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Our Goal Should Be No Officers Lost to Suicide

breaking the silenceIf you want to know how many law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty each year, there are numerous places you can go to easily find that information. And in recent years you’d typically find that officers are most often killed in motor vehicle accidents followed by those killed in felonious assaults. But if you want to know how many law enforcement officers commit suicide each year, the answer is considerably more elusive. The best research evidence we have suggests that on average twice as many officers every year die from suicide than are killed in any other circumstance. And unlike with accidents and ambushes, all of these should be preventable.

This lack of understanding of law enforcement suicide is problematic on two fronts. First, it is representative of a professional culture that struggles to give equal weight to mental wellness and to physical safety. Although we talk extensively about officer safety and wellness programs, the reality is that far more emphasis is placed on the protective gear and tactical training to keep an officer safe on duty than is ever spent on mental wellness in what we know is a high-stress job. Through their regular exposure to violence and crisis and their experience of shift work, combined with what can be poor physical health and easy access to firearms, officers are at a heightened risk for suicide. Added to this is a culture that values strength and stoicism, where the perception is that talk of feelings of anxiety or depression will result not just in social stigma but also in the loss of a service weapon and badge—the tangible symbols of their professional and personal identity. Institutionally, law enforcement agencies also compound the silence on officer suicide when they face pressure regarding the language they use in documenting a death, often seeking to be sensitive to an officer’s family and not jeopardize the family’s ability to receive death benefits.

The second problem with our silence on officer suicide risks is this: How can we expect law enforcement officers to effectively protect and care for their communities if they do not have the skills and resources to help them cope with the mental demands of the job? In ignoring the wellness half of the equation, we are ultimately failing to protect the people we rely on to protect us.

The first OSW Group meeting was held September 22, 2011 with more than 40 participants representing federal, state, and local law enforcement; national associations; unions; and researchers. The group examined the problems and challenges with officer safety and wellness, established initial priorities, and focused on deaths and injuries related to gunfire.In 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder requested that the COPS Office and the Bureau of Justice Assistance form a National Officer Safety and Wellness Group. The OSW Group brings together law enforcement thought leaders, criminal justice practitioners, and the research community to share their perspectives on improving officer safety and wellness. Through its ongoing work, the group is setting an agenda to develop model policies, guidelines, and other resources to enhance the safety, health, and wellness of officers.

Various DOJ components and their partners in the field have worked to address some of major gaps identified by the group—one of which is officer mental health and suicide prevention. For example, BJA funding has supported the national expansion of In Harm’s Way. This program offers training events around the country as well as a web-based toolkit of resources that can be locally customized for agencies to present suicide prevention awareness training and to develop viable support programs that reduce stigma around help-seeking behavior.

DOJ support was also behind the production of a 2012 webinar to raise awareness among law enforcement about the issue of police suicide. Viewable on the Office of Justice Program’s website, it features experts in the field discussing their work to assist agencies in increasing suicide awareness training, improving access to resources, and identifying best practices and policies for adoption.

August 2014 saw the release of a publication called “Breaking the Silence on Law Enforcement Suicides.” A summary of a 2013 COPS Office-sponsored symposium on law enforcement officer suicide and mental health, the report outlines the need for culture change in the ability to discuss mental health and the existing barriers to that change; it also presents an action agenda with strategic guidance in the areas of suicide prevention, intervention, and response.

In the introduction to that publication, a former police chief notes that our collective silence on officer suicide only compounds the problem. He is absolutely right in that we cannot prevent that which we do not acknowledge. And when the reality of modern policing is that officers are frequently first responders to anyone experiencing a mental health crisis in the community, the need for a culture change that brings mental health and resiliency to the forefront of discussions of officer safety and wellness is paramount. The message we seek to amplify through the OSW Group and related programs is that we cannot expect officers to protect and serve their communities without providing them the skills and resources to effectively cope with a complex, physically and emotionally demanding, job. To do that requires increased commitment to collaboration between law enforcement and mental health services professionals.

Deborah Spence
Supervisory Analyst
COPS Office

*This article is based on remarks delivered at a mental health and suicide prevention briefing hosted by the White House on September 22, 2014.

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