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Police suicides trend upwards over the years

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Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement

TUCSON (KVOA) - It's reported nationwide, 104 officers have taken their lives since the beginning of the year. Among them are four officers who were involved in the capitol uprising on Jan. 6. 

Here in Tucson, two officers within three months died by suicide.

According to some law enforcement officers, it's an issue that's been building for the last 20 years.

"We are truly at a crisis in the United States with police officers committing suicide," retired sergeant Betsy Smith said.

She retired after 29 years with the Naperville Police Department near Chicago.

She's now the spokesman for the National Police Association.

"We die twice as often by our own hand as we do by felony assaults," she said.

She said last year, 174 officers died by suicide, and in 2019, 239 took their lives.

In Tucson, Stephen Kass who was with the Tucson Police Department for two years and was a dispatcher for two more years, took his life on May 5. 

In August, TPD sent out a statement saying a sergeant who spent 16-years serving the Tucson community passed away, however there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding her death.

Captain Michelle Pickrom who is the Midtown commander also worked in the department's Behavioral Science Unit.

"It affects the entire agency with any death of department personnel we mourn and then we come together," she said.

Capt. Pickrom added that in 2020, the department held Suicide Awareness Prevention training. They also offer peer support sergeants among other programs to help those who may be struggling.

"It's going to be impossible that this never happens again. Agencies across the country are dealing with similar situations," Pickrom said.

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos said, "I feel for Chief Magnus and his agency. We see officers go through some pretty tough times for a variety of reasons."

That's why the Pima County Sheriff's Department, like many other departments, have mental health programs in place.

"I have psychologists on staff psychiatrists, peer support, counseling, crisis intervention to staff," Nanos added.

Capt. Pickrom said the Behavioral Science Unit is always there.

"If you see someone struggling, contact BSU. If you are struggling contact BSU, again our employees are our first priority," she said.

Dr. Kevin Gilmartin is a former Pima County Sheriff's deputy who helped develop many of the behavioral health programs used in law enforcement today. He also wrote a book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement.

He's internationally recognized for his work.

"I personally view police suicide as a line of duty death. The job has taken their life," Gilmartin said.

He added, it's a psychological, biological and a physiological issue.

"..And we do nothing to alleviate that. We have decreasing workforces and increasing workloads . We overwork our police officers and underpay them," he added.

Dr. Gilmartin suggests:

  • Increase pay
  • Limit the hours an officer can work
  • Give them a sabbatical after five years
  • Allow them to exercise on duty

"We need to actually invest back to the officers what they invest in their communities," he said.

Sgt. Smith added, better mental health programs are needed and, "We need to stop vilifying police officers and appreciate the sacrifices mental and physical sacrifices those officers make."

Another difficult issue about suicides is the friends and family left behind.

If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-800-273-8255. 

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