BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Police officers are eight times more likely to die by their own hand than by homicide, a study by University at Buffalo epidemiologists has shown.
They also take their own lives at a much higher rate than other municipal employees, the findings indicated.
The study is one of the few empirical analyses of police officers' risk of suicide, homicide and accidental death, and the only study to compare their risk to that in other occupations.
"We are hoping this study will make the police community aware that suicide is a problem, not a myth, not something that should be shrugged aside," said John M. Violanti, Ph.D., UB assistant clinical professor of social and preventive medicine, a 23-year veteran of the New York State Police and lead author on the study.
And while the study was based on data from the Buffalo Police Department, Violanti said the Buffalo statistics mirror those of police departments around the country. "We looked at five other cities, and all five departments were higher in suicide than other occupations. I think this is a pretty good indicator of what's going on out there."
Results of the study appeared in a recent issue of American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
Violanti and colleagues from the UB Department of Social and Preventive Medicine analyzed mortality data for Buffalo police officers and other municipal workers who died between 1950 and 1990 of external causes (causes not related to disease). A panel of medical examiners verified each cause of death and ended up reclassifying the demise of four police officers and one municipal worker from "undetermined" to suicide.
Police suicides are often misclassified for a variety of reasons, Violanti said, which leads to an underestimation of the risk.
The 138 people in the study, all white males, consisted of 39 police officers and 89 municipal workers. Analysis of cause of death determined that:
- Among the 39 police officers, 25 deaths were classified as suicide, three as homicide, six as accidental and four as undetermined.
- Among the 89 municipal workers, 13 deaths were suicide, four were homicide, 67 were accidents, and five remained undetermined.
- Police officers' risk of dying from suicide was eight times greater than from homicide and three times greater than from accidents.
Possible reasons for the high risk of suicide among police officers are many, according to the study. They included: continuous exposure to human misery, an overbearing police bureaucracy, shift work, social strain, marital difficulties, inconsistencies of the criminal justice system, alcohol problems, physical illness, impending retirement, lack of control over work and personal lives.
Violanti said he thinks the biggest reason police officers die by suicide at high rates is because they have nowhere to go for confidential help when personal problems or job stress overwhelms them.
"If you look at the data, most people who commit suicide have never gone for help," he said. "Police officers are even more hesitant than the average citizen to get help for emotional problems. Because of their role and their job, they mistrust many things, and they especially mistrust mental health professionals. The other half of the problem is, confidential help isn't always readily available.
"Departments should include some sort of suicide awareness training in their stress management program," Violanti added. "The New York City Police Department has such a program and suicides went down after it was instituted. The Buffalo department now also has a program in place. "
Compounding the situation is the ready availability of a weapon, he said. Suicide often is an impulsive act, and the suicide method of choice by males in American society -- the handgun -- is literally at a police officer's side and is guaranteed to be lethal in the hands of an experienced shooter.
Violanti also is on the criminal justice faculty at Rochester Institute of Technology. Other researchers on the project were John E. Vena, Ph.D., of the UB Department of Social and Preventive Medicine and James Marshall, Ph.D., formerly of that department.
The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.