Why more police officers are committing suicide — and how we can help save them
Officers find themselves in a vortex of public scorn and lack of political support. Their esteem as professionals who help the community has been severely damaged, causing morale and esprit de corps to plummet.
Police departments are failing. Failing at helping their own. For too long, the traditional culture of the policing profession has turned a blind eye on the growing prevalence of death by suicide in its ranks.
Police suicide is a topic that has finally made its way out into the open. With support of police leaders, formal and informal, law enforcement culture can and will support health and safety, both physically and mentally.
Suicide is an uncomfortable topic. It is spoken about in hushed tones, laden with euphemisms. Loved ones left behind devastated not only at loss, but at feelings of guilt for not knowing, not recognizing, and not being able to intervene.
The police profession has been hit particularly hard in recent years by suicide. Police officers are now more likely to die by suicide than by duty-related homicide or accidents, combined. Five Chicago police officers died by suicide in the last six months of 2018, alone. Eight more have died at their hand in Chicago this year. Ten New York Police Department officers have taken their own life in 2019.
A police officer in Montgomery County, Maryland, committed suicide last month on the roof of a busy parking garage. Initially, a SWAT team combed the commercial area searching for a gunman as the officer had reported over his two-way radio that he was flagged down about a report of disorderly subjects on the top level of that garage. An autopsy confirmed the officer had intentionally taken his own life.
We are left to ask ourselves, “Why?”
Astonishingly, the number of law enforcement suicides has not been reliably tracked and reliable data has been collected and tracked for only the past few years by Blue H.E.L.P. Blue H.E.L.P. is a non-profit organization formed to help reduce the stigma of mental health challenges in law enforcement. It is working to improve data collection and does have reliable data on police suicides since 2016.
The news is not good. Far too many cops are ending their own lives, and the totals get higher every year.
The overall rate of police suicide has climbed each year from 143 in 2016 to 180 so far in 2019, with some six weeks left in the year. December is typically the month of the year with the most law enforcement suicides. In 2018, law enforcement suicides in December were 80% above the monthly average.
What is driving this increase in police suicides?
The law enforcement profession has experienced unprecedented pressure and scrutiny since about 2014. Public sentiment has been influenced by often misleading and inaccurate accounts of high-profile use-of-force incidents. In many jurisdictions, police find themselves in a vortex of public scorn and lack of political support. Their esteem as professionals who help the community has been severely damaged, causing morale and esprit de corps to plummet.
With near-constant exposure to human tragedy, stress, rotating shifts, physical danger, legal peril, and virtually every other factor that could cause major turmoil in one’s life — personal and professional — officers are at much greater risk for depression. Left untreated and with continued exposure to abnormally high levels of stress, this disease can and often does progress to suicide, especially for a population with ready access to firearms.
Despite its evolution over the decades, law enforcement remains a profession rooted in cultural traditions and norms. Law enforcement culture discourages any sign of weakness, which includes asking for help. It has often failed to nurture the human needs of officers.
Officers’ concerns about mental health are stigmatizing. Many agencies still do not provide for routine professional or peer support for its officers. The stigma of asking for help, sadly, is still alive and well in American law enforcement. This must change.
Every police officer and administrator must be all-in on shifting to a more supportive model for mental and physical health of officers. They must be educated about the signs of depression — not only so they recognize it in themselves, but so they recognize it in their colleagues. They must know how to care for themselves and their brother and sister officers. There should be mandatory mental health “check-ins” at regular intervals and after key events, like critical use-of-force incidents. This would normalize this kind of support and eradicate the stigma.
The Police Executive Research Forum recently convened a large cross-section of police leaders and mental health professionals to discuss the epidemic of suicide in the law enforcement community, The forum’s subsequent report, “An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do to Prevent Suicide Among its Officers,” details effective approaches for law enforcement organizations to use to change cultural attitudes toward mental health. Every law enforcement executive should commit to adopting at least some of these recommendations as a starting point for addressing the culture of mental health stigma.
No one should die from suicide. It is a tragic, final symptom of a treatable disease. In a profession that prides itself on being a brotherhood, police organizations and leaders must embrace any change necessary to reverse this epidemic.
Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, was a law enforcement officer for more than 20 years. He most recently was deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department from 2016 to 2018.
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