Police officers saluting during a funeral for a fallen officer. Photo courtesy of Pixabay/Igor Ovsyannykov.
The Department of Justice released the Law Enforcement Officer Suicide: 2020 Report to Congress Tuesday. The report, which was ordered by a congressional oversight committee, highlights issues present in the law enforcement community and suggestions on improving surveillance of and treatment for those suffering with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts and intentions.
It came just a day after a New York City Police Department inspector committed suicide in his squad car, highlighting the danger that suicide represents to law enforcement officers across the country. The New York Post reported that family members became concerned about Deputy Inspector Denis Mullaney after a phone call from the officer. When NYPD authorities found Mullaney, he was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot.
The report cites numbers from Blue HELP, a nonprofit the report says is the only organization in the US that collects data on LEO suicides. According to the data, 26 actively working officers have committed suicide in 2021 to date, along with nine former LEOs.
Suicide numbers have varied widely in recent years, according to the report: In 2020, Blue HELP counted 171, a drop after several years of rising numbers. In 2017, the count was 168, followed by 172 in 2018 and 228 in 2019. But, the DOJ says, it’s unclear if this data is complete.
“Is this evidence of an increasing crisis in the law enforcement profession?” the report asked. “Many commentators within law enforcement think even these numbers undercount the true extent of the problem.”
The report makes four recommendations that departments should consider: create or improve peer support programs that are enhanced with medical professionals; grant the same access to former LEOs; improve confidentiality for LEOs seeking help; and improve laws that protect LEOs who pursue help for declining mental health. Though the report specified that these recommendations aren’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution, they will help improve the resources available.
The bulk of the report details what appear to be common trends in LEO suicides but also cites prevention measures that have been shown to work. Overtime work, shift work, night work, and physically challenging and dangerous conditions all increase damage to first responders’ physical and mental health, and both of these can be contributing factors in suicide.
A vital component to stopping suicidal ideation in LEOs is communication with other LEOs, the report indicates. One of its suggestions is to enhance peer support and behavioral health relationships among officers.
Coffee or Die Magazine spoke with a Minnesota-based police officer who is currently leaving the law enforcement career path after struggling with mental health issues that nearly led to suicide. The officer, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of his medical history, said that recent years have been devastating on the law enforcement community, especially with the rise of anti-police rhetoric following the in-custody death of George Floyd. The public anger, he said, has made it so that most LEOs are only comfortable talking about job stressors with those who have been through it.
“Unless you’ve been in a combat zone, nobody can share empathy with a police officer, and empathy is what cops need — someone to fully understand the hardships of the day-to-day feeling of going towards danger in the effort to save lives, and proactively stave [off] crime,” the officer said.
“So when it comes to trying to help a police officer stopping their line of thought about suicide, there [had] better be a person who shares empathy with that officer. Otherwise, they have no clue what we actually feel. Being a police officer who nearly committed suicide myself, I can speak to that after going through three to four different therapists, only to get worse.”
The officer said he eventually found help with a counselor who had, prior to entering the mental health field, seen combat as an Army Ranger. Their shared connection of combat-level stress allowed him to make progress in counseling.
“If it weren’t for him, I’d be dead,” the officer said.
The report also advocates for the training and use of “gatekeepers” such as chaplains, sergeants, and other leaders. Gatekeepers would be trained to recognize suicide-associated behaviors.
DOJ launched the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (LEMHWA) grant program in 2019. These grants are given to state and local agencies to fund programs, training, and other measures to combat suicide and ongoing mental health destruction. The department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS Office, expects to issue approximately $4.3 million in grants after Congress expanded the LEMHWA funding in 2020.
The report also cites the Officer Robert Wilson III Preventing Violence Against Law Enforcement Officers and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability (VALOR) initiative and one of its subprograms, the National Suicide Awareness for LEOs (SAFLEO) Program. The VALOR initiative is a series of programs designed to provide training, research, networking, and various other resources to reach LEOs who are in need of help.
Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children.
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