Officers Are Civilians Too
“We see dead bodies, we see abused children, [and] bad accidents” are just some of the tragedies Sergeant Adam Malcara of the City of Racine explained when describing what officers see on the job. Officers can encounter suicide both externally in their work and internally after the job. With law enforcement suicide rates being higher than citizen suicide rates, we need to remember to take care of our law enforcement officers, who encounter it considerably more than the average person.
Keeping our efforts strong to help our fellow law enforcement is very crucial to having a stable society. We have our officers trained and ready to walk in on some of the most horrific suicide deaths, but it doesn’t change that they could be impacted negatively for life.
Chief Tom Kujawa is the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s chief of police and oversees all law enforcement functions, safety, security of the buildings and emergency management situations. He is in charge of the 11 police officers affiliated with UW-Green Bay and has been in both state and local law enforcement since 1977. He explained how officers are faced with handling suicides and that it’s a common yet tough part of the job.
“I’ve witnessed probably 10 to 15 suicides where they’ve actually happened, and I’ve been in houses of 100 or more situations where people have died,” Kujawa said.
The unspeakable acts that officers see everyday can build up difficult emotions, and sometimes, there isn’t enough training that can help prevent that. So, officers have to be proactive and take care of one another.
“There’s things you want to look for,” said Sergeant Adam Malcara of the City of Racine.
When training his team on suicide awareness within the department, Malcara focuses on developing an attitude of speaking up when you notice a change in a fellow officer’s behavior.
“See something, say something,” Malcara said. “We get cumulative stress or PTSD from these repeated exposure of traumatic exposures.”
These repeated exposures to traumatic experiences can lead to depression, Malcara explained, and when officers can’t find ways to cope, they find other mechanisms to turn to.
“When somebody’s in crisis or having an issue and their normal coping mechanisms aren’t enough to deal with that crisis, they’ll turn to other ways to self-medicate, which is alcohol and drugs,” he said.
Helping our officers avoid self-medication is one way to service them, but there’s one aspect that people may be forgetting – and that’s the potential relapse from substance abuse. Barbara Moser, chair of Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee, suggests that this could possibly be one of the toughest battles to fight. According to Moser, when people are in recovery, this is the toughest transition time for them.
“It really stirs up a lot of shame in people,” Moser said.
And although this shame and guilt then fills and eats away at our fellow officers, they shouldn’t have to feel this way. Moser said that on numerous accounts, she has met people who feel the relapse is worse than the initial immersion of self-medication.
“I’ve heard from multiple people who have had ongoing substance abuse issues that when they relapse they feel like ‘I don’t want to live with this. I can’t live with being an addict again,’ and they will often attempt and die from suicide,” Moser said.
Kujawa said that family are among the first people to notice these changes in their family members that are officers or in law enforcement.
“I’ve seen that divorce and marital issues happen to officers not handling the aftermath of tragedy,” Kujawa said. “That’s something we have to start taking seriously.”
Family members are among the first people to recognize the signs that something isn’t quite right with a family member in law enforcement. So, if you are a family member that notices a change, do what Malcara said and “see something, say something.”
Understanding the signs that our fellow officers might be struggling will not only educate us on the issue, but remind us that if we see something different from an officer’s normal behavior, we have an obligation to try and step in to help them as a family member or friend.
To be proactive and know all the signs that a person might be contemplating suicide, read, “The Peer Support Team at the City of Racine Police Department.”