At an LAPD event marking Suicide Prevention Month, new police chief Michel Moore opens up about the deadly threat facing officers away from the streets
“We pride ourselves at the Los Angeles Police Department in being a family, but sometimes we don’t take care of each other like a family,” Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore told fellow officers, civilian support staffers, and their families.
It was a little after 9 a.m., the cloudy haze almost burnt off on this September 9 Sunday morning at the department’s police academy in Elysian Park.
The city’s new chief of police and other speakers were on a raised black stage on the track ringing a grassy infield. And they were speaking before the start of “Heart of the LAPD Walk: We Stand Together,” a 5K walk in the name of suicide awareness and prevention.
The new leader of the 9,000-plus sworn force said officers wouldn’t hesitate a moment to run toward danger, “into the breach,” to save a life. The department’s devotion to protect and serve Angelenos was something bigger than any individual, he said.
And that’s precisely where the paradox of suicide among police officers comes in.
“We wear the armor of the uniform, believing that we’ve got any situation that arises,” Moore told the crowd.
“And yet we know we don’t. We train, act, and live as a team. No one fights alone. But yet why has it been in the last 20 years we’ve lost 16 officers in the line of duty but 36 to suicide?
“We have such an aversion at times asking for a backup because of what we just saw or something we’re experiencing here in the department or at home. We’ve got to talk about this as uncomfortable as some may feel. But we can do better. And I know we can,” he said.
Being a police officer in the U.S. is indeed a dangerous occupation. Last year, 129 died in the line of duty. Many more were seriously injured and disabled for life.
But being in shootouts and car chases, cracking down on gangs and drug dealers, constantly responding to the growing numbers of mentally ill homeless living on the street, and going into homes on domestic dispute calls aren’t the only perilous encounters for the men and women wearing a badge.
As Chief Moore pointed out, the threat of suicide is one more reality cops must face.
Last year, 140 police officers across the nation ended their own lives. More, in fact, killed themselves than died from being involved in shootings and traffic accidents combined.
And the reasons aren’t that hard to fathom.
Think about being exposed to trauma almost every day at work. One study examined last year by the Ruderman Foundation’s “White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders” found that firefighters and police officers witness 188 “critical incidents” during their careers.
And these first responders suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression as much as five times higher than the rates for civilians.
But these public servants usually suffered silently, shunning any kind of mental health care. Andy O’Hara, a California Highway patrolman for 24 years, summed up the main reasons in a personal account for The Marshall Project last year. The project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that studies the U.S. criminal justice system through award-winning journalism.
“I found myself suicidal as the result of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and, as a police officer, felt the need to hide my mental health challenges due to the stigma that exists within the culture of law enforcement,” reported the founder of Badge of Life, a nonprofit whose mission is to prevent police suicides.
“There is a code of secrecy around mental illness in police agencies across the nation, a code that is difficult to break through.”
One day, O’Hara found himself alone in his bedroom with his gun drawn ready to shoot himself. Luckily, his wife came home early. She convinced him to put the gun down and to go to a hospital. And through therapy and medication, he was able to manage his emotional and psychological problems, retire and start Badge of Life.
Melissa Swailes’ husband, David, wasn’t as fortunate as O’Hara. The 36-year-old father of four, with almost 10 years under his belt at the LAPD, fatally shot himself on Feb. 26, 2016. Almost since then, his wife has been crusading to bring awareness and, hopefully, prevent the often-gone unnoticed suicides of police officers.
“My husband saw his police work as a calling,” she said, sitting around a conference table with two police psychologists and a 22-year LAPD veteran. They had come together in the sixth-floor offices of the agency’s behavioral science services in Los Angeles.
“At first I thought the reason why he died was spontaneous. But I came to believe it wasn’t because he had one specific critical incident. It was cumulative. I think it was just what I attribute to the job — this slow erosion of who he was. It was the day-in, day-out stresses that fully eroded through his life.”
At the time, she didn’t comprehend the increasing warning signs of insomnia or even restless leg syndrome and bleeding ulcers. She knew being a police officer was a highly stressful career and believed these health problems were just symptoms of that.
David was also discouraged with the politics of his job and decisions of upper management. For the better part of a decade, he worked in the LAPD’s busy Central Division. And there were times when people he arrested would be back on the street hours later.
“So there was the discouragement of there wasn’t anything he was doing to make a difference,” observed Swailes. “And so, he felt ...
