Friday, September 25, 2009

Domestic Violence and Suicide Among Our Finest

On Tuesday morning in the parking lot of the Canton, Michigan library (the next town over from me), a Detroit Police Officer shot and killed his wife, who was also a Detroit Police Officer, and then killed himself. The back-story is a distressing one. The wife had come to the police department to file a complaint and changed her mind a few days before. Then police were called to the home for a domestic dispute, only to find the home empty and a note from the husband directing who should get his possessions if anything happened to him. Canton police contacted Detroit police, who made contact with the officer and decided everything was OK. Two days later, both he and his wife were dead.

It's tempting to play the blame game here. I'm sure there are plenty of people who are pointing fingers at one another. I am going to resist getting sucked into that. But this is a good opportunity to take a look at two phenomena that this incident illustrates: suicide among law enforcement personnel and domestic violence among law enforcement personnel. Both are significantly elevated.

The suicide rate among working men in the United States is roughly 12 per 100,000. Among officers in the New York City Police Department, it is 15 per 100,000. The rate in Detroit department is 28 per 100,000. Why is it so high?

Police officers in general have characteristics that put them at higher risk for suicide. They are disproportionately younger men. They are under psychological stress. They are in a culture that frowns upon open discussion of feelings and may penalize officers for seeking mental health care, effectively reducing their access to help. They are exposed to trauma. And they have easy access to a firearm. Anyone with these characteristics, regardless of profession, is at elevated risk for completing a suicide.

Detroit police officers seem to have a rate that is elevated even above that. The job of a Detroit officer is probably more stressful than average. The city is in horrific financial trouble, endangering their jobs on an ongoing basis. The crime rate is high. The poverty rate is high. I would guess that the ratio of "easy" calls to traumatic ones is much worse than in other major cities. They are the guards for a dying city -- they don't really have much hope that their efforts are making the city better. All of that increases the psychological stress of the job.

Perhaps more importantly, however, as far as I can tell there is no Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) support for Detroit Police Officers. New York City has a CISM team -- that may account for the difference. That not only means that Detroit officers are not getting appropriate intervention for trauma exposure, but it probably also reflects a department culture that frowns even more on seeking mental health assistance. These men and women are traumatized on a daily basis, and they probably aren't getting much help.

The exposure to violence that all officers have probably also accounts for the increased incidence of domestic violence in marriages that involve a police officer. We know that trauma exposure makes people irritable. Seeing violence also desensitizes people to violence. And spouses of police officers are even less likely to report their abusive partners than most battered spouses, because they are afraid of angering their spouse even more by possibly costing them their job, and because they fear that police officers will not take complaints against one of their own seriously. There isn't much to suggest that domestic homicides are higher among police officers, but domestic violence certainly is.

And so we wind up with the scene outside the Canton Library. I said I wouldn't point fingers, and I won't, at least not in the traditional sense. But I will say that I wonder what might have been different if Detroit was taking better care of its finest.

Thanks to Quarterbacker Maureen for the tip. Although this incident occurred less than 10 miles from my house, the demise of our local newspaper over the summer meant that this was not covered on the "replacement" website, or even on most of the general Michigan news websites.


Maureen said...

Very interesting that the Detroit PD doesn't have a CISM Team--I wondered why the discrepancy between the suicide stats for the Detroit PD compared to other PDs. It certainly seems plausible that the lack of that type of support system could be a part of the explanation. The whole thing is just so tragic.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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