Police suicides spike in Turkey

Even the police can’t take the government-ordered crackdown on protesters


Bulent Kilic / AFP / Getty

It was a brutal way to make a point: On July 6, Erol Benzer, a 37-year-old father, walked up to the front door of a courthouse near Izmir, a resort city on Turkey’s Aegean coast, pulled out his government-issued pistol and fatally shot himself in the head.

In a final message posted on Facebook, Benzer, a 13-year veteran of the police force, wrote: “You, my colleagues, each deserve personal rights, human rights, human working and living conditions. Even police have the right of justice, of living and working as a human being. I am making myself a martyr for the sake of democracy. I hope mine will be the last police suicide.”

Benzer’s death came on the heels of a rash of police suicides during a month of intense anti-government protests across Turkey. The official response was grim, even for a country with a history of violently suppressing dissent. Tens of thousands of police officers were deployed on the streets of major cities, firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets at largely peaceful protesters in quantities that many consider illegal under international humanitarian law.

The results were effective, but came at a heavy cost. When the smoke settled, five protesters were dead and thousands more injured, with many losing eyes to rubber bullets and others left in comas after being hit in the head by tear-gas canisters.

Since the protests ended in late June, Istanbul has transformed from a city of summertime revelry to what looks like a police state. Anti-riot police remain deployed on the streets in and around Taksim Square, the epicentre of the protests, striking hammer blows to any attempts at reviving street action.

The effects on the officers themselves has been devastating: six suicides in a two-week span during the height of the protests—this in a country with an average yearly suicide rate among police of around 14 per 100,000 officers, according to the recently formed Turkish police union, Emniyet-Sen (the rate in the U.S. is 17 per 100,000). Even taking under-reporting into account, the Turkish rate remains significantly lower than in most Western countries. Taken in context, however, six suicides in two weeks is alarming.

“It shows just how dysfunctional the police services have become,” says Emrullah Aksakal, a former police officer turned lawyer and police activist. “What the police were expected to do during those protests was not humane. It pushed some officers over the edge.”

Indeed, the culture inside Turkey’s police services has gone from bad to worse since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2002, Aksakal adds. Political interference, common throughout Turkey’s often-violent 90-year history, has reached frightening levels.

“It’s become unbearable,” says Atilla Aktin, a former officer in Istanbul. “It’s like the Indian caste system. The commanders at the top are all AKP men. We are overworked and expected to follow orders without question.”

Aktin, a founding member of the Emniyet-Sen, was booted from the force in 2010 on what he says were trumped-up terrorism charges. “I was found not guilty of those charges,” he says, “but I was never re-hired by the police. The issue wasn’t the terrorism charge—it was the union I was setting up.”

According to numerous Turkish police officers (many requesting anonymity) who spoke to Maclean’s, unionizing has become a cause célèbre, but it’s not something they want to discuss. Creating a police union is still illegal under Turkish law and currently there are 250 officers being investigated for union activities, according to Turkey’s Aydinlik newspaper.

For many of those officers, the actions on the streets during the protests represent their own private desires: more democracy, more human rights and the freedom to live with dignity. But none of that seems possible for the time being. Sporadic protests and potentially larger demonstrations appear to be the reality for Turkey in the near future. This week, protesters gathered again to challenge the AKP’s growing hubris, this time in response to lengthy prison sentences meted out to former military personnel, journalists and academics, all accused of being part of an organization intent on overthrowing the government.

Tear gas and rubber bullets are in the air again through the streets of Istanbul. And it may not be long before another Turkish officer, despite Erol Benzer’s wish to the contrary, will take his own life.


Police suicides spike in Turkey

  1. Yep, even some cops have ethics. When being ordered to shoot, Mame, intimidate your own people to keep a corrupt governemtn in power…takes its toll. As the reality is, in the middle east protest organizers get assassinated by the government police.

  2. Apart from the Benzer’s suicide, the protests in Turkey is being exaggerated by the press. It was just on a small square in Istanbul but it was shown like in all over Turkey. If this is democracy they will respect 52% of Turkey’s voters and make their protests in a legal way. It’s just hoaxes playing against Turkey which is performing a great success in Economy and other issues.

    • Please remember Mehmet Emre, the protests were peaceful until police attacked them at Gezi Park. The protests were also much more wide spread than you suggest. Ankara saw some of the worst police brutality far from the media spotlight. Taksim Square is not just a small square and you know it isn’t. Kadikoy saw huge protests too.

      Try and understand as Erdogan still doesn’t…democracy is more than just voting every 4 years.

    • You people still exist or did someone forget to turn off the auto-posts from tyips computer?

  3. @ Mehmet
    What 52%? In last election, total electorate was 42M people. AKP took only 10.8M votes and CHP took 6.1M votes. There are 14.5M votes not accounted for or eliminated due to 10% limit rule. And 10M people didn’t vote probably because they hate all Turkish politicians.
    That said, again what 52%? AKP represents only 25% of the electorate.
    So stop talking nonsense, and tell that to your leader too.

  4. the so called ‘peaceful protesters’ wounded hundreds of policeman with petrol bombs pavement stones and even with guns.. hundreds of shops were sacked and looted by ‘peaceful protesters’ please do not write and comment one sided…if you believe an objective press…!?

    • Some protesters for sure were not peaceful but by far the majority were. I don’t know where you get information from but i have not heard of shops looted or ‘hundreds’ of wounded police. maybe you would care to share your sources. At the end of the day you blame the guy that started the fight and in this case it was the police and thats all they did – starting fight after fight. not surprised someone didn’t blow them up, it’s happened before, which just shows the reserve of these protesters.

      • I LOVED the way they burnt AK party headquarters in izmir

        • I think most people did ;)

  5. The rate of police suicides is higher in nearly every country, not just Turkey. Where else but the police and the military can you see a close friend get killed in the line of duty? If you turn to alcohol to relieve the stress, that doesn’t help your marriage or your relationship with your kids.

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