Copline: Peer Support That Could Save Your Life
Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver, PC
Sobering Statistics on the Deadliest of Hazards: Doing Your Job
- Officers have an eightfold risk of killing themselves over being killed by a perpetrator.
- Officers have a threefold risk of suicide over on-duty accidents.
- Officers have an increased rate of separation or divorce within the first three years of employment, and increased rates of substance abuse compared with the general population.
- Officers are exposed to more trauma in a day than most civilians are in a lifetime.
- It is estimated that 38% to 58% of all active officers have PTSD and few are treated.
- Nearly one in four police officers has thoughts of suicide at some point in their life.
- The suicide rate for police officers is four times higher than the rate for firefighters.
- More police die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, there were an estimated 140 law enforcement suicides.
- Compared with the general population, law enforcement report much higher rates of depression, PTSD, burnout and other anxiety-related mental health conditions.
Yet, in spite of what we know, there’s much to be done to address what is obviously a serious problem. As a lawyer who is part of a firm that represents public safety officers, I can tell you that emotional wellness issues, some of which are discussed directly above, too often play a role in the disciplinary matters we handle. One of my first cases in this line of work (not my last or only) was a case that involved an alcoholic client whose department had notified him that he was going to be terminated. I first met this officer in a Southern California rehabilitation facility, and he had every indicator for PTSD. His alcoholism was well known and established, yet, for months preceding his discipline, no one did a thing to help him or intervene. He did, however, finally recognize for himself that he needed help, got it and, as the saying goes, “all’s well that ends well.” At the conclusion of our Skelly hearing, the chief told him that he wasn’t going to fire him and that “they had been worried about him.” Afterward, I could not help but reflect on why his department had done nothing to intervene earlier. He was lucky to get a second chance because many do not. In fact, some officers experience consequences worse than discipline.
In 2017, Columbia, South Carolina, Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Fish completed his patrol shift. It appeared to have been a normal day of answering calls, making an arrest and writing a report. At shift’s end, however, the 28-year-old parked his patrol car in the back parking lot and shot himself with his service revolver. According to the Department of Justice, more officers die of suicide than die of shootings and traffic accidents combined. Suicide, as one writer put it, is “the canary in the coal mines”; the issue in law enforcement is the emotional wellness of officers. Regrettably, the stigma in law enforcement of expressing and doing something about these issues results in plenty of work for lawyers like me and, sadly, too many Derek Fishes.
It is up to you to help yourself. It is up to you to recognize a problem in a colleague, a friend or yourself. It is up to you to get the help you need to save yourself first; everything else — your career, marriage, etc. — comes second. Too often, the issue is where can public safety officers safely turn for assistance if in need? You cannot afford to ignore the problem because these type of issues will not go away and will result in bigger troubles for you, your career and your family. Don’t end up a statistic. Get help. One resource is COPLINE, a toll-free (1-800-267-5463), national law enforcement support network that has made accessing services easy. COPLINE was started to provide a safe haven for officers to turn to in times of crisis. It is 100% confidential, free and open 24/7 to officers and family members. COPLINE is staffed primarily by retired, trained law enforcement members. Your department will not find out you contacted them and, for that matter, no one will unless you disclose that fact. This service eliminates your having to plan time to see a more traditional therapist (if that is too burdensome for you) and it can only help. You worked hard to obtain your career, and you need to work equally hard to keep it. The goal of this article is to keep you off the sobering statistics listed in the beginning of this article. Nothing more. So, write this number down and keep it with you. Share it and use it. This number could save your life or that of a friend or colleague. Please always look out for one another.
About the Author
Susan R. Jerich is a member of the Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver Legal Defense of Peace Officers Practice Group. She represents officers in administrative investigations, disciplinary appeals, criminal investigations and prosecutions and Brady list appeals.