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Practical Police Psychology
with Dr. Laurence Miller

Q: The recent suicide of Lt. Derrick Norfleet of the Oakland Police Department has left the local law enforcement community in shock. This kind of event also reverberates with police departments across the country. How does a law enforcement agency deal with this kind of tragedy? What can we do honor our colleague and recover as a department?

A: You took the first step - you asked the question. There are no easy answers, but there are some answers. In an earlier column, I dealt extensively with what fellow officers can do to help prevent or stop the suicide of one of their colleagues. Here, I'll focus more on coping with the aftermath of a tragedy that's already happened.

Why Do They Do It?
Although each person has their own history and their own story, there actually are a set of fairly well-understood reasons why people in general - and police officers in particular - choose to take their own life. These usually boil down to some combination of anger, helplessness, hopelessness, and/or shame. Many cops live in an either-or, black-or-white, you're-only-as-good-as-you're-last-screw-up kind of world, where anything less than total perfection all the time is considered intolerable. When such a rigid belief system is stressed by perceived failures at work, and perhaps further strained by personal problems at home, the whole system is at risk of imploding and the officer now feels that there's "no way out."
Paradoxically, for other officers, it may be the opposite problem. After a suicide, or more commonly, an arrest, many colleagues may be stunned to learn that their seemingly golden-boy colleague was engaged in all kinds of illegal, corrupt, and unethical behavior, at work and in his personal life, and now his evil ways have caught up with him and it all comes crashing down. This, too, may lead to a "no way out" scenario where the accused officer believes there's nothing he can do to shake himself out of the web of trouble he's woven himself into.
A third pattern may be more noticeable to colleagues, the "train wreck." This is the officer who everyone knows to be a general goof-off, screw-up, or just plain pain in the ass. This is the guy or gal who always seems to be jumping from crisis to crisis and putting out brushfires. He wears his crap on his sleeve, so to speak, never really crossing the line into major malfeasance, but accumulating a pile of petty complaints and disciplinary write-ups, until the sheer weight of these molehills tips over into a mountain of woe and he's now facing serious trouble at work or at home and, again, feels like there's "no way out."
Finally, otherwise competent officers may suffer from clinical depression or another kind of mood disorder that they just happened to inherit from their family gene pool and that may have been further entrenched by a psychologically unhealthy childhood upbringing. These cases can usually be very successfully treated with a combination of medication and short-term psychotherapy but many officers needlessly suffer in silence because they're afraid that bringing this to someone's attention will brand them as a "head case." A particular problem with some mood disorders is that the officer's thoughts, feelings, and behavior can often turn on a dime, changing over the course of just a few days from normal and outgoing to suicidal despair. This is often the scenario that leads stunned colleagues to comment, "Killed himself? What do you mean killed himself? I just saw him last shift and at a barbecue over the weekend, and he was talking and joking like he always does. I can't believe it!"

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