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The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2001-2

Effective Postvention for Police Suicide

Robert Loo, Human Resource Management and Organizational Studies, Univerity of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Email: loo@uleth.ca
Keywords: Police suicide, postvention, trauma

Robert Loo

Human Resource Management and Organizational Studies
Univerity of Lethbridge
Alberta, Canada


Suicide in policing has reached epidemic proportions. Departments are often left in the wake of trauma and grief, unable or unwilling to deal with the suicide of an officer. This article provides practical guidance to departments to assist them in dealing with the aftermath of a suicide. Methods of interdepartmental communications, procedures, and debriefing are discussed. A model designed for suicide postvention is also presented.

Effective Postvention for Police Suicide

Shneidman (1981) coined the term postvention, in contrast to prevention, to describe the sorts of actions taken after a suicide largely to help survivors such as family, friends, and co-workers. Postvention was seen as a natural extension to the established suicide prevention field partly because there will always be some base level of suicide even when highly effective suicide prevention programs exist and partly because the survivors of a suicide can be viewed as victims of post-traumatic stress (i.e., post traumatic stress disorder: PTSD) and, therefore, in need of assistance in dealing with their grief reaction.

Survivor Reactions to Police Suicide
The signs and symptoms of distress and bereavement resulting from the suicide of an officer might be a mix of any of the following commonly-reported reactions among survivors (DSM-IV, 1994):

Steps in Suicide Postvention
The major steps in postventions could include any or all of the following depending upon the circumstances. Ethical Issues and Dilemmas
The issue of suicide contagion is important because police are armed and can readily commit suicide in an impulsive but undo-able moment. Police supervisors and health professionals must be alert to any warning signs (e.g., verbalizations about committing suicide, mood changes such as becoming despondent) that a survivor himself/herself is experiencing suicidal ideation or intent. Such persons must be referred to a qualified health professional in suicide prevention.

A Model for Suicide Postvention

Figure 1 presents a model for suicide postvention for police which the remainder of this chapter follows. As seen in the model, two program areas are emphasized, the critical incident debriefing and survivor support, and two analysis actions, the psychological autopsy and the analysis of suicide notes. As seen in the figure, all components of postvention must be evaluated, particularly for their effectiveness, and improvements made for the future. Finally, the linkage between prevention and postvention is highlighted.

Fig 1

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD)

The critical incident stress debriefing (CISD), originally developed to help emergency services personnel such as police and firefighters to cope with traumatic incidents, it can be used to help survivors too. The CISD usually has the following characteristics: Steps in Critical Incident Debriefing
The following steps are typically found in CISD (e.g., Mitchell & Dyregrov, 1993).

Social Supports for Survivors

Conservative estimates report that there may be as many as 28 persons directly affected by a suicide (Knieper, 1999). One could argue that, for police suicides, the number of significant survivors could be much higher given that not only family and friends are directly affected but virtually all of the police officers in a department especially small departments where strong bonds create a family feeling. Clearly, there is a need to provide support for these many survivors. Research has shown that survivors report receiving less support than desired or report being unaware of what support was available to them (e.g., Wagner & Calhoun, 1991). Such findings indicate that organizations need to do a better job of identifying survivors and communicating to them the availability of support services. For police departments, the imperative is to provide support for the family and fellow officers.

One potential issue is the macho image that still persists among some officers, that is, it is seen as a sign of weakness to ask for help or to actively participate in sessions for survivors. Another potential issue is the sigma associated with suicide in contrast to death by other causes such as vehicle accidents. For example, research found that widows of suicide tend to experience rejection from their husband's family and friends (Saunders, 1981). The point is that some survivors might be less likely to seek assistance or discuss the event with others because it was a suicide. Police departments might consider a policy requiring that officers attend CISDs and other activities intended for their assistance to ensure that all affected survivors receive at least some assistance.

