SFPD suicides a taboo topic

Three San Francisco police officer suicides in the past year have raised the curtain on the often-taboo subject.

Two leaders of the department, police Chief George Gascón and police union President Gary Delagnes, have chosen to handle the deaths in very different ways.

Delagnes has called for a frank discussion on how to deal with the stresses of being an officer — the daily scenes of violence, abuse and death. He even recounted how he once nearly turned the gun on himself in a candid note to the rank-and-file in the union’s monthly newsletter.

Gascón, on the other hand, has kept relatively silent about the officers’ deaths and has not attended the funerals. He “primarily attends funerals for officers that are killed or die in the line of duty,” department spokeswoman
Lt. Lyn Tomioka said.

And while the department has robust peer counseling and psychological programs, experts say that the lack of acknowledgment among police administrations across the country have contributed to a culture that discourages officers from seeking help.

While the actual number of police officers who commit suicide nationwide have been elusive, most agree that more officers kill themselves every year than are killed in the line of duty.

Badge of Life, a 4-year-old foundation that has focused on the issue, found that out of the roughly 860,000 officers in the country, 141 officers committed suicide in 2008 and 143 in 2009.

Ron Clark, the organization’s chairman, has been fighting for departments to recognize suicide as a hazard of the job. A majority of those suicides can be traced to traumatic events such as an officer-involved shooting. Many officers, as is the case with San Francisco’s latest suicide, are highly decorated for bravery.

The tendency for most departments is to abandon an officer and their family after a suicide, Clark said. That silence contributes to a culture that is common among police officers: “Suck it up. If you can’t handle the job, you shouldn’t be here.”

“Do you think the chief is going to come out when you’re sick and feed you chicken soup? Of course not,” Clark said. “Should he come out to the funeral of an honorable officer? Absolutely, 100 percent.”

Jeff Shannon, a therapist and former Berkeley Police officer, calls it the “suck-it-up and drive-on culture.”

Police officers tend to ignore problems such as alcoholism, depression and anxiety while someone in a different profession might seek help, he said.

“If you talk to cops,” Shannon said, “they’ll tell you that it’s the justice system, the administration and the bureaucracy that are the most stressful parts of their jobs.”

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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