I went through the academy 20 years ago, nobody talked to me about what might happen," he said.
Badge of Life also seeks increased awareness of "cumulative" post-traumatic stress disorder.
O'Hara, who retired in 1993 as a sergeant after 24 years with the California Highway Patrol, said countless crime scenes, riots and wrecks all took their toll on his mental health. Out of his efforts to deal with his problem, he founded Badge of Life.
Badge of Life's research indicates that as many as 150 police officers killed themselves last year, usually with their service weapon. During that time, about 55 officers were shot to death by criminals. Other organizations may post more provocative numbers but not the documentation behind them, O'Hara said. The information is posted at http://www.badgeoflife.com/ as it becomes available. The group's findings also are in agreement with findings of other researchers.
"Numbers do not tell the whole story, but numbers are something that other police officers pay attention to," O'Hara said. "It is not just about suicide. It is about mental health. For every suicide, there are probably a thousand other officers still struggling. Many of them take their pain all the way into retirement and kill themselves years later."
So far this year, the group has documented about 80 police suicides nationwide, including two in the Sacramento area. Another 20 percent may go unreported because many police agencies still view suicide as a disgrace, O'Hara said. "The facts are covered up, the families are shunned," he said.
The suicides are generally officers on active duty who are not facing any disciplinary action, the group says.
Many of the suicides do not occur in the wake of a "critical incident," a finding that bolsters the argument that cumulative stress can have dire consequences. The count does not include retired police officers who kill themselves.
One researcher who backs Badge of Life's research is John Violanti, who spent 23 years as a trooper with the New York State Police before going back to school to earn his doctorate. He has 20 years of experience researching police trauma and suicide. He is a professor in the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, School of Public Health and Health Professions at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His research, which builds on data collected by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also supports the estimate that at least 150 police suicides occur each year.
Violanti agrees with Badge of Life's advice to police trainees about annual mental health checks. "It is best to inoculate officers before they go off into the street," Violanti said in a telephone interview.
Violanti's book, "Police Suicide: Epidemic in Blue," was published last year.
"In my opinion, the job of policing has become increasingly complex and frustrating. You almost need to be a lawyer now to do the job," Violanti said. "The increasing level of violence also puts an extra load on officers."