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Guest opinion

The emerging national tragedy of police suicides

Just coming off the Thanksgiving holiday, while many of us were able to celebrate with friends and family, a number of stories appeared of officers who took their lives.

Each story is sad for reasons all of us understand, and they provoke that same question:  “What was happening in their lives that would cause them do this?”

These stories stay in the shadows, and we are left to wonder what could have been done to save that life, or to save lives in the future.

This is a national tragedy in policing that has gone on too long, without the kind of answers that might actually make a difference.

So it was comforting to hear that, starting on Jan. 1, the FBI will begin gathering data on suicides by law enforcement officers.  By next summer, the Bureau expects to release the first in a series of annual reports about officer suicides and attempted suicides.

The FBI’s new program, called Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection, is the result of a law Congress passed in 2020, which directs the FBI to gather data  “for the purpose of preventing future law enforcement suicides, and promoting understanding suicide in law enforcement.”

The law is quite specific, saying that the FBI should gather information about:

  • The circumstances and events that occurred before each suicide or attempted suicide;
  • The general location of each suicide or attempted suicide;
  • The demographic information of each law enforcement officer who carries out or attempts suicide;
  • The occupational category, including patrol officer, criminal investigator, corrections officer, 911 dispatch operator, of each law enforcement officer who carries out or attempts suicide; and
  • The method used in each suicide or attempted suicide.

For more than a year, the FBI has been working on plans to manage this new data collection program. The Bureau’s Uniform Crime Reporting branch will manage the program, and will begin accepting data on January 1, 2022.

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Some of the groundwork has already been done.

In 2019, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) convened a national conference at New York Police Department (NYPD) headquarters about officer suicides, resulting in a major report on the issue: An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do To Prevent Suicide Among Its Officers.

Here’s what we said in the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

The policing profession gathers extensive data on countless aspects of what it does, but we know [remarkably] little about law enforcement suicide. There are serious gaps in the reporting and collection of even the most basic information about the preva­lence of officer suicide and the circumstances sur­rounding the deaths.

There is no central repository for collecting data, and law enforcement agencies are not required to report officer suicides.

So this was our #1 recommendation: “Obtaining more complete information about the extent and nature of police suicides needs to be a national priority. There must be a central repository for capturing and analyzing this data.”

Currently, the policing profession relies on a nonprofit organization, Blue H.E.L.P., which gathers data on police suicides and provides assistance to police agencies and to officers and their families.

Blue H.E.L.P. volunteers do an outstanding job, but they are forced to rely on a patchwork system of Internet searches, surveys, information submitted to their website, and other sources, rather than a formal national database.

Starting Jan. 1, we’ll finally have a central repository in the FBI for collection of this information.

It’s important to note that the FBI program calls for confidentiality protections. When Congress passed the law creating this program, it specified that the FBI annual reports “may not include any personally identifiable information of a law enforcement officer who commits or attempts suicide.”

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We know that there is still tremendous stigma associated with mental illness in policing and with officers seeking help. Protecting the identities of individual officers is crucial to not making that stigma even worse.

Should Data Collection Be Mandatory?

The law creating the FBI program has come under some criticism because it creates a system that’s largely voluntary. The law does require the FBI to gather information about suicides, but there’s no requirement that local law enforcement agencies participate in providing the information.

At this point, there’s no way of knowing how many police departments and sheriffs’ offices will provide data on suicides to the FBI.

I’m concerned that when something is entirely voluntary, it sends a message that diminishes the importance of the issue.

We need to get this issue out from under the shadows, and I’m afraid that by making it voluntary, we de-prioritize the importance of this issue to the field, and further slow down the need for comprehensive data from all agencies.

I think it might be better if the federal government required local law enforcement agencies to report this information, or at least incentivized it with grants or other benefits.

Without knowing the full extent and nature of officer suicides and suicide attempts, we are not able to address the issue in an organized way. I think we need to think about this very differently.

We know that police officers are at higher risk in certain ways. Men are far more likely than women to die by suicide, and more than 85 percent of police officers are men. And more than half of suicides are carried out with firearms, and police officers have access to guns.

But beyond these basic factors, we still don’t know nearly enough about why cops take their lives.

No doubt stress is a major reason, but what kinds of stress are most important? Is it the repeated exposure to traumatic events like violent crime and fatal accidents? What about the nature of police work? It’s not a nine-to-five job; work schedules are a strain. Is that a factor for suicides?

What about understaffing and high workloads? And do the bureaucratic, para-military structures of police agencies play a role?

What about the police culture of keeping emotions in check, appearing strong, and never showing weakness or vulnerability? How do stresses work their way into an officer’s family relationships? Are factors like depression, alcohol abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder more important? And what are the warning signs that we should always watch for?

Data Is Needed for Psychological Autopsies

I’m encouraged that the FBI is soliciting data not just about the numbers of suicides, but about some of the details – the circumstances surrounding a suicide, the location, the demographics, and the methods used.

This background information is important for trying to identify risk factors and strategies for preventing suicides.

PERF’s report calls on agencies to take this basic data collection a step further and conduct “psychological autopsies” when suicides occur, in order to learn even more about what happened and whether there were missed opportunities to help.

Dr. Jeff Thompson of the NYPD told us why psychological autopsies are important:

We want to understand why the person died by suicide, why by those means, and why on that particular day. Quite often, people have been in a world of hurt for a long time, but there was an impulsivity that led them to suicide on that one day. It can help prevent suicides if you try to find out what happened on that one day.

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I am encouraging law enforcement agencies around the country to sign up for the FBI program. If few agencies volunteer, it will be seen as a sign there isn’t much interest in officer suicides.

But a large number of participants will send an important message not only to law enforcement authorities and policymakers,  but to the communities where police officers serve.

It will ultimately save lives.

This commentary was published by the Crime Report, and the original version appeared in PERF’s Daily Clips service.

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.

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