Police Suicides: A Global Conversation?
We wrote this article for Policing Insight, so be sure to take a look at their site when it goes live.
*Trigger Warning* - this article contains topics and language that some may find distressing.
“I probably don’t need to be here – I haven’t had any trauma”.
The look of professionally-restrained incredulity I received from a counsellor in late 2013 underlined how mistaken I was in saying such a thing, but as a fairly “blokey” 28-year-old who just felt a bit rubbish and lost having left the police without a plan, I didn’t feel like I was worthy of claiming any such impact. To me, trauma came from one big bang – something extraordinary. When I was then asked to talk through some of the things I’d seen and done, the penny dropped. Almost six years on, I cringe slightly at my naïveté, but no-one had ever told me that the things I did might affect me – they were just part of the job. I was collecting impacts I didn’t know how to process – or talk about.
A recent BBC article talked of a “code of silence” killing US police officers – NYPD having lost nine officers this year. With US policing often in vogue with UK policy makers as an example to follow, what lessons – or cautionary tales – can we take from events elsewhere?
I don’t intend to look at this from a clinical perspective – I am not a doctor or therapist and there are many exceptional people doing that – rather to compare and contrast the international picture and draw on my own experiences and crucially those of the large number of people we have supported at every stage of the “policing is impacting my health/life” spectrum. Feeling that there are no other options is a dangerous place to be.
We cannot look at any one strand of this in isolation: police officers and staff are people. People we ask a huge amount of, people we expose to the best and worst of humanity, people who willingly put themselves last. However, people still have personal lives, career goals, bills to pay and a human body that (to borrow a popular book title) “keeps the score”. Sometimes it’s as much about the job we do as “The Job” that employs us to do it.
In understanding the problem in quantifiable terms, we come to a clear stumbling block – it is very difficult to find accurate data. Often, it’s a case of piecing together estimates from independent groups, official statistics covering broad demographics and always bearing in mind the caveat that statistics only reflect the recorded cause of death – which in such a sensitive, stigmatised area clearly is not always accurate.
In the UK, this week saw the hugely promising news that Police Care UK and the Police Treatment Centres will be collaborating on a new psychological wellbeing centre – “to better care for those who suffer psychological harm because of their policing role.” Police Care deserve huge credit for their work in recent years to understand, evidence and tackle the scale of the issue and this is an important bricks and mortar symbol of action.
In Canada and Australia, independent charities, peer support groups and movements of dedicated individuals and groups have also sprung up to contribute to a growing global network of effort to stem the tide and embed informed, evidence-based preventative measures. Again though, official figures are hard to come by.
In France, unofficial figures are tracked by the independent Association MPC – “Movement of Angry Police” – whose own leader Maggy Bisupski died in November 2018, apparently taking her own life with her police firearm. According to the MPC, 2019 has seen 49 police suicides versus 5 “deaths in service” in France. A stark reminder of where the bigger threat is – yet how much investment, research and planning goes into officer safety equipment, minimum strength levels, risk assessing every deployment and all the other factors that mitigate “operational” risk to officers? Can we yet say that a threat taking almost ten times as many lives receives the same attention? Following Ms Bisupski’s death, Laurent Wauquiez, leader of France's Republican party, gave a telling quote:
"We did not know how to protect her”.
This leads us to the first example of a clear disconnect between the public declarations of those in positions of power and the opinions of those on the frontline. The MPC website is very clear that it is apolitical and outside of traditional union structures. It is frank, perhaps even hostile, in stating that its leadership are “summoned” to explain themselves for “telling the top what’s being suffered at the bottom”. A direct approach of returning medals and turning backs on dignitaries perhaps underlines societal differences between France and the UK when it comes to protest, especially by police officers, but take a snapshot from Twitter where critical, anonymous police accounts abound in UK policing too and perhaps the mood isn’t so different.
There is another dimension that I see in my own work regularly. What about those who retired or resigned from policing – recorded only as such by their force or agency – only to suffer the effects of their work in later years? How do we begin to find those people and include them in efforts to help?
When my phone rings, or the inbox pings, the opening gambit tends to take a common form:
“I can’t do this anymore”
“I need to get out”
“This doesn’t fit with my life/aims any longer”
All of which are described and framed in career terms – but clearly have far wider personal impact. We are often talking about people who have invested much of their adult life into policing – ten, twenty, thirty years where both professional and personal networks all have a single language, community and set of behaviours. Traditionally, asking for help is not one of those behaviours. Personal and professional identity are woven together in a way that makes them very difficult to extricate when they no longer interact in a healthy way.
Is there a hidden body of trauma out there that requires proactive (perhaps even intrusive) action to address? I think its important that we’re not always talking about PTSD or suicidal thoughts – I know that I wasn’t at that stage, but certainly at a lower level of a continuum of trauma-related conditions or impact. Again, I don’t profess to have the clinical expertise to differentiate, but I do see clear emotional impacts alongside the practical ones I support people with every day.
It’s become almost cliché to talk of culture change, but it is the key. I wonder if there’s an element of collective vulnerability required at senior levels to say: we don’t have all the answers, what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked, let’s see if we can bring in some new ideas that might help everyone. That still feels like it would be seen as a weakness, when in reality it is absolute strength. Equally, if those looking upwards feel that the attitude is “nothing to see here” then how can we expect them to feel empowered to ask for help? All the Employee Assistance Programmes and support services in the World, great as they are, won’t help if people don’t feel able to use them.
We have to be alongside first responders from day one. Investing in them as individuals across their career development, personal circumstances and day-to-day wellbeing. It’s been great to see an increased recognition of immediate response to critical incidents in recent years, as well as the peer support work currently rolling out from Oscar Kilo here in the UK. The wider piece though is about the day-to-day, the “business as usual” which is actually far from usual for a human brain to manage. I’m
a firm believer that many apparently simple things we’ve lost in recent years can be critical to mitigating the accumulation of stressors: having enough officers/staff to allow time to process incidents before being dispatched to the next one, enough officers/staff to allow for proper rest day allowances (that aren’t cancelled), a canteen (or, whisper it, beer club) in which to decompress, training/team days (as a team), supervisors having enough time/space for leadership rather than management… the list goes on.
Unrealistic? Over to you Boris…
If we do genuinely see the uplift in investment for policing, we have a real opportunity to learn from other countries as well as the damage the Prime Minister’s own party have wrought since 2010. One of the current hot topics in UK policing is routine (or at least more widespread) arming – can we heed the apparently regular use of service weapons in police suicide and reduce that risk? When we recruit new officers and staff, can we instil the importance of peer support, wellbeing issues and so on from day one – putting it on a par with their newfound knowledge of operational aspects? Do UK officers feel that their voices are heard on the issues that really matter to them?
My manifesto remains unchanged: we absolutely have a duty of care to equip police officers and staff for the day they can no longer serve, or no longer want to - however and whenever that day arrives. To honour and thank them, but to give them practical, high-quality tools for whatever comes next in their life and connect them back to a World they may find daunting and alien. Mightify’s unique CPD-accredited resettlement course was built to do this. This should be the first building block.
Next, we must get ahead of that time by giving people those same tools as early as possible. Stop seeing this as negatively “helping people leave” – it isn’t. Opening access to career coaching, personal development and individual support throughout a career. It comes back to a little bit of vulnerability as an organisation: invest in people so that they can do anything they like, because policing already has superb talent, but create an environment that means they want to do those amazing things within the job. If we can find £750m to fund what the College of Policing calls a “huge opportunity for policing” then let’s make sure it supports policing in its entirety in a cohesive, innovative and intelligent way.