While social support services initially brings survivors together for group and/or individual sessions, survivors may wish to form or to join existing survivor groups (visit the American Association of Suicidology www.suicidology.org to see an extensive listing of survivor groups across the USA).

The Psychological Autopsy

The term 'psychological autopsy' and the practice of performing psychological autopsies grew from the frustrations experienced in the Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office in the late 1950's where some deaths could not be properly resolved based upon the collected evidence (Shneidman, 1981). By changing to a multidisciplinary approach, the Death Investigation Team, involving behavioral scientists in addition to the traditional medical experts, greater success resulted in (psychological) autopsies. In addition, the interviewing of informants such as family members, friends, family physician, and co-workers added much independent information about the suicided and circumstances (Brent, 1989).

Since that time the term and process has evolved and broadened in scope; we are concerned only about the psychological autopsy in the context of police suicide. For us, psychological autopsies are useful in addressing three broad questions.

What was the Mode of Suicide?
Seeing as the majority of police who suicide use their service handgun, the method of suicide is usually easy to confirm. In some cases, such as hanging, asphixiation (e.g., carbon monoxide poisoning from vehicle exhaust), or drug overdose, the mode of suicide can also be easily confirmed. On the other hand, some cases can be more difficult to resolve because they involve multiple methods; for example, a drug overdose and drowning in a bathtub. Even more difficult to resolve are suicides that may appear as accidental deaths. For example, the single-vehicle fatal accident where an officer drives at high into a solid barrier when there are no mechanical, road, or weather conditions that can be proposed as reasonable explanations for the apparent accident.

There are several main reasons for gathering these data. The obvious reason is to identify use of the service handgun or other departmental weapon such as a shotgun so that access might be better controlled, hopefully, to make future suicides using departmental firearms more difficult.

What were the Circumstances Surrounding the Suicide?
Determining when and where suicides occur might have implications for prevention (Lester, 1997).

These data could identify patterns suggesting periods when managers and helpers need to be especially vigilant about potential suicides so that preventive actions could be taken. For example, if mood changes precede suicide, then supervisors and officers should be trained to identify such changes to help identify high-risk officers.

Why did the Officer Commit Suicide?
This is a critical question not only for identifying preventive actions but it is a question raised by survivors who might benefit, in a small way, from having the answer. Family, friends, and fellow officers raise this question wondering what could have so disturbing in the officer's life that suicide was the way out. For many officers suicide follows not just a single problem or critical event but the culmination of overwhelming several problems such as combined marital problems and career frustrations.

Ethical Issues
In conducting a psychological autopsy, one must treat all information and documentation as confidential. The integrity of the deceased must be respected. One must be careful not to cause further distress to survivors, for example, in the interview process. It is preferable that health professionals who are governed by a code of ethical conduct and subjected to disciplinary action by their professional body conduct interviews of survivors and informants. In any case all members of the team conducting the psychological need to be selected for their related expertise and personal suitability.

Suicide Notes

A substantial percentage of those who suicide leave suicide notes; a variety of studies over the past few decades showed that 15-35% leave notes (e.g., Shneidman, 1981; Tuckman, Kleiner, & Lavell, 1959). The analyses of suicide notes yields many insights into the factors that led to suicide the person's state of mind, and other important factors. For example, Brevard, Lester, and Yang (1990) identified nine themes from 20 notes from a city in Arizona. The most important themes included the desire to escape from pain (12/20 or 60% of notes) and self-blame for events (13/20 notes or 65%). Leenaars (1991), who has worked extensively in this area, identified eight patterns in suicide notes.

Some researchers have focussed on alcoholism because of the strong association between alcohol abuse and suicide or attempted suicide. For example, Leenaars and Lester (1999) found in their analyses of 16 notes from alcoholics a suggestion that suicide is associated with a response to unbearable pain, often associated with alcoholism itself; and a history of trauma such as a failing marriage. Thus, suicide may be seen as an escape from an unbearable situation.

Other researchers compared suicide notes written by males and females to detect sex differences but these studies usually report no sex differences in themes (e.g., Canetto & Lester, 1999; Leenars, 1988; Lester & Heim, 1992). Age has been examined to determine if there are any differences in themes between younger and older persons who commit suicide. Lester and Reeve (1982) found that older persons tended to be more concerned about feelings rather than actions and less explicit about their intended suicidal action. More recently, Leenaars (1992) found that older persons tended to write more about painful personal problems, about being trapped by despair, and long-term instability, for example, alcoholism or the multiple loss of significant others. Add to these findings is the more obvious difficulty that some older persons, especially in our youth-oriented culture, can experience in adjusting to the vicissitudes of aging with its accompanying decline in physical functioning and health (Bauer, Leenaars, Berman, Jobes, Dixon, & Bibb, 1997).

Evaluation of Postvention

Policies and programs for postvention must be evaluated periodically just as policies and programs in other areas such as crime prevention and community policing need to be periodically evaluated or audited. Evaluations help management as well as other stakeholders (e.g., the community):

Such evaluations should address at least the following questions regarding policy and programs (Patton, 1980, 1986).

Policy Area
Relying on an informal, unwritten policy or procedure, perhaps based upon past departmental practices, might not be a prudent approach given the scrutiny police services face and the potentially harmful effects of critical media coverage among other potential effects.

Program Area
Policies are simply sterile paper policies unless specific programs, services, and procedures are implemented to genuinely action desired policies. But it is also appreciated that program implementation and management is much easier said than done especially when resources are tight or there is resistance to programs. Resourcing
Resources are scarce in police departments and the priority for resources understandably goes to the needs of operational policing before support services such as postvention. That said, managers and other stakeholders need to be creative in resourcing postvention, for example, can health and other professionals be co-opted to provided some services pro bono or could community facilities be used gratis during no demand time periods for group meetings? Stakeholder Satisfaction
There are many different stakeholders in postvention and it may be impossible to satisfy the divergent or, even conflicting wants of the different groups. However, we must make a reasonable effort to satisfy stakeholders. Ethical and Legal Compliance
It is recognized that codes of conduct or legislation can be in conflict and that such issues need to be resolved. Evaluation Issues
While periodic evaluation makes good sense, not all departmental managers and stakeholders would likely embrace evaluations for a variety reasons.

The Evaluation Team
Particular attention has to be paid to the composition and credibility of the evaluation team. The team should have representation from departmental officers and the police union, qualified health professionals, survivors and community stakeholders without becoming so large as to be unwieldy. The mandate of the evaluation team and reporting structure must be clearly defined, perhaps adopting existing guidelines used for audits or other program evaluations. The team must be on guard so as not to become co-opted by one or another stakeholder group but remain objective and 'professional' in their work.

The Evaluation Report
To be useful, the evaluation report must:

Closing Comments

While postvention cannot bring back those officers lost to suicide, we should be able to provide timely and effective support to survivors and learn valuable lessons that will help minimize the likelihood of future police suicides. Review the model for suicide postvention in Figure 1 to ensure that police departments do cover the major postvention areas as discussed in this chapter and improve postvention for the future.

Select Sources

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed: DSM-IV). Washington, DC.

Faberow, N. L. (1992). The Los Angeles survivors-after-suicide program. Crisis, 13(1), 23- 34.

Mitchell, J. T., & Dyregrov, A. (1993). Traumatic stress in disaster workers and emergency personnel. In J. P. Wilson, & B. Raphael (eds.). International handbook of traumatic stress syndromes. New York: Plenum Press.

Williams, T. (1993). Trauma in the workplace. Ibid.


Shneidman, E. S. (1981). Postvention: The care of the bereaved. In E. S. Shneidman. Suicide: Thoughts and reflections, 1960-1980. Pp. 157-167. New York: Human Sciences Press.

Cain, A. C., & Shneidman, E. S. (eds.) (1972). Survivors of suicide. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.

Psychological Autopsy

Beskow, J., Runeson, B., & Asgard, U. (1990). Psychological autopsies: Methods and ethics. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 20(4), 307-323.

Brent, D. A. (1989). The psychological autopsy: Methodological considerations for the study of adolescent suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 19(1), 43-57.

Lester, D. (1997). Making sense of suicide: An in-depth look at why people kill themselves. Philadelphia: The Charles Press.

Shneidman, E. S. (1981). The psychological autopsy. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 11(4), 325-340.

Shneidman, E. S., Farberow, N. L., & Litman, R. E. (1970). The psychology of suicide. New York: Science House.

Social Supports for Survivors

Cain, A. C., & Shneidman, E. S. (eds.) (1972). Survivors of suicide. Springfield: Charles C. Thomas.

Knieper, A. J. (1999). The survivor's grief and recovery. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 29(4), 353-364.

Saunders, J. M. (1981). A process of bereavement resolution: Uncoupled identity. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 3, 319-335.

Wagner, K., & Calhoun, L. (1991). Perceptions of social support by suicide survivors and their social networks. Omega, 24, 61-73.

Suicide Notes

Bauer, M. N., Leenaars, A., Berman, A. L., Jobes, D. A., Dixon, J. F., & Bibb, J. L. (1997). Late adulthood suicide: A life-span analysis of suicide notes. Archives of Suicide Research, 3, 91-108.

Brevard, a., Lester, D., & Yang, B. (1990). A comparison of suicide notes written by suicide completers and attempters. Crisis, 11(1), 7-11.

Canetto, S. S., & Lester, D. (1999). Motives for suicide in suicide notes from women and men. Psychological Reports, 85, 471-472.

Leenaars, A. A. (1988). Are women's suicides really different from men? Women & Health, 14, 17-33.

Leenaars, A. (1991). Suicide notes and their implications for intervention. Crisis, 12(1), 1-20.

Leenaars, A. (1992). Suicide notes of the older adult. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 22(1), 62-79.

Leenaars, A. A., & Lester, D. (1999). Suicide notes in alcoholism. Psychological Reports, 85, 363-364.

Lester, D. (1997). Making sense of suicide: An in-depth look at why people kill themselves. Philadelphia: The Charles Press.

Lester, D., & Heim, N. (1992). Sex differences in suicide notes. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 75, 582.

Lester, D., & Reeve, C. (1982). The suicide notes of young and old people. Psychological Reports, 50, 334.

Shneidman, E. S. (1981). The psychological autopsy. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 11(4), 325-340.

Tuckman J., Kleiner, R. J., & Lavell, M. (1959). Emotional content of suicide notes. American Journal of Psychiatry, 116, 59-63.

Evaluation of Postvention Policies and Programs

Loo, R. (1987). Policies and programs for mental health in law enforcement organizations. Canada's Mental Health, September, 18-22.

Paton, M. Q. (1980). Qualitative evaluation methods. Newbury Park, California: Sage.

Patton, M. Q. (1986). Utilization-focussed evaluation. Newbury Park, California: Sage. Publications.

Posavac, E. J., & Carey, R. G. (1985). Program evaluation: Methods and Case Studies. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Rossi, P. H., & Freeman, H. E. (1989). Evaluation: A systematic approach. Newbury Park: Sage.

Web Sites


Lifeline Melbourne (www.lifeline.org.au)


Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (www.suicideprevention.ca)
Suicide Information & Education Centre (www.siec.ca)

United Kingdom

The Samaritans (www.samaritans.org.uk)


American Association of Suicidology (www.suicidology.org)
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org)
Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network (www.spanusa.org)
Suicide Awareness (www.save.org)


The company, Films for the Humanities & Sciences (PO Box 2053, Princeton, NJ 08543-2053, 1-800-257-5126) offers an extensive variety of focused and affordable videos addressing many of our concerns in postvention. A partial listing of relevant videos is presented; visit their web site at www.films.com for a complete listing.


Robert Loo © 2001. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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