The badge may be small, but the weight is heavy.
When in the span of three weeks, two local law enforcement officers take their own lives, it gets our attention. We also hope it sparks conversation about how psychological strain places our men and women in uniform at risk of damage that no bullet-proof vest can guard against.
Lakewood police Officer Arron Grant committed suicide last month. According to Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro, Grant never hid the fact that he sought and received treatment for mental health issues.
Then Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Kory Shaffer took his life this month while out of town on police business.
Both men were in their 40s, both were described as exemplary officers and both spent most of their adult lives protecting the public.
We can’t comment on the mindset of each of these professionals, or exactly how much their vocation contributed to the decision to end their lives, but we do know Grant in particular suffered severe job-related stress. He told anyone who would listen that he was haunted by court testimony he felt pressured to give back when he worked for Seattle Police -- testimony defending a police pursuit that resulted in a teenage girl’s paralysis.
High-adrenaline jobs with daily life-or-death choices exact a heavy toll. The Army has made progress in recent years facing up to a wave of suicides with programs, services and a command climate that’s more responsive to soldiers in need.
What about police work? A study by the University of Buffalo found that one out of four officers reported having suicidal thoughts, compared to 13 percent of the general population. The study also indicated that 72 percent of female and 43 percent of male officers had higher-than recommended cholesterol levels, pulse rates, stress-hormones and diastolic blood pressure.
Mitch Barker, executive director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, whose career in law enforcement spans four decades, is no stranger to hazards that can accompany a cop’s career. He’s seen what happens when cops guzzle too much coffee, eat on the run, lose sleep, abuse alcohol and experience problems with interpersonal relationships.
The former Gig Harbor Police chief says cops also face new pressures, such as mounting expectations of public scrutiny with the advent of police body cameras.
Barker says the self-inflicted deaths of the two South Sound officers will definitely be on the radar at the upcoming WASPC convention in Spokane. Discussions will focus on what the association can do better.
Local police and sheriff departments already have crisis intervention, anonymous hotlines, referral services and peer counseling available. But traditional cop culture doesn’t exactly invite Oprah-style chats about self-destructive feelings and negative thoughts.
Studies of PTSD in the military show that chronic exposure to trauma causes sufferers to shut down emotionally, which only amplifies the perception of isolation. Cops share in the affliction.
There aren’t any cookie-cutter solutions, but strategies to effect culture change should be step one.
When law enforcement officers are more likely to be killed by their own hand than by a criminal, any step to destigmatize depression and get cops talking is worth taking -- although as Arron Grant’s suicide points out, verbalizing problems is not a panacea.
“There’s a lot of people, myself included, wondering what we could have done for him,” said Zaro, the Lakewood chief, “but I don’t have that answer.”
Barker believes the fix will have to be an inside job. We couldn’t agree more.