Police work in the United States is as diverse as the country is. There are many types of experiences in policing depending on an officer’s setting and organization. While policing is often routine it is also characterized by high stress, danger, violence, and hypervigilance (Larned, 2010). Police experience traumatic events to themselves and others, such as fatal car accidents, homicides, child abuse, and death of coworkers. Additionally, stress may arise from problems with management and co-workers or personal problems at home.
Cumulatively over their career a police officer encounter and witness disturbing events on a regular or daily basis (Bishopp & Boots, 2014). The stressors that build up may manifest itself in suicidal ideation and suicide. The prevalence of suicide by police officers varies from year to year. According to Clark and O’Hara (2017) during 2016 there were 108 police deaths due to suicide. This compares to 66 police deaths due to felonious assault and 52 police deaths due to accidents in 2016 (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2017).
Police organizations take an active role in attempting to decrease the prevalence of police officer deaths by assault or accidents through increased training, improved tactics, and awareness. This is not necessarily the same for police suicides which are not often discussed. Morabito (2014) stated “innovations do not have to be new or revolutionary- only new to policing or an individual agency” (p. 774). A police suicide prevention program is an innovation that could be implemented in a police organization.
To successfully implement a police suicide prevention program a police organization needs to develop a program and strategy that impacts all officers within the organization. The strategy should identify the reason for the program, provide training and awareness of the program, recalibrate the culture to institutionalize the program, and take steps to maintain the program as part of the organization. This can be accomplished through effective leadership that can positively impact the organization culture.
Current Research Research by Violanti et al. , (2008) has found police suicide ideation and suicide are brought about by external and internal influences. The influences are varied with research identifying numerous risk factors. Depression (Bishopp & Boots, 2014; Violanti et al. , 2008) was found to be a significant risk factor while Marzuk et al. , (2002) identified marital problems, alcoholism, and job suspension as the most important individual characteristics. Additionally, administrative policies, public mistrust, criticism, and job stresses were also identified as determinants of police suicide (Marzuk et al. , 2002).
Protective factors may diminish the impact risk factors have on police officers although, the protective factors may be weak compared to the risk factors (Marshal, Milligan-Saville, Mitchell, Bryant, & Harvey, 2017; Stanley, Horn, & Joiner, 2016). Agencies have responded with various programs to reduce the likelihood of suicide among police officers. A review of research revealed few “workplace suicide initiatives” had been evaluated for effectiveness (Milner, Page, Spencer-Thomas, & LaMontagne, 2014, p. 35).
Suicide prevention programs often have multiple components which make it difficult to determine which component, if any, was associated with achieving a reduction in suicide (Witt, Milner, Allisey, Davenport, & LaMontagne, 2017). Despite these challenges there is research that has supported police suicide prevention programs. Mishara and Martin (2012) conducted an evaluation of Montreal Police Department’s “Together for Life” suicide prevention program.
The program was administered to all members of the organization, utilized available police resources (peer helpers), provided training for supervisors and union leaders, and an awareness campaign to advertise the resources available. The results of the 12-year evaluation showed a significant decrease in the rate of suicide of Montreal Police Officers compared to other provincial officers (Mishara & Martin, 2012). Importantly the program was administered to all members of the organization and utilized volunteer police officers to assist with intervention. These components assist in recalibrating the culture of the organization.
Even though substantial research has not been conducted on the causal relationship of these program to police suicide rates it appears the programs do have value. The multifaceted approach of programs appears to assist in identifying and intervening with at risk officers (Milner et al. , 2014). An alternative to harmful coping mechanisms is a positive development that should be explored further. Organizational Change Any change within an organization can be expected to meet resistance, especially in police organizations which have a strong, influencing culture that resists change (White & Robinson, 2014).
Organizational leaders can minimize the resistance to change by developing a comprehensive plan for the change and incorporating input from employees. Instituting a police suicide prevention program would primarily be accomplished using planned change theory, following a systematic, methodical process. It is also possible a police agency may institute a police suicide prevention program after the agency experiences a suicide from one of its officers. While not ideal this may bound the actions an agency could take in response to the “crisis” they have experienced. Different organizations may use different methods of organizational change.
Al-Haddad and Kotnour (2015) stated “the probability of success varies from one organization to another as organizations undergoing change vary vastly in their structures, systems, strategies, and human resources” (p. 254). Each organization has a different capacity for change. Police leaders should utilize the methods which have the best probability of achieving the desired changes within their organization. Recognizing the unique differences between organizations and theories of organizational change, Al-Haddad and Kotnour (2015) grouped change methods into two categories, systematic change methods and change management.
Systematic change methods are more focused than change management. Systematic change methods are characterized by analyzing the present situation, developing a plan, communicating a plan, implementing the changes, and ensuring the changes are integrated in the organization (Al-Haddad & Kotnour, 2015). Implementing a police suicide prevention program would best be accomplished using systematic change methods, such as Bullock and Batten’s change model. Giblin (2014) described Bullock and Batten’s model as being composed of four parts, exploration, planning, action, and integration.
During the exploration stage the organization identifies an issue they want to address and raises awareness. As previously mentioned police suicides are recognized as a problem. The organization will then move into the planning stage where a course of action is developed. An agency may model their program after another agency, adopt recommendations from a national organization such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, or partner with a local health agency. Next, the action stage is the actual implementation of the police suicide prevention program.
