Four Suicides in L.A. and the Mental Health Problem in Law Enforcement
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On Nov. 6, a man was found dead at 10:30 a.m. in Los Angeles County. A second man was found three hours later, about 40 miles away. A third person’s body was discovered later in the afternoon, and a fourth the next morning just after sunrise.
All four people were current or former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s employees, Sheriff Robert Luna announced last week. And all four are believed to have died by suicide.
The deaths, which are under investigation but appear to be unrelated, raised the number of suspected suicides among L.A. Sheriff’s employees this year to nine, and have reignited concerns over suicide rates among law enforcement officers in the U.S.
Law enforcement is one of several professions with a higher suicide rate than the general population. Recent studies have shown elevated rates of suicide in health care and construction work, for example. And the rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts overall trended upward in 2020 and 2021, even as some studies indicated a slight, temporary dip in the suicide rate during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.
Though police suicide deaths also dropped in 2020, officers were still more likely to die by suicide that year than from other line-of-duty causes. Alongside firefighters, police officers were also more likely to die from COVID-19 than members of any other profession.
The deaths of the four LA County Sheriff’s members come less than three months after the U.S. Department of Justice classified the suicide death of an officer who responded to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as a death in the line of duty. Jeffrey Smith, a member of the D.C. Metropolitan Police, was one of four officers to take their own lives among law enforcement personnel overwhelmed by the mob that stormed the building. The suicide of another of those officers, Howard Liebengood, was classified last year as a death in the line of duty.
Last year, President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan bill recognizing suicides as line-of-duty deaths for law enforcement officers and other first responders. That cleared the way for their families to seek the same types of benefits afforded to relatives of officers who die from on-the-job accidents or homicides.
Leaders in both law enforcement and mental health spheres say those recent moves illustrate a new recognition of the mental health struggles unique to law enforcement officers and people working in prisons and jails.
Jeffrey Zeizel, a Boston-based licensed clinical social worker, has spent nearly three decades working with law enforcement officers in crisis. He’s a therapist with the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies, and has a private practice where he holds group therapy sessions for law enforcement officers battling post-traumatic stress disorder.
Zeizel says that the personality traits of people who are typically drawn to law enforcement jobs are a strong factor in the suicide problem in U.S. police departments. There’s a macho culture among many of the nation’s nearly 1 million sworn officers, he says. Former members of the military, people with thrill-seeking personalities, and competitive, hard-charging temperaments round out the profile of most of the officers Zeizel treats. Some military veterans, especially those who have been in combat, come to law enforcement with trauma, according to Zeizel. Other aspects of the typical officer’s personality profile are also consistent with people more likely to bury emotional wounds and view seeking mental health treatment as a sign of weakness.
A wave of people exiting government jobs has left an increasing number of departments short-staffed. Officers are working longer hours, eating poorly, not sleeping enough and struggling with substance abuse at a higher rate than the general population.
“In almost any other job in the world, something traumatic happens, the company shuts down for the day,” Zeizel said. “If you’re a cop and someone points a gun at you in the street, you write a report and you keep on working. It’s one of the only professions where your life is constantly potentially at risk, and not a lot of departments allow these guys to take a break.”
Officers are more likely than people in other professions to use guns in suicide attempts — and firearms are by far the most lethal suicide method in general.
Other experts say police officers are less likely to seek mental health help for fear they will be deemed unfit for duty. As a result, they say, officers who suffer years of untreated trauma can eventually reach a breaking point that ends in self harm, or harm to the communities they serve.
“It really is cumulative,” Craig Atkinson, the cinematographer behind the 2016 documentary about police militarization, “Do Not Resist,” told Business Insider last year. “A lot of these situations where cops make poor decisions at a moment’s notice, it’s oftentimes the end result of an entire line of trauma that they personally have experienced.”
If you or someone you care about may be at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a free 24/7 service that offers support, information, and local resources: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).