Examining Suicidal Ideation as a Mediator Between Stress and Aggressive Police Misconduct

May 2023
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Prior research links suicidal behaviors and aggressive forms of police misconduct to stress. However, no study examines whether suicidal cognition, specifically suicidal ideation, influences verbal and physical police misconduct. Psychological and sociological theories suggest that self- and other-directed violence are related, but social and cultural constraints determine the outcome. First, this dissertation examines whether suicidal ideation mediates the relationship between stress and aggressive police misconduct, specifically verbal abuse and excessive force, and the relationship between negative affect and aggressive police misconduct. Second, this dissertation investigates the effect negative affect (depression, burnout, and anger) has on aggressive police misconduct and whether anger exerts the greatest influence. A series of multinomial logistic regressions are conducted with mediation analysis following the guidelines set by Baron and Kenny (1986) and utilizing Karlson, Holm, and Breen’s (2011) decomposition method. Primary and supplemental analyses indicate that stress and negative affect’s relationship with verbally abusive police misconduct is partially mediated by suicidal ideation. Mediation does not occur when observing the excessive use of force exclusively and in the presence of all forms of negative affect. The analysis also indicates that, individually, all forms of negative affect increase aggressive police misconduct. Whether separate or paired with the other forms of negative affect, anger is consistently the greatest emotional influence on aggressive police misconduct. The findings of this dissertation suggest that suicidal ideation may underlie verbal aggression exhibited by some law enforcement officers. This supports the theoretical perspective that suicidal behavior and external aggression are linked, but social constraints prohibit certain displays of aggression. Furthermore, it demonstrates that the processes under Agnew’s General Strain Theory [GST] (1992) may be dynamic and influence multiple behavioral outcomes. Concerning GST, this dissertation further supports that anger is a key factor in perpetuating violent behavior. Given the implications of these findings and that organizational stress is consistently cited as the most influential form of stress as seen in prior research (Amaranto et al., 2003; Bishopp et al., 2016, 2019; Violanti et al., 2019), law enforcement agencies should consider promoting officer well-being. Solutions directed at organizational approaches to stress reduction are likely to make the greatest gains in reducing behavior resulting from stress detrimental to the organization and the individual. Ignoring organizational issues will likely promote further issues in policing.

Sociology, Criminology and Penology