Officers In Distress

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SURVIVOR: Former Michigan cop Davison thought about suicide

In two decades as a sheriff's deputy in Monroe County, Mich., Lieutenant Michael Davison took on the most risky and stress-inducing assignments without complaint. In 1986 he infiltrated and busted up a major cocaine trafficking ring. In 1993 he rushed to a home where a Vietnam vet with a .45 pistol had barricaded himself in a bedroom and talked the man into putting down the weapon. After both incidents, Davison reported right back to duty. "I'm a pretty strong-willed person," he says, "and I love police work." In 1992 he was investigated, and subsequently cleared, for allegedly mishandling evidence. Shortly after, his son died in an accidental fire. Over the next two years, Davison found himself struggling. "One night," he says, "I just sat there for a long time with the gun in my hand. Then I realized I needed to be there for my family."

Not every cop is able to pull back from the brink. Today more than 400 officers kill themselves each year, says Robert Douglas, who heads the National Police Suicide Foundation. Other researchers say that's high, but most agree that the number of cops who "check out," as police morbidly call suicide, is more than double the 154 who were killed in the line of duty in 2004.

The problem strikes both big-city police forces and smaller ones. Most deal with troubled officers by referring them to employee-assistance plans or chaplains. But only 3% of officers ever use those resources. So now a growing number of departments are learning how to take care of their own by making suicide prevention, like high-speed driving and weapons safety, a mandatory part of their regular training. One approach that can claim success is Police Suicide Awareness (PSA), a program designed by Douglas that identifies cops' top motivations for suicide (divorce, loss of job, criminal indictment are leading factors), highlights some of the common symptoms of an officer at risk (abusive behavior, chronic lateness, heavy drinking), and teaches colleagues and superiors how to intervene before it's too late.

The Maryland State Police was the first to sign up and has been using PSA techniques since 1999, shortly after then superintendent David Mitchell had buried his fourth trooper. Mitchell gave his commanders the power to order a trooper to see a psychiatrist. At the same time, he assured his troops that a call to the doctor would be confidential. "They needed to hear from the top that getting help is never going to endanger anybody's job or promotion," he says. Everyone on the force, from new recruits to captains, is required to take a one-time, two-hour course on suicide prevention. Spouses and family members are also offered a free class on spotting warning signs and are are encouraged to pick up the phone if they see anything awry at home.

Care following a traumatic incident—the time when trouble begins for many troopers—has been improved too. Experts say the first 72 hours after such an event present a crucial window when therapy is most effective. So Maryland troopers involved in a shooting or a brush with death receive immediate help, starting with a talk with the force psychiatrist about such topics as how the vivid nightmares that normally follow a trauma eventually fade. Troopers are also given time off to recover, encouraged to exercise, which helps blow off steam, and urged to discuss the incident with family members. Regular follow-up visits at the doctor's discretion ensure that the officer doesn't backslide into trouble. "In my day, after a shooting or a trauma, it was back to work," says Mitchell. "It wasn't that the department didn't care. There were just no formal methods to help officers cope." Before PSA was put into effect, Maryland had lost about one trooper every 18 months since 1995. There have been no suicides since 2002; in the intervening time, four troopers have received treatment for depression, and three of them have returned to duty. Kirk Daugherty, the union official who represents the troopers, is supportive of psa. "We like the program," he says. "It goes a long way toward getting a trooper back on his feet."