Police officers are six times more likely to die at their own hands than at the hands of bad guys.
That was the sobering topic about 60 law enforcement officers from across the state discussed on Monday at a day-long seminar.
“A high percentage of cops suffer from some sort of post traumatic stress,” said Dr. James Sewell, retired assistant commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who led the seminar. “It’s not just post traumatic stress. It’s cumulative stress.”
The Police Benevolent Foundation and the Georgia Division of the Southern States PBF worked to bring the program to Augusta to train officers on identifying warning signs and what to do to help.
Sewell said the contributing factors are numerous. Police constantly put themselves in harm’s way, allow themselves to become victims, have to miss family celebrations like birthdays and graduations for the job, often deal with shiftwork and accumulate “people pain,” or the constant emotions that come with breaking devastating news to families or the emotions that come with seeing people on their worst days. Then, they’re also dealing with the common stressor that everyone deals with like family troubles and financial hardships.
Police, however, have a higher rate of divorce, alcoholism and health issues.
Statistics show an officer dies in the line of duty about every 39 hours, but an officer dies from suicide about every 17 hours.
Richmond County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Patrick Clayton asked the officers in the crowd to raise their hands if they knew an officer who has been divorced, had alcohol or drug addictions or had committed or attempted suicide.
A flurry of hands flew up with each question.
Clayton said the agencies often have programs in place for physical fitness but they ignore an officer’s mental fitness.
Of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies, about 2 percent have policies or programs that address law enforcement PTSD or suicide prevention.
Some local agencies, like Richmond County, have a peer support program in place to help officers who are having difficulty after a shooting or other traumatic event. The members in the group are made up of officers who have been through traumatic events and can help talk others through their troubles.
“Sometimes you think you’re crazy,” said Lt. Andy Carrier, who is one of about 45 people on the Georgia State Patrol’s peer support group. “A month or so after it and it will still be keeping you up at night and you just feel like you’re going crazy.”
Sewell said some help is needed beyond what a support group can provide.
The most common cry for help is a sudden change in behavior from the officer, Sewell said. But gradual changes over time, sleep disturbances, increases in accidents or workers compensation claims, increases in complaints from fellow officers and civilians and the use of alcohol or drugs are all warning signs.