As a police duty inspector, you get informed of every sudden death – suspicious or otherwise. You attend the suspicious ones and ensure detectives of varying seniority and forensic officers attend; but suicides are usually always intially presumed suspicious to be certain of a thorough examination of the circumstances. Initial action is taken by the police to preserve the scene and any relevant information on behalf of the coroner. Of course if then thought suspicious, criminal investigations are initiated and this early judgement is crucial to how things are subsequently handled.
Here’s a recently published fact to get you thinking: suicide is the leading cause of death in under-35s, according to the Office for National Statistics (2009 figures, published October 2011). This is also true in Australia and probably elsewhere.
Police officers are invariably called to all suicides and most of us have been to several. My first was to a man on remand in prison for raping his step-daughter and who killed himself in the very cell at HMP Birmingham where Fred West had ended it all several years previously. He’d been convicted and was awaiting sentence – he left a letter of admission and of apology having denied the offence throughout the trial – and he decided to hang himself. It was an interesting, yet deeply harrowing and equally thought-provoking day at work.
Institutional suicide is especially interesting, not least because places like prisons and psychiatric facilities are most usually detaining people against their will. They owe a legal duty of care which immediately raises questions in any police response around potential offences and other statutory or regulatory violations. It turns the police from a partner organisation to the independent investigating authority, except that in deaths in psychaitric care it is not always the case that the police are called. Perhaps another blog would be interesting on the subject of responding to sudden death, including suicide, in psychiatric care because various campaigners highlight inadequacies in the investigation and independence in the scrutiny of those matters … that’s for later.
This post is about the effect upon police officers of dealing with reports of sudden death, especially suicide. It is a post which follows on from “Who Is Protecting the Protectors” – meaning the protection of police officers’ welfare and mental health; their protection from the impact those events can have upon officers, perhaps at a much later time.
I’m going to cover:
- Police officers and ‘coping’
- Police force responses and training
- “Suicide by Cop” <<< in a seperate post.
Police Officers and ‘Coping’
Of course, officers have their idiosyncractic responses: humour, alcohol, exercise or maybe something else entirely. Some officers seem to have no issue in handling death and disaster at work – whether or not they do, is often not clear. They just seem to switch it off at the end of the day … or perhaps they take it all home with them?
In addition to my first suicide, I recall my first death message: I had the job of telling a woman that her mother had died – on Mother’s Day. <<< I am NOT making this up. It was therefore my duty to do this on the very day that was guaranteed to provoke the most emotive memories for every Mother’s Day in subsequent years. As if missing your mother on Mother’s Day isn’t hard enough: to remember that was the day she died suddenly, you weren’t with her and were told by a fresh-faced young cop?
Some police officers “don’t do death”. I know of several who will go out of their way to avoid sudden deaths, suicides, death messages and everything connected to it. There are a range of tactics for the experienced constable or sergeant – inspectors can’t avoid it because there is only one of you at any given time in operational command. But the experienced constable knows to ask, “Does your probationer need to do a [death message / sudden death]?” Why not take opportunity to avoid something unpleasant and harrowing if another officer ‘needs’ to experience how to handle such incidents?
When I was a tutor constable and a shift sergeant, I used to ask the control room for our area to given my any sudden death report that came in, whether or not it was on our particular part of our area. My probationary constables had to ‘do a sudden death’ in order to get their initial training competencies signed off. It all sounds very macabre, but if it involved delivering a death message, so much the better for getting it done, dusted and out of the way. Surely better to allow a newer officer to have to undertake the task under the closer supervision of trained tutors and / or supervisors to gauge their personal reaction as well as their professional handling and properly ‘debrief’ the event in way that may not be done for more experienced officers?
Police Officers and Training
So what of training and what of support when it needs to be more formal and professional? All forces train officers on all aspects of sudden death. Not just how to ‘police’ it in terms of scene preservation, referral to senior officers / detectives; but also how to manage death messages – the big “dos and don’ts”. Training encourages officers to seek guidance and welfare support if required and not to presume that they are expected to ‘tough it out’. It deliberately involves trying to ensure any cultural preconceptions about ‘being tough’ are dispelled and make people aware that they can seek after-care. Having said this, there have been calls to improve police training on handling suicide, following the Bridgend suicides in South Wales.
Most forces have a variety of support mechanisms and there is much to be said for the very informal ones which exist through the natural support and camaraderie of working on a police team. I actually find, when you’ve dealt with something really tough, cops have a got a fantastic propensity to support each other and I don’t mean through the sudden outburst of a “macho” nonsense. I mean groups of officers who know each other well enough in a close-knit team to know when humour, sympathy or silence may be best – this is true across emergency and armed forces, from what I’ve learned.
The development over the last couple of decades of better training and support mechanisms within the police has also been important and includes access to officers who are trained in initial support following critical events and can include formal, professional support from counselling services, over a long period of time, if required. Specialist support for officers involved in particular roles is also available: child protection detectives; firearms officers, road traffic investigators and many more besides.
I note with interest that there have been academic studies of the impact of dealing with suicide on mental health professionals, however I can find nothing comparable for police officers or other justice professionals. (Any pointers from readers who know of any would be appreciated.)
Of course, one of the most difficult jobs a police officer could potentially deal with, could be the suicide of a another police officer. I’m instantly unable to stop recalling the suicide of PC David RATHBAND just over a month ago and the police officers and paramedics who dealt with the initial response to the discovery of his death. I’m also aware of others such as the suicide in a mental health unit in Sussex of Sgt Richard BEXHELL in 2009.
This article is continued in a second part concerning “Suicide by Cop”. >>>