SALT LAKE CITY — Recent studies and statistics show that the chances of domestic violence, suicide and murder-suicide are higher among police families.
Univeristy of Utah professor Dr. Sonia Salari and a colleague have been researching trends and warning signs when it comes to murder-suicides. In the past 10 years, they have looked at 730 murder-suicides nationwide, which included about 1600 deaths.
"We decided to start working on this because there is no justice. It doesn't go through the justice system," Salari said.
Salari said she sees a disturbing trend, which she calls "suicide contagion."
"Sometimes it seems more than one (murder-suicide) happens in a close proximity," she said. "You have situations where the person originally planned a suicide, but perceived the family would be devastated, and so decides to kill other family members."
Salari said often in these cases there is evidence of relationships gone wrong.
"Some crisis of some kind, marital breakup or estrangement, something of that nature," Salari said.
We may never know the exact reason for the two separate murder-suicides in Spanish Fork and Syracuse, but Salari said she's committed to shedding light on what she calls a dark reality.
Salari said her work is not even close to being done, and she plans to continue the search for answers and raising awareness throughout the country.
"There are people out there suffering from this. If there is some way to raise the awareness, if there is a situation where we can prevent these deaths, we should work as a community to find answers," Salari said.
Brain Robertson, who was a police chaplain for over 20 years, said that sometimes police officers don't ask for help because talking about their problems might be seen as a sign of weakness.
There are people out there suffering from this. If there is some way to raise the awareness, if there is a situation where we can prevent these deaths, we should work as a community to find answers.
–Dr. Sonia Salari
"Sometimes, we as a society expect them to be robotic. And we forget they are human," Robertson said.
He said he's not trying to deflect blame from the officer who did this, but unfortunately — and daily — many officers have a tough time going from on-duty to off-duty.
According to the National Center for Women and Policing, 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, whereas families not involved in police work make up 10 percent of domestic violences cases. Another study states that there is a 24 percent domestic violence rate among older and experienced officers. So it's two to four times more common for a police family to experience domestic violence.
Robertson said the numbers are similar with officer suicides. He also said that the divorce rate tends to be higher among police families.
"I would say maybe three out of five officers will end up in the termination of their marriage or divorce," he said.
Even though he's retired, Robertson still takes time to talk to officers, and often it's not just to say "hi."
"There's been a couple of times I've been with officers — their car has been wet from tears. And I've cried right along with them because I could feel their hurt," Robertson said.
For most of us, it's hard to understand how anyone could get to such a dark place where they would kill their entire family and then themselves.
As family members and friends, we're supposed to look for signs when a person is depressed or not acting normal. We often hear in these stories that everything seemed fine.
Psychologists who work with this issue every day said the majority of people in that kind of extreme stress will show signs.
It's also a big jump from the depression that leads to suicide and the rage and anger that would lead one to kill his family.
- UNI CrisisLine: 801-587-3000
- National Suicide Prevention Network Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- UNI Warm Line for recovery: 801-587-1055
"The difference between being so distraught about my own life and deciding to take that out on someone else's a very big difference," said Liz Albertsen, a psychologist at Valley Mental Health.
There are many resources and organizations set up to help individuals and families in crisis.
Police officers commit suicide at a rate higher than the national average. Many agencies offer support and counseling for officers who need help, and there is a new tool to identify those who are at risk.
Most police officers go through background checks when they are hired, which can help identify financial and/or emotional issues. But that's at the beginning of their careers.
And when you're in the business of saving lives and resolving conflicts — an officer's own emotions can begin pile up.
Now, Utah's first responders are beginning to adopt a risk assessment for suicide, hospitals also are starting to use it.
Developed by Dr. Kelly Posner, it's called the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale and asks in depth questions that identify risk of suicide.
"Someone's asked have you wished you were dead, or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up or have you actually had thoughts of killing yourself," Posner said.
Utah fire agencies will soon use the assessment during yearly physicals. Law officers are working with the State Suicide Prevention Task Force on to bring prevention methods to police forces.
Contributing: Jed Boal and Debbie Dujanovic