While the risk of COVID-19 is causing mass panic, anxiety and, in some cases, outright hysteria, there is a much greater risk to law enforcement officers—suicide.
In 2019, there were 228 suicides among law enforcement in the United States. On the corollary, there were only 48 line of duty deaths by felonious gunfire. In an article I wrote for LAW and ORDER a few years ago, I researched line of duty deaths for three years and compared them to the law enforcement suicides of each of those years. I concluded there—and it has been backed up by other research I’ve discovered since then—that officers are killing themselves three times as much as being killed in the line of duty. Last year, cops killed themselves four times as much as being killed in the line of duty. This has got to stop.
More than not, officers use their own firearms to take their lives. Consider the irony: Law enforcement officers are trained and given the tools to protect themselves and the citizens they serve. They’re given guns, and they regularly train with them. They’re equipped with ballistic vests and train on tactics. Officer safety is preached to the nth. Then, because of the nature of the job, they are deliberately exposed to horrific, traumatic events. The critical and sub-critical incidents begin to pile up, in addition to the normal onslaught of vicarious and secondary trauma exposure. This exposure often causes emergency responder exhaustion syndrome (ERES). The symptoms include depression, isolation, and mental and physical exhaustion, which can lead to negative coping. Without healthy, adaptive coping mechanisms, all the negativity law enforcement officers are exposed to get exponentially magnified.
The same firearms that officers carry on shift and regularly train with now becomes a negative lethal means of ending pain for the officer—the pain that was deliberately caused by the job.
For every first responder who takes their own life, there are dozens who attempt to take their life by suicide and hundreds, if not thousands, who are feeling the pressure and burden of deep depression and passive suicide ideation.
Unfortunately, the law enforcement subculture is treatment-averse. How do we “overturn the tradition of silence on psychological problems, [while] encouraging officers to seek help without concern about negative consequences” as outlined in the President’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing?
How to individuals and leaders of agencies change culture to one where officers are open to getting help? How do we help save lives?
We’re sworn to protect. We have the duty and obligation of protecting and saving lives as our livelihood, but what about saving the lives of our colleagues—our brothers and sisters in blue? Those in law enforcement are given hundreds of dollars’ worth of tools and equipment. We’re given ballistic vests, and over the last several years most agencies have mandated officers wear them on patrol. Policies mandate that vests are worn and seatbelts are fastened, yet how many policies and protocols inhibit getting emotional and mental help? What unseen and unspoken cultural norms have hampered your agency from allowing others to get help without repercussion?
I’ve gone around the state teaching multiple classes on peer support and wellness to officers, deputies, correction staff, dispatchers, and even firefighters. Thankfully, departments are making an effort to implement peer support programs, due in large part to Rep. Lee Perry’s and Sen. Daniel Thatcher’s public safety peer support counseling bill. But there is so much more that needs to be done.
It is irresponsible for any chief or sheriff or officer or deputy to think “suicide won’t happen in our agency” or “our department hasn’t had a suicide or a near-miss in a while so we’re immune.” It’s foolish to think that if you’re in a smaller agency, the likelihood of an officer suicide is reduced; the opposite is true—smaller agencies are actually at a higher risk for suicide among its officers. The fact is every department and every person is susceptible. So, why aren’t we acting with greater urgency to stop the threat of officer suicide?
I had lunch recently with a friend who was involved in a critical incident a while back. He spoke frankly about the dark depression he experienced following his shooting and the suicidal thoughts he had.
I taught an academy class on wellness not long ago where, at my invitation, two experienced officers spoke frankly of times that they had a gun in their mouths, ready to kill themselves. Thankfully, they got help.
I taught the PTSD portion of a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) academy at another agency recently where the discussion around trauma revealed, not surprisingly, that a lot of law enforcement officers struggle with the signs and symptoms of deliberate and constant exposure to trauma.
Not long ago, in my position as a peer supporter, I spoke with an officer who confided in me that they have been suicidal as recently as a few months ago, and that they’ve taken active suicidal actions conducting dry-runs—actually taking an empty pistol and holding it to their head and pressing the trigger.
We must not be irresponsible to the constant pressures that our law enforcement officers, our dispatchers and our corrections professionals face. We must act now.
Money and effort seem to be the biggest barriers. But if we are buying ballistic vests, investing in gear and training, why not invest in the actions needed to keep officers healthy?
I also submit that there’s another layer of hesitation, in addition to finances or having enough people: I call it the ostrich syndrome. If we don’t see it, it’s not happening. These are difficult conversations and challenging topics, but I am acutely aware of them because officer health is my top priority and my main focus. I’ve lost friends to suicide, and I don’t want to lose any more.
There are two main things that are needed to start this effort of reducing the risk of suicide within every agency. First, a robust peer support program is needed, and second, an active suicide prevention and identification program is essential.
Establishing a Peer Support Program
Administrators need to understand what’s involved in a peer support program. Too often with agencies struggling for personnel, making a position for a full-time or part-time peer support coordinator seems futile and contrary to wise practices. However, a robust peer support team can literally save lives.
It’s important to not just give someone a collateral duty of peer support, but actually set aside dedicated hours for the job position and make a standard that those hours will not be shoved out due to “operational needs.” If you think you’re short-staffed now, or if you think you’re losing money now, just wait until someone kills themselves. Of course, then it will be too late.
Creating a Suicide Prevention and Identification Program
There are two examples I’d like to highlight that will help your agency in reducing suicides: (1) A Canadian model that reduced suicides by 79 percent, and (2) an evidence-based assessment used by the US military that reduced suicides by 56 percent. Both are unique and, in my view, both need to be implemented because of what they have to offer.
Over a ten-year study, our neighbors to the north in Montréal, implemented a department-wide suicide prevention training program called “Together for Life.” All personnel were given an annual half-day training about suicide risk-factors and how to help. They were provided with resources for stress-related issues, most notably including therapeutic counseling. Supervisors and union reps received a full day of training on identifying officers at-risk and how to intervene. Lastly, a publicity campaign was launched with newsletters, posters and brochures.
That model is great for awareness and culture change, and a suicide prevention program should absolutely be implemented within every agency; but it’s not enough. Why? Because that model relies on identifying those who are at-risk by having others watch for the cues. Cops are great at hiding and lying the deep-seated depression and suicidal thoughts. Thankfully, there is a way to identify and help those who are silently suffering…
The full version of the above article was published in The Utah Peace Officer magazine, published by the Utah Peace Officers Association, Spring 2020, vol. 97, issue 2.
 Denning, J., LAW and ORDER, ”Police Suicide: Statistics and Stopping-The-Threat Training,” Hendon Publications, Sept. 2015, 54-56.
 Fay, Kamena, et al. Emergency Responder Exhaustion Syndrome (ERES): A perspective on stress, coping and treatment in the emergency responder milieu.