A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to Jennifer Martin, a well-known news reporter in Alberta, speak about her husband’s suicide.
He was a police officer, who suffered from undiagnosed and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, along with numerous concussions.
She described in vivid detail her experiences in living with a man in this state: From being a loving and loyal husband on good days, to mean and unpredictable on the bad ones, making him at times unbearable to live with.
Jennifer’s emotional account of finding her husband the day he chose to end his own life left me, and the entire audience, in a silent state of shock. Jennifer was so brave to stand up and tell her deeply intense story of suffering and grief.
Sadly, hers is one of many similar stories across Canada about police officers who choose to take their own lives after experiencing trauma – whether it is a horrific single experience or a series of tragedies over the course of a career.
In a recent article, it was noted that there are some who believe that there is an expectation that police officers should be able to deal with stress because it is what they signed up for. With that attitude, we are sending our officers mixed messages because we want them to park their emotions or “suck it up,” yet we expect them to be compassionate when responding to calls.
While we use recruiting techniques, including a psychological evaluation, to ensure we have resilient police officers, they are human beings and experience the same emotions as everyone else. When a young police officer, who has just become a parent for the first time, responds to a call for the death of a child or a fatal motor vehicle accident involving young victims, it will no doubt affect him or her.
In Delta, like every other police agency, we have had some horrifying files involving families and children. The murder of two-year-old Rajvinder Kahlon by her father impacted a number of people in our department.
When Manjit Panghali was murdered, investigators kept a picture of her on the wall – they wanted a constant reminder of the woman for whom they sought justice.
The same reaction by officers occurred during the investigation into the impaired driving death of four-year-old Alexa Middelaer. They named the file “Project Angel” and committed countless hours, often sacrificing their own personal lives, to hold the offender accountable for her actions. Alexa’s picture hung in many offices in the department.
Some of these terrible tragedies have forced members of our staff into sick leave or resignation from policing.
It’s not just the big files that can create trauma and stress for our police officers. A young officer was fresh out of the police academy and he had to respond to a series of calls including a father who assaulted his young special needs child; a woman who jumped off a bridge and the police were concerned that she had taken her child with her; the recovery of her body (thankfully the child was not involved); and a call to a violent suicide in a garden shed. When you add the emotionally stressful task of death notifications, a police officer can quickly become overwhelmed by the job. No matter how well we educate and train our police officers, we cannot necessarily prepare them for what they will see and experience.
In the Delta Police Department, we employ a number of strategies to mitigate the intensity of traumatic events. We have peer-led Critical Incident Stress Management, a chaplaincy committee, a department psychologist and department policies that guide all of these strategies. We debrief after major incidents and have identified employee health and wellness as a key component to our new strategic plan.
The Toronto Police Service, following a noticeable increase in suicides amongst first responders this year, is considering adopting a national strategy for psychological health and safety for its police officers. While I appreciate the idea of a national strategy, it is far more critical for every police organization to develop and implement a plan that works for its officers and staff.
A national strategy may help guide us, but it boils down to creating an internal culture of understanding and acceptance that the police are not invincible and often we must lean on each other, and the experts, for support.
While we have come a long way in identifying the problem, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that our strategies create meaningful change in the lives of our first responders.
Jim Cessford is the chief of the Delta Police Department and has spent more than 40 years in law enforcement.