Police suicides: Silence is no longer an answer
The landscape shifted slightly but significantly for policing this summer.
Thanks in part to the tireless advocacy of Erin Smith—whose husband, D.C. Metropolitan Police Officer Jeffrey Smith, died by suicide days after being assaulted during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol—Congress passed a bill recognizing suicides by officers who take their lives after experiencing work-related trauma such as mass shootings and violent attacks for what these tragedies are: line-of-duty deaths.
The bipartisan Public Safety Officer Support Act allows the families of officers who die by suicide to be eligible to receive death benefits through the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) Program. Officers can also seek disability benefits for work-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress, as well as for permanent disabilities resulting from attempted suicide.
Why is this so significant?
It will give these officers who have experienced significant workplace trauma and their surviving family members the respect and dignity they deserve.
The cultural impact of this law is profound. The debate over how to honor officers who die by suicide has persisted for years, with many going overlooked.
The changes brought on by the Public Safety Officer Support Act should spark a nationwide discussion on how departments deal with the trauma associated with policing and sorting out what led to an officer’s death in cases of suicide. This conversation is long overdue.
All across the country, departments will need to look at each case and determine how an officer’s work may have played a role in their suicide—what psychologists refer to as a “psychological autopsy.”
Recognizing fallen officers
And here in D.C., agencies and organizations such as the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund will need to reexamine how to recognize these fallen officers.
Consider how officer suicide has always been a highly sensitive topic for a number of reasons. This cultural change should encourage labor and management to discuss this topic and think about how their agency will respond when officers take their own lives.
This will require conversations on how the department acknowledges these deaths, the kinds of funerals they receive, and how officers are remembered by the agency.
The new law retroactively applies to incidents occurring on or after January 1, 2019. Since the PSOB Program didn’t previously cover claims related to PTSD or suicide, families may have been dissuaded from seeking benefits in such cases; local law enforcement agencies should encourage qualifying survivors to apply.
The new law should also spark more conversations at the state and local levels about how to prevent officer suicides. Many municipal communities and police departments are still reluctant to rethink just what it means to experience trauma and then not be able to “shake it off.”
Research shows that the rate of PTSD among officers in the U.S. was more than 11 percent, nearly three times that of the estimated overall population. Whether the result of responding to a terrorist attack or engaging with a violent mob, this trauma can lead to anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. In fact, more officers die by suicide than are killed by a gunman, fatally struck by a vehicle, or perish in a traffic crash.
And there’s still much we don’t know, partly because of the lack of accurate, comprehensive data on officer suicides.
PERF held a national conference at New York Police Department headquarters in 2019 on the issue of officer suicides, and the discussions there informed our major report: An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do To Prevent Suicide Among Its Officers.
Our first recommendation was that the federal government take a leadership role in collecting and analyzing data on officer suicides to help police and sheriffs’ agencies develop effective suicide prevention strategies and learn whether their efforts are making a difference.
This year the FBI took that important step, as it began soliciting reports from law enforcement agencies on suicides and attempted suicides by law enforcement personnel.
An issue that came up again and again in our conference was the widespread stigma that prevents many officers who need help for mental health problems from seeking it.
If agencies want to improve officers’ mental health and prevent suicides, they need to acknowledge that this stigma is pervasive in policing and take steps to reduce it. For example, police chiefs, sheriffs, and other leaders need to speak out about police suicide, both within their agency and in the community.
The cultural shift brought on by this new law can serve as an opportunity for discussion on these issues, and leadership from the top is crucial.
Police chiefs’ concerns
Police chiefs will need to make clear what this new law does and does not do. Some chiefs have shared their concerns with me over the law’s potential unintended consequences. It is important that everyone understands that this law does not automatically provide federal support to surviving families in cases of officer suicide.
While the law does allow for survivors to apply for benefits through the PSOB Program, each case will still undergo the same scrutiny to determine if it constitutes a line-of-duty death as defined in writing.
As explained in our report, helping surviving family members obtain any available benefits can reduce stigma. Additionally, we found that peer support groups and resilience training are key components to suicide prevention programs.
These are all positive steps that can be taken to ensuring the well-being of officers and their loved ones.
While I recognize the immense ripple effect that comes with this shift in thinking, it stands as evidence of just how much issues related to suicide have been overlooked.
Although mental health experts and many in the field have raised questions in the past, this legislation finally provides tangible recognition that the trauma involved in the policing profession could lead to suicide.
I plan on discussing the ramifications of this new law, as well officer wellness, at the IACP Conference in Dallas on October 16 during the PERF Town Hall Meeting.
I hope we can foster a lively forum that is productive for everyone involved and identify positive steps forward.
Erin Smith, who “tried to keep my hopes within the right space” during her long fight for recognition of her husband’s sacrifice, says passage of the Public Safety Officer Support Act means that officers who’ve died by suicide “will get the recognition that they’re due from the federal government.”
By expanding access to PSOB benefits to include cases of suicide or PTSD, the new law should have a powerful impact on stigma and help bring the discussion of mental health issues into the open.
When it comes to an officer’s mental well-being, silence can no longer be the answer.
Chuck Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit research think tank on policing issues. This essay originally appeared in PERF’s daily newsletter.
This report was first published by The Crime Report.
Chuck Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit Washington, D.C. research and policy organization that provides technical assistance and executive-level education to support law enforcement agencies.