“... Do I matter?” said psychologist Stephanie Barone McKenny, finishing the widow’s sentence.
Swailes was nodding.
McKenny, who has been on the staff of the LAPD for more than 10 years, returned the gesture.
“Law enforcement officers — and by extension many other first responders as well, see and experience things daily that most of us do not see or experience in our lifetime,” she pointed out.
McKenny explained that what might be simply part of the job for police officers is “extreme and atypical and abnormal” for the rest of us.
“So there are physical consequences, there’s psychological consequences and, I would argue, there are spiritual consequences to the work that they do.
“I think part of the psychological and spiritual toll from seeing things that most of us don’t see can include discouragement about humanity and society. It can include discouragement about whether God exists — ‘Does he even care about me or us?’ ‘Is this life meaningful?’ ‘Is this all there is?’ ”
If a law enforcement officer doesn’t have the support to counter those consequences, then death by suicide can become a real risk, McKenny believes.
Officer Stefanie Alcocer agreed, pointing out that there’s stigma associated with talking about certain “calls” that end up affecting officers personally.
“It’s really hard to even talk to your partner about it, because in patrol it’s not often that you have a steady partner,” she explained. “So you have to have that tough exterior.”
Alcocer admitted that coming from a small town in central California, she didn’t have that toughness when she started with the LAPD. She recalled an early probation shift in her career working out of South LA’s Southeast Division.
With a gang war going on, it started with one murder, followed by a rival’s double killing. It ended with a little girl on her way to school being struck by a speeding car.
Police psychologist Julie Snyder says that a certain degree of professionalism is needed for police officers today to be able to perform their jobs, which officers like Alcoser were trained to do.
“Because law enforcement officers are responding, right, on peoples’ worse days,” she said. “If a child is injured, you can’t lose it and cry. And many officers have urges to do that, but they know they can’t.
“So I think what happens is that’s an overlearned strategy to cope with difficult emotions or terrible things. So you have to suck it up, keep going … because then that emotion, that reaction, doesn’t necessarily have an opportunity to get validated or to get heard or for the person to get support.”
The other Stephanie was looking over at her co-worker. “And that compounds it.”
“I can see where that was an unhealthy way of thinking that led to my husband’s death,” added Swailes, the widow.
Angelus News caught up with Chief Michel Moore toward the end of the 5K, including treading up “Cardiac Hill.” Dressed in a two-tone blue shell jacket and exercise pants, however, he did not seem the least bit fatigued. The walk, in fact, had been a time for the new leader of the Los Angeles Police Department to reflect on what he called “mixed emotions.”
“It’s sad because, unfortunately, in this profession we’ve all witnessed an officer take his life, take her life,” only a couple hundred yards from being back at the police academy. “And you have survivor’s guilt in the sense: ‘Why didn’t I see that coming?’ ‘What should I have done differently?’ ”
Nevertheless, Moore described the renewed focus on awareness as “the sweetness of this.”
“It’s normalizing the circumstances that depression and suicidal thoughts and inclinations are part of the job, and it can be something any officer experiences. They’re not weird and they’re not abnormal.”
Moore added that such affliction is “certainly not a terminal circumstance.”
“They can rely upon us — me, the chief, and this organization — to support them and get them help,” he said. “Nobody fights alone in law enforcement.”
On the walk, which drew 710 participants, Moore also thought about the 36 LAPD officers who committed suicide in the last 20 years. During his 37-year career on the force, he knew them all, some better than others.
“We do have dark moments,” he acknowledged. “There’s times when this job beats you up, and you’ve got to make sure that you take care of yourself. It really helps to have a family that loves you and is there for you as a support system. We try to encourage and promote that.”
Then a half-smile crossed his face.
“If my wife was standing here next to me she would, of course, say, ‘Well, he’s not all that balanced.’ It’s good for her to remind me of that.”
We stopped to talk some more before the academy. Supporters along the sides cheered and clapped as walkers went by, like it was the finish line of the Boston Marathon. To one group of women, Chief Moore called out, “Hey, you made it! Good job!”
Turning back, the chief lamented, “We have a great behavioral science department, and yet, on average, we’re losing an officer a year to suicide. And I know the resources we’ve had in place have interceded and have stopped so many more.
“But our goal is zero,” he added in a more upbeat voice. “I think it’s a goal that is more than worth having. And we can achieve it.”
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