Our Sad Secret

Lower Merion, PA Officer Sean Quinn

Lower Merion, PA Officer Sean Quinn

Policing is a great profession.  I am proud to be a police officer and proud to serve my community.  But we are not Supermen and Superwomen after all.  We have a sad secret that we never like to discuss.  Police suicide. Our rate of suicide is 2 to 4 times higher than the regular population.  More are killed in suicides than in the line of duty.  I have known other officers who committed suicide.  Because we never look for it among ourselves, we never see it until it is too late.  While we have access to employee assistance programs and other avenues of assistance, officers don’t want to seek help.  It goes against the code–we help others, not ourselves.  The problem is so pervasive that the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the COPS Office in Washington hosted a national symposium in July 2013 searching for solutions.   IACP has a series of programs to address suicide specifically and officer wellness in general.   If you are a friend or relative of an officer in distress, urge them to seek help.  Don’t turn your back on an officer needing assistance.  Maybe another Officer Quinn can be prevented.

Lower Merion Officer Sean Quinn and wife Eileen. “Whatever problems he was having,” she said after his suicide, “he hid it very well.”

    

By Jessica Parks, Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted: November 25, 2013

LOWER MERION Like many who lose a loved one to suicide, the family and friends of Officer Sean Quinn said they didn’t see it coming.  Quinn, 46, was a veteran of the Lower Merion Police Department, a former DARE instructor who loved working with children. He was a private man with a strong jaw and youthful features. After a bumpy stretch, his life had smoothed out in recent years, and Quinn was doing what he loved – patrolling the streets.

“It was all he ever wanted to do,” said his wife, Eileen.

Trained in crisis intervention, the officer also knew how to recognize when someone was suicidal. That may have steeled him the morning of Feb. 11. Instead of heading to work, Quinn drove to a South Philadelphia park, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger. “Whatever problems he was having,” his wife said, “he hid it very well.” Quinn is among more than 100 law enforcement officers in the United States each year who commit suicide. Thousands more are estimated to struggle in silence, fearful that seeking treatment could endanger their badges. Some states, including New Jersey, have launched task forces and issued statewide recommendations to departments.

“Externally, cops are tough critters. Internally, they have feelings,” said Ron Clark, a retired Connecticut State Police sergeant who runs the nonprofit support group Badge of Life. “They take pictures with their minds, and they go to some of the most god-awful scenes you could think of.” Clark said many officers and former officers – including himself – suffered from post-traumatic stress and faced higher risks of divorce and alcoholism. Officers can be especially difficult to reach because of their “impenetrable core” of toughness, said Tony Salvatore of Montgomery County Emergency Services, an advocate for suicide-prevention resources who trains officers around the region. After years of officers’ witnessing trauma and taking care of others, Salvatore said, “a lot of the resilience, the strength they could be using for their personal lives, they’re using just to keep themselves together on the job.”

There are no nationwide comprehensive statistics for suicide in law enforcement. But various studies have found the rate of officer suicide is two to four times higher than in the population at large and that more officers take their own lives than are killed in the line of duty.  Data over the last two decades show little change in the numbers or demographics. Like Quinn, a 25-year veteran, most were white men with several years on the force. With easy access to guns, officers are far more likely to succeed in their suicide attempts.

Last month, a police officer killed himself on a street in Carbon County, Pa., while a friend and fellow officer was trying to talk him out of it. In September, a Ewing, N.J., officer killed himself in the Police Department parking lot.  Experts say one of the best prevention methods is peer counseling; formal training programs have popped up nationwide. But getting officers to overcome the stigma of mental illness and the fear of career repercussions remains a problem, Salvatore said. Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona require peer counseling to remain confidential. New Jersey and Massachusetts are considering similar legislation.

In 2008, after Gov. Jon S. Corzine convened a task force, the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association set up a hotline and began coordinating treatment outside the law enforcement command structure.  Spokesman Kenneth Burkert said the New Jersey PBA had sent roughly 50 officers a year to rehabilitation centers. “They come back to the job healthier and better equipped to do their job,” he said. “It’s working tremendously.”

Pennsylvania, on the other hand, “lags far behind other states in its suicide-prevention work,” Salvatore said. More often, the burden falls on individual departments.  Bill Kelly, Abington Township’s police chief, said he had been focused on mental health for 20 years, having come from a department in Ohio that experienced both a suicide and a line-of-duty death. “I don’t know which was worse.”  When an officer is felled by a killer, “the organization all pulls together, you feel the solidarity and support,” Kelly said. But with suicide, “everyone feels guilty or points fingers at other people.” When he started in Abington, Kelly recruited veteran officers to act as peer counselors and got the township to provide an uncapped confidential-assistance fund to cover the cost of seeing a psychologist – or several psychologists until the officer could find one that clicked. “By providing all these different options, and making it so there’s no cost to the officers,” Kelly said, “you’re dramatically increasing the likelihood that they’re going to take advantage of it.”

Lower Merion’s benefits are less targeted to law enforcement, but Salvatore said the department had been proactive in general suicide prevention. It was one of the first departments to train in crisis intervention, and it has counselors on call to speak with staffers after traumatic events. Before Quinn’s death, his wife said, “we didn’t really have a lot of problems. We were happy.” But through his tough exterior, there were signs he might have been struggling.

In 1996, his younger brother committed suicide. “Sean was the first person to get in and see that. That was something he never dealt with, because he went into the cop mode,” said Eileen Quinn, “where he felt like he had to protect everyone.” In 2008, he was treated for alcoholism. That resulted in a year on desk duty and fewer outings with friends. (Quinn was sober and back on patrol when he died, his wife said.) In 2010, he hit a bicyclist while responding to an emergency call. The crash was ruled an accident, but the cyclist is suing the department for damages. In 2012, the family was struggling to make ends meet, and Quinn was working a second job as a driving instructor. The night before he died, Eileen Quinn said, they had argued about money.  Even after that, she said, she didn’t have a clue what her husband was intending. The next morning, when he texted, “I have to go,” Eileen thought he was in the briefing room at the station.  “It was a shock to us all,” Police Superintendent Michael McGrath said. “His failure to be at roll call was the first indication of a problem.”  Although the township’s health plan and employee assistance program cover counseling, Quinn said her husband would never have sought it.

“If you show that you are weak, if you show that you have problems, you can be taken off the street, you can lose your job,” she said. “But there are resources out there. And I know the department – they would never turn their back on him.”


BY THE NUMBERS

Of 126 law enforcement suicides surveyed in 2012:

  • 92% of the officers were male.
  • 41 was the average age.
  • 15.4 was the average number of years on the force.
  • 91.5% were killed by gunshots.
  • 83% had reported personal problems.

SOURCE: “National Police Suicide Estimates: Web Surveillance Study III,” published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, 2013.


At a Glance

According to various studies on suicides committed by law enforcement officers:

  • The rate of police officer suicide is two to four times higher than that of the civilian population.
  • More officers take their own lives than are killed in the line of duty.
  • Most at risk are white men with several years on the force.
  • The best method
  • of prevention is confidential peer counseling.

– Jessica Parks


jparks@philly.com

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

www.inquirer.com/MontcoMemo