After so long on the job, police officers tend to lose themselves to it. It is never something they intend to do and it sure doesn’t feel like something they have control of either. It is something that seems to be inevitable and it is the reason why we have a suicide epidemic in law enforcement.
According to Blue Help, in March 2020, there were 34 police officers who had taken their own lives.
In 2019 we lost more officers to suicide than to deaths in the line of duty. With that likely under reported total, there is a definite problem going on but the question that is on everyone’s mind is what exactly is the problem and how do we solve it?
Police officers are their communities’ sheepdogs.
They protect the public from chaos, crime and most importantly the wolves (predators). Officers must not only be the sheepdog while on duty but they must be off duty in order to protect themselves and their families as well.
Relaxation is never an option for a sheepdog like it is for the rest of the public. An officer must learn how to survive in between two worlds; on duty and off. It may sound to you like this is extreme but think back to the many situations over the last few years where officers would be ambushed. From breakfast at a Waffle House or by simply sitting in their patrol cars, officers are at continuous risk.
The public also does not hear about the countless situations in which members of the public know where an officer lives and will go to their house for various reasons while the officer is either off duty or away from their house.
Officers live in a glass house for everyone to see and they get no reprieve.
They go to the job and want to do their best work. They put their best foot forward and work harder at this than they have ever worked at anything before. They find satisfaction in solving crimes, cleaning up the streets and putting criminals behind bars.
This is all well and good until they end up in Internal Affairs for an allegation where they were accused of doing something wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether the officer did everything right or not, they know they could end up with harsh consequences.
So the officer that once couldn’t wait to get to work now dreads going to work for fear of getting jammed up over something they did not do.
This is when the cycle begins.
The officer is afraid to do their job, they are now soured and the happiness and joy that once was inside the officer for having the opportunity to serve their community is gone.
The bitterness and lack of motivation is a weight that some not only were not prepared for but they simply can’t handle.
This cycle is common and it doesn’t stop there.
Situations like those are just the first of many where officers feel unsupported and are afraid to do their job for fear of severe consequences.
As this continues to happen throughout this officer’s career, they also see the same phenomenon in those they work with. The environment at the police department turns toxic because every officer who has more than a few years on, feels the exact same way.
These officers have lost their faith in their department, their administration and in the job itself. The only job they could ever imagine themselves doing and the one they spent years working towards has been shattered.
The love for the job is gone. The passion is gone and life has turned out to be something that no rookie could have ever imagined.
This is where the cycle gets dangerous.
This downward spiral can happen quickly. The job isn’t what they thought but the idea of never wearing a uniform again literally kills them from the inside and out.
They are angry.
They are bitter.
And they are miserable.
This disappointment often bleeds in to their personal lives.
They no longer see any good in anyone or anything; including themselves.
They feel like they are worthless after all the run-ins with their supervisors and admin and they begin to really believe it.
They believe they are nothing more than just a cop and are worthless because of the situations they have been in.
When a person truly believes they are worthless and gives up hope for a better life, the tragedy has just begun.
This is when people take their lives.
I would like to give you three specific steps to avoid what thousands of cops are currently facing.
- It is important for officers to become educated on this cycle so they can prevent themselves from being on it. Officers need to be aware of the things they are doing that may bring them down. For example, if they are constantly pulling up car to car to talk trash about the agency and talk about how they got screwed over for this and that, they need to recognize the toxicity of that behavior.
- Become more than the job. While being a police officer is a career that is held in high regard, it is important that it is understood that it is just a job. Get involved in pick up sports, coaching little league teams, spend time volunteering at animal shelters, find hobbies that take your mind off anything cop related or start a side business. Finding a purpose outside of law enforcement will inevitably change an officer’s perspective because they will no longer feel like the job is all they have. Law enforcement is a one way love relationship. You can pour everything you have into the job but the job will almost in all likelihood show you that it will not love you back.
- Work on changing the culture in the police department. This one is in everyone’s hands at any police department. The culture in policing is changing and is, unfortunately, becoming more toxic than ever. It is vital that leaders in the agency are aware of this and do whatever they can to protect their officers from this negative and volatile atmosphere. Instead of spending time attacking officers, leaders should be ensuring that their officers are spending their time effectively while on duty. Downtime shooting the breeze can often lead to a negative downward spiral. Instead, conduct either training discussions about scenarios and what-ifs or actual physical training.
The downward spiral is real for police officers. While it may take a while for this to catch on across the world, it takes just one police officer to begin taking these steps. You never know whose life could be impacted and/or saved by taking these steps to switch from a life full of negativity to one full of positivity.
There must be something done to help officers not to succumb to these circumstances.
Officers cannot lose themselves to the job, after all, it is just a job.
Autumn Clifford is a Police Officer, Life Coach, Criminal Justice Professor and host of the Changing the Culture podcast