Part of this stage includes evaluating the progress of the plan through various means. Lastly, the program should be fully integrated in the police agency, meaning the changes are sustainable and long lasting. A critical component to any organizational change is involving the employees in the process and effectively communicating throughout the entire process (White & Robinson, 2014). This is especially true of police organizations as they tend to be more closed and resistant to change than other organizations. Leadership Leadership is an integral part of instituting organizational change.
Leadership, in its simplest form, is the ability to influence others to achieve a goal (Giblin, 2014). Leadership is not limited to higher ranking officers, it also includes union leaders, and supervisors. Implementing a police suicide prevention program requires leaders who can effectively navigate the culture of the police organization. A significant obstacle to the implementation of a police suicide prevention program is overcoming the police culture that discourages officers from seeking help for fear of negative peer or career reactions (Deal, 2014).
Schraeder et al. , (2004) found changing organizational culture is a long-term process. Police leaders can overcome these obstacles. They need to recognize that they can influence a change in the culture of the organization (Deal, 2014). It is important that leaders proactively manage and lead change, preferably at the forefront (White & Robinson, 2014). Providing training to officers at all levels and being an active participant in the training aides in this strategy. It shows members of the organization they have a personal stake in the program and the members themselves.
A police leader should reach out to union leaders early in the development process to discuss and seek support from the union for the implementation of a police suicide prevention program. Giblin (2014) recognized unions are powerful influences on police agencies. Morabito (2014) found unions may positively impact the implementation of innovation in a police organization. A leader can utilize the influence of a union to gain acceptance from members of the organization for the implementation of the program.
Power The type of power used to implement a police suicide prevention program would include both position power and personal power. Police leaders have legitimate power, by their position or rank, to institute new programs they determine will be beneficial to the organization. However, this alone is not enough to ensure compliance from members of the organization. A police leader should also develop other bases of power such as referent and expert power to fully implement the police suicide prevention program.
This can be cultivated through influence tactics or strategies used to ensure goal accomplishment (Giblin, 2014). Adopting a cooperative approach may facilitate a smoother transition when implementing changes in an organization. Influence tactics that can be utilized to implement a police suicide prevention program are inspirational appeals, personal appeals, and coalition tactics. Police leaders can appeal to their officer’s values of helping others and taking care of each other when instituting changes.
Peer support has been identified as an important component in identifying and supporting at risk officers (Larned, 2010; Mishara & Martin, 2012). History has shown the police community will support each other after traumatic events. Arguably one of the most traumatic events for police officer and first responders was the 9/11 terror attacks. Dowling, Moynihan, Genet, and Lewis (2006) found the peer based assistance program of the New York City Police Department was effective in assisting officers with post event stress.
These tactics also utilize the existing police culture within the organization, where a peer can relate to the officer who speaks the same language as them. Furthermore, police leaders should also actively form a coalition with the police union. The police union could be viewed as a separate organization whose goals may not fully align with those of the police agency. However, a collaborative effort could be created between the two organizations with the goal of providing for the health and wellbeing of their members.
The collaboration could be viewed as a “win-win” for both organizations. Organizational Socialization Police officers experience an ongoing organizational socialization process. Through the process officers learn the skills, behaviors, and expectations of their job while reducing uncertainty in their role (Giblin, 2014). The organization’s culture is embedded in the socialization process and influences how an officer conducts themselves. A recognized impediment to officers seeking help for suicidal ideation is the culture of the police agency.
Identified barriers to psychological care include being stigmatized in the agency, loss of career opportunity such as promotion, and losing access to firearms (Marzuk, et al. , 2002). Additionally, officers may hide their problems, which can be perceived as weakness, for fear of losing the support of and confidence of fellow officers (Larned, 2010). Instead officers may engage in harmful coping mechanisms including substance abuse and violence (Larned, 2010). A police leader needs to overcome the culture that inhibits officers seeking help while preventing stigmatization.
Mishara and Martin (2012) found the closed organizational environment of police agencies presented the opportunity to engage in persistent activities which could influence mentality and culture. Research on existing suicide prevention programs have revealed components that may be effective in police agencies. Marzuk et al. , (2002) found programs may be most effective if started early in an officer’s career and reinforced regularly throughout it. The training officers receive should also include the effect suicide has on the organization and the community (Mishara & Martin, 2012).
The provided training should help mitigate the reactions of members by establishing a foundation of support for the implementation of the police suicide prevention program and cultural change (Schraeder, Tears, & Jordan, 2004). These components assist police leaders in changing the culture, making it more acceptable to seek assistance, while also integrating the new culture through organizational socialization. Police organizations face the challenge of maintaining continuity of changes overtime without regressing to a prior state (Giblin, 2014).
This can be ensured through the socialization process of new members. New organization members adopt the norms, behaviors, and expectations of the organization through formal and informal channels as they become acclimated to the organization. The socialization process will ensure new members adopt the norm that suicide is not acceptable and that there are useful resources available if they or another officer needs assistance (Mishara & Martin, 2012). Members that internalize this socialization early in their careers can then carry it throughout the remainder of their career.
As they progress they can then reinforce the norms to newer members who join the organization. Conclusion Police suicide is a difficult topic to discuss among police officers. This is due to the police culture which eschews showing outward signs of weakness. To effectively implement a police suicide prevention program an organization needs to break through and recalibrate this culture. This can be done by socializing current and future members to the revised culture, providing effective leadership at many levels, judiciously using power to implement changes, and instituting a comprehensive organizational change strategy.
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