Suicides represent a sobering wake-up call for officer wellness

Suicides represent a sobering wake-up call for officer wellness
© Washington Post/Pool

As Simone Biles demonstrated, even individuals known for exhibiting steadiness and strength sometimes need to sideline themselves and seek help. While Biles reemerged to win a bronze medal, four police officers on duty during the Capitol insurrection will never be heard from again. This crushing reality, coupled with the recruiting and retention crisis in American law enforcement, warrants urgent action to promote officer wellness.

Much remains to be learned about the degree to which the traumatic Jan. 6 experiences of the four officers may have contributed to their deaths by suicide. The outnumbered officers at the Capitol would ideally draw sustenance from being celebrated as heroes by most Americans and receiving a Congressional Gold Medal. They could also be devastated by how some national leaders minimized and distorted the events of that day, with some going so far as to blame the FBI.

Regardless of what may have led to these four officer deaths, the urgency of improving officer wellness is clear. Here’s one disturbing fact: there were 174 officer suicides in 2020, making officers more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty — even as shootings of officers increase.

ADVERTISEMENT

Rising vacancies are another warning signal. From April 2020 to April 2021, officer retirements increased 45 percent, a trend that shows no sign of abating.

Despite the pressing need, a Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing brief on officer wellness noted that only 29 percent of police departments have wellness programs or trainings. The review also found that long shifts — 13 hours instead of 10 hours — result not just in fatigue, induced in part by sleep deprivation, but also significantly lower performance, including slower reaction time and more complaints. Shrinking police ranks could lead to longer shifts for the officers who remain, potentially precipitating more errors and misconduct.

In addition, there is evidence showing a link between compromised wellness and impacts on officers’ families and community interactions. While more research is needed, one correlational study suggests that PTSD could account for up to 46 percent of cases of excessive force.

What should agencies do? The CCJ Task Force identified studies showing that cognitive behavioral therapy can reduce suicide attempts by 60 percent and help more than 70 percent of patients recover from PTSD (by comparison, only 7 percent of untreated patients recovered). Biomarker monitoring systems are also promising, allowing for the identification of officers who have physiological symptoms that may be caused by excessive stress, such as high blood pressure and an elevated heart rate.

Such detection capabilities are especially valuable given research showing that officers feel stigmatized if they reach out for help with mental health problems, behavior that can be seen as weak within a “tough-guy” culture. Departments can counter that climate through peer support groups and medical leave policies that incorporate both physical and mental health. Agencies can also gather the internal knowledge needed to guide wellness practices by conducting a psychological autopsy to understand the personal and organizational dynamics surrounding each suicide.

Additionally, we must recognize the linkages between mental and physical health. Shockingly, a study of Buffalo, N.Y., police officers found their lifespan was more than two decades less than average, owing not just to suicide and deaths in the line of duty, but also higher rates of stress-related conditions such as heart disease and hypertension.

The significant stressors and shorter lifespan suggest that those who go into the policing profession for the right reasons must be drawn by powerful countervailing factors, such as a motivation to protect others, vindicate the truth of a victim’s experience, and uphold unifying norms of justice.

But such motivations and commitment to the difficult work of policing depends in part on universal acceptance of the facts they gather.

When a thoroughly documented event like the Jan. 6 insurrection is dismissed, officers could become nihilistic about the continued viability of the truth-seeking enterprise and their role in it.

Our system of justice, including juries who ultimately decide whether the evidence assembled by officers is true beyond a reasonable doubt, is built on a commitment to the existence of universal and objective truth that has been a bulwark of Western civilization and — at least before some contemporary iterations — traditionally conservative thought. The alternative, