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Secret Suicides

The Border Patrol keeps agents' self-inflicted deaths under wraps

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In August, Paul J. Weber of The Associated Press wrote about an apparent suicide surge among U.S. Border Patrol agents. And when the agency wouldn't provide numbers, the AP went digging.

Combing through various records and media reports, the news service found that the Border Patrol had gone through four years with no publicly reported suicides. But according to Weber, since 2008, the number has jumped from zero to at least 15.

They include agents such as Eddie DeLaCruz of Texas, who returned home after a tough shift, casually chatted with his wife about her birthday plans, and then put his service pistol to his head.

The Border Patrol and its parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, dispute the AP numbers—while still refusing to release any statistics of their own. Experts say that hard-nosed stance doesn't just reflect a lack of government transparency; it also reveals a law-enforcement culture bent on denying the problem, even as the numbers continue to climb.

"We have a cancer," says Robert Douglas, executive director of the Delaware-based National Police Suicide Foundation, which provides suicide-prevention training for agencies throughout the country. "I believe we're losing an officer about every 17 to 28 hours. That's across the board—city, county, state and federal law-enforcement agencies. And it has not been addressed."

According to T.J. Bonner, however, Border Patrol numbers stand out. Bonner is president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing approximately 10,000 agents. "Our rate is higher than the rate for other law-enforcement officers," he says, "and four times higher than the rate for the general populace."

Bonner says his council offered to help the Border Patrol find out why, but the offer was rebuffed. He also asked for specific information about past cases. "And it hasn't been forthcoming. I'm not privy to any of the (suicide) notes that have been left. I am aware that some of them are definitely job-related. I'm aware that others were personal situations. But I don't know the breakdown, and I'm not sure the agency has a good picture of it. Whatever they're doing, it's not working.

"When you have that many people who have reached that point in their lives and haven't spoken to other people about it, that indicates a lack of faith in the existing process."

But federal officials defend their counseling programs, hotlines, suicide-prevention training for supervisors—and their compassion for troubled agents. "We think even one suicide death is too many," says Christine Gaugler, the CBP's assistant commissioner for human resources. But Gaugler still wouldn't release the statistics. "I'm just going to have to get back to you," she said. "As you might imagine, it's a policy decision."

At press time a week later, we were still waiting for those numbers.

Gaugler does argue that law-enforcement suicide rates aren't strikingly higher than those among the general public; she says that roughly 18 of every 100,000 law-enforcement personnel commit suicide, while the numbers stand at 11 per every 100,000 for the rest of us. "So we're just a microcosm of society, and our suicides really reflect that microcosm."

Factors driving those deaths are also similar, says Gaugler. "Generally, there are relationship issues; there might be a divorce, financial issues, family issues—things that are going on in any person's life that they have stress (about). We've found when we've looked at the cases, that's pretty common."

Douglas sees it differently. In training sessions with thousands of officers—including plenty of Border Patrol agents—the feedback is nearly always the same. "They do not trust management. And the job defines who they are. ... Because of that, they are not going to risk any situation that may imply that they're not fit for duty."

That includes requests for counseling. While Gaugler insists that the Border Patrol's counseling programs are strictly confidential, Douglas says inherent mistrust keeps officers from exposing their problems.

Federal officials "can tell you all day that there is no stigma—that there's a confidentiality clause that makes sure that (counseling) doesn't get back to you," he says. "All of that may very well be true. But the perception by the rank-and-file is that they do not trust their leaders. I've worked with Border Patrol and spoken individually with Border Patrol agents over the years, and in that, they are not much different than officers in your city, county and state agencies."

While Douglas applauds the military for confronting suicide rates among returning veterans, he also says law enforcement lags far behind. "It's like Border Patrol: They're not going to give you that data, because they're apprehensive that people would draw the conclusion that they've got officers who are in crisis."

While Douglas estimates approximately 250 suicides each year among all law enforcement—from beat cops to federal border agents—he says agencies continuously try to skew the numbers. "Often times, they won't classify a suicide as a suicide. They will classify it as 'accidental discharge—undetermined death.'"

For instance, he was recently contacted by a federal agency after one of its officers, terminally ill, killed himself. "When it came out, the cause of death was classified as 'succumbed to cancer,'" he says. "I was an officer with the Baltimore police for 25 years, and if I was investigating that death, I would have called it a suicide."

In addition, he says there have been "at least 44 suicide-homicides since 2004, where (officers) have killed family members and then themselves. It is an issue."

One such incident apparently occurred in April, when an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and explosives is believed to have killed his wife and himself in Flagstaff, Ariz.

If there's a general theme to these deaths, Douglas says, it's the inability of officers to separate the anxiety of their jobs from their lives at home. "We reap the same issues that soldiers in combat reap. We will have shooting situations and traumas. We will acquire post-traumatic stress disorder, as they do.

"The bottom line is that officers don't know how to make the transition from street to home. And for the most part, they're not taught to make that transition." But while the military "has stepped up and said, 'We have a crisis,' there's still very much a cultural bias in law enforcement against talking about suicide."

That's reflected in another set of numbers: "Among the 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in the United States," Douglas says, "only about 5 percent have any type of suicide-prevention programs at all."

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