Be honest: We are not doing enough about law enforcement suicide
Police leaders must address why officers are not accessing internal resources to seek help
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 Police1 Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit 3 ways leaders can listen | LEO suicide | 'Crisis Cops' on HBO, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
Last month the Chicago Police Department lost two officers to suicide within days of each other. Town Hall District Officer 21-year veteran James Daly, 47, fatally shot himself in a locker room inside the district’s police station on the North Side. Four days later, Officer Jeffrey T. Troglia, 38, an 18-year veteran, died after shooting himself inside his home in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood on the Far Southwest Side.
We have a problem
Across the country, officers continue to take their own lives. Forty-four officers have died this year by suicide. While line-of-duty death continues to rise – primarily due to COVID – the loss of an officer to suicide is preventable. So why, once again, do we find ourselves talking about what to do? Why are some of the same agencies once again scrambling for answers?
Law enforcement suicide is not a new thing. It’s been occurring at agencies large and small for decades. We’re talking about it now because we haven’t done enough to curtail it within the ranks. At many agencies, the topic is avoided altogether.
When an agency loses an officer, or several, to suicide, what comes next? In many cases, posters about officer wellness and suicide are put up, pamphlets are distributed and maybe a short video is made about suicide prevention with the EAP number listed at the end. Additionally, someone from EAP will also come in with some pamphlets and business cards during roll-call and deliver the message that help is available, you are not alone and to reach out if you are having problems.
Stop going through the motions
None of this is bad, per se. But it’s more checking boxes than actual help, and the message is often lost over time: Most awareness and prevention efforts will end shortly thereafter. The EAP might get a few calls, but most officers will ignore the advice and their own feelings out of fear and mistrust. Who can blame them?
Trust between officers and command staff, as well as communities and police, is, in my experience, at an all-time low. When the cumulative stress of the job, along with that of one’s own personal life, becomes too much to bear, where can an officer seek competent help confidentiality, assured there will be no stigma or reprisal?
If I have you thinking right now, you should be. The current status quo and the notion that we didn’t have these issues a decade ago is a mindset that is killing our brothers and sisters. These issues have afflicted law enforcement for generations, but they were largely ignored in the past. Failing to change how we view suicide stifles innovative and creative ways of saving officers’ lives and their careers.
We must, simultaneously, acknowledge that times have changed. Public perceptions of police, coupled with the advent of social media and smartphone video, mean that any officer anywhere can become international news at any moment. Moreover, younger officers have changed experiences and expectations. This is the most diverse cohort of officers in our history, which means you need to cater your message carefully and specifically. If your department is merely going through the motions of passing out pamphlets, giving short roll-call talk and calling it a day, you’re not doing enough to prevent suicide among your ranks.
Real action is needed
It’s time to address why your officers aren’t using your internal resources. Let’s start from the top. If you are the chief, your words are meaningless without meaningful action.
Real action means officers from the top-down know you have their back: that you are unwilling to throw good officers away when they seek out help for a job that is oftentimes thankless and stressful.
Real action means you have vetted the members of your EAP, and they are trained to work with police officers and their families.
Real action means you have allocated resources – yes, money – as a line item in the budget each year to fund wellness initiatives, trainings and peer support. If you are serious about officer wellness and suicide prevention, you will have a budget for it. If you don’t have a budget to fund these things, don’t expect your officers to believe you or seek out help, because they will know it’s not taken seriously. You should also have a confidential peer support program in addition to EAP. Officers can volunteer to be a part of the peer support program and receive additional training on how to help one another in a confidential and trusting manner.
With robust and confidential EAP and peer support in place, present additional outside resources such as police-friendly private clinicians.
If you are sending your officers to crisis intervention teams (CIT) or any other mental health training, remember that their mental health is important as well. Many CIT programs I am involved with weave officer wellness and stress reduction into the 40-hour weeklong program. Officer wellness, suicide prevention, and stress reduction is discussed, and many resources are provided.
Agencies should begin to think about what it means to have a balanced life for the officer as well. Too much overtime can be a bad thing. Sometimes we need to look out for one another and encourage appropriate distance and time away from the job.
Remember, suicide will not go away on its own. Not talking about suicide within law enforcement has only exacerbated the problem. There’s a myth that talking to someone about suicide will somehow put the idea in their head. That’s simply not true. A person may very well be planning and thinking about taking their own life regardless. The person may not really want to die, but they don’t feel there is any other option. They are feeling helpless, hopeless, scared. In fact, talking to someone who you are concerned about may save their life. When it feels everything around you is falling apart, remember you may be their last hope. Let’s do more – because we must.