CT police academy training officer puts focus on cop suicide
Retired New Haven Police Capt. Joann Peterson said she knew cops who drank themselves to death and committed suicide, and now devotes her time to ensuring police recruits know they have other options.
Peterson, who has a master’s degree in communications and human relations, served as a New Haven cop for 22 years before she retired in Aug. 2013 and joined the statewide police training academy as a full-time instructor.
As a training officer at the academy Peterson educates future cops on various topics, including suicide, substance abuse and officer wellness.
“I think we’re looking at a new generation of law enforcement,” she said. “They’re not coming in with the mentality that they have to tough it out because they’re going to be cops.”
But still, she said, it’s important to make sure the recruits understand what their future holds.
“I don’t think there’s anything that can prepare you for the trauma that the officers are going to see,” Peterson said.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, for the the third year in a row, police officer suicides in 2018 exceeded all line-of-duty deaths across the nation, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit run by retired and active police officers that tracks police suicides.
In 2018, the nonprofit found, at least 159 police officers died by suicide, while 144 were killed in the line of duty. The nonprofit reported 159 cop suicides in 2017 and 140 in 2016.
“As tragic as these duty deaths are, the single greatest cause of death for law enforcement officers each year is suicide,” said Jeff McGill, one of the founders of Blue H.E.L.P., in a prepared statement.
A 2017 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation, found the suicide rate for the general population is 13 out of 100,000 and the rate for police officers is 17 out of 100,000.
If you're thinking about suicide or worried about someone who might be, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with a local crisis center. You can also text the Crisis Text Line by messaging TALK to 741741. Police officers can text the word BLUE to 741741.
On the second day of training at the police academy, recruits undergo a six-hour simulated stress exercise that mimics some of the realities they’ll face as officers.
“It shows them that they’re not alone, that they’re able to talk about their feelings,” Peterson said. “And this is on day two. So they’re learning from the simulated stress exercise and learning to start talking.”
She said handling stress and talking about experienced trauma is helpful to keeping suicide and divorce rates down among police officers.
“The whole idea of police work is having a balance,” Peterson said. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t help anyone else.”
“Police and detective work can be physically demanding, stressful, and dangerous. Officers must be alert and ready to react throughout their entire shift. Officers regularly work at crime and accident scenes and encounter suffering and the results of violence,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Peterson was one of many leaders behind a push for peer-support at police departments in Connecticut. She said a legislation mandate came down about a year and a half ago that required all police departments statewide to develop a peer-support team.
“It’s completely non-judgmental,” she said. “It’s people who have gone through shootings, people with children with development struggles, people who lost a child, people going through a divorce. You had probably somebody on that team that had been through something similar to what you’re dealing with.”
“We talk about not keeping their world really small,” Peterson added. “We often get into this mindset that the only person that can really understand us is another cop, but that’s not true.”
More to be done
Peterson said it’s important that recruits know about the suicide numbers for police officers — “even one is too many,” she said.
But another founder of Blue H.E.L.P., Karen Solomon, said she wants to see more done.
“There is very little money being spent to reduce the numbers of officer suicides,” a prepared statement from Solomon said. “Addressing officer wellness which includes spiritual, mental, social, and physical health should be the number one priority for each agency head in 2019.”
Peterson said police officers dedicate their lives to protecting and serving only to come away with trauma, stress and post traumatic stress.
“I’m trying to plant the seed to know they don’t have to go down that road,” she said. “I tell them to call me — call somebody — and talk it out.”
Despite all of this, Peterson still said she wouldn’t change her time as an officer and as a captain for anything.
“It’s still a phenomenal job,” she said. “It’s a great career.”