Agency Angst

Newly released Border Patrol suicide stats lead to more questions than answers

For months, the U.S. Border Patrol refused to release details about suicides among its agents, despite an apparent spike in such deaths, as revealed in research by The Associated Press.

On Oct. 22, U.S. Customs and Border Protection—the parent agency of the Border Patrol—finally provided the Tucson Weekly with suicide statistics within the CBP, although the agency did not parse out those specific to the Border Patrol.

Yet at least one Border Patrol agent disputes even those figures.

"I think their numbers are a little off," says Senior Patrol Agent Derek Hernandez, who serves as president of the Yuma local for the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing agents.

The sprawling CBP consists of four sub-agencies, including the Border Patrol, the Customs Service, agricultural inspection service at ports-of-entry, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Without numbers specific to the Border Patrol, CPB data is impossible to correlate with the AP findings. Still, government records do show a spike, with 14 suicide deaths in 2009, compared to just seven the year before. So far this year, there have been six suicides among CBP employees.

According to those statistics, the CBP's overall suicide rates rose from 12.6 per 100,000 employees in 2007 to 23.9 per 100,000 last year.

But the AP sets those rates higher, suggesting that suicides within the Border Patrol alone may range in the high 20s to low 30s per 100,000. (See "Secret Suicides," Currents, Oct. 14.)

Hernandez said that the CBP numbers seem low.

"In 2009 alone, there were two suicides just at our Yuma station," he says.

Meanwhile, union records cited by Hernandez chart another strange trajectory. They show 23 suicides among Border Patrol agents and support staff from 1993 to 2004. But from 2004 to early 2008, they show zero suicides.

"Now that may or may not be true," Hernandez says, citing what he calls the agency's penchant for blurring the causes of death when suicide is involved.

Hernandez counts five Border Patrol suicides before the end of 2008, out of a total of seven throughout the entire CBP.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention peg suicide rates at about 12 per 100,000 among the general public, Hernandez believes the rate is at least 25 per 100,000 among Border Patrol agents.

"And I'm being conservative," he says.

There are good reasons to doubt the CPB numbers, say experts such as Robert Douglas, executive director of the Delaware-based National Police Suicide Foundation. "Often times, they won't classify a suicide as a suicide," says Douglas, whose organization provides suicide-prevention training for agencies throughout the country. Instead, he says such deaths tend to be innocuously classified as "accidental discharge—undetermined death."

But Christine Gaugler, the CBP's assistant commissioner for human resources, says her agency emphasizes treatment over mere statistics. "Although we do track information about (suicide), we don't focus on looking at that specific data, as much as we do on wellness and resilience programs for the entire agency."

Still, she says her numbers show the CBP faring rather well, when compared to law enforcement as a whole. "The best (suicide) estimate we have in the law-enforcement profession is about 18 per 100,000."

At the same time, says Gaugler, causes of suicide among CBP personnel don't differ much from the causes among the general public. "When we look at the situations that are involving the employees, 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 ... I think that's pretty common in any society."

However, Douglas argues that reasons for suicide among law-enforcement personnel—including Border Patrol agents—don't simply mimic the larger population. Instead, he says the job tends to shape their self-images to a profound degree. Even the way they choose to take their own lives signifies what Douglas describes as a "warrior" culture: "Most of them have shot themselves in the head with their own service weapons. It's a warrior mindset."

Combine that with head-in-the-sand bureaucracies, and you have a recipe for tragedy, he says. "We have agencies that will not say that they have an issue, but there definitely is an issue. There is an acceptance of the fact that we lose more officers every year to suicide than we lose to deaths in the line of duty. I think there's a 2-to-1 ratio of suicides to line-of-duty deaths occurring in the United States today."

Despite assurances from Gaugler that the CBP has active suicide-prevention training for supervisors, as well as effective employee-assistance and peer-support programs, Hernandez says his agency has yet to fully embrace the problem.

There are, however, signs of progress. For instance, when an agent in the Yuma Station recently shot herself, Hernandez says the Border Patrol openly acknowledged a suicide among its ranks. "That was the first time ever, officially, that management actually said it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound. With every other suicide up to that point, they wouldn't put anything down. They'd just say that somebody suddenly passed away in their sleep or something. Management just kind of shunned all the other people who had done this."

The Yuma sector even held two sets of services for the victim, Hernandez says, one here in Arizona, and another in her home state of Texas. He considers that a sea change. "Normally, the Border Patrol has this big history where you can't even show up at a (suicide victim's) funeral in uniform—you can't do this and that—because of the way the person ended their life."

But that doesn't mean the Border Patrol is suddenly open-minded about suicide, says Hernandez. Instead, he contends that the agency's culture discourages seeking help. "It's a fitness-for-duty issue: If I come up to a supervisor and say, 'Hey, you know what? I thought about blowing my brains out last night,' they're going to say, 'This guy is nuts, and let's pull his gun and badge.' That's what they'll do, instead of sitting there and saying, 'What can we do to remedy this? How can we get you help?' So you're already alienated before you even go and ask for help."

That lack of trust between agents and their supervisors is compounded by the very nature of law enforcement, says Hernandez.

"We are the helpers. We help other people.

So when we have a problem, who do we turn to?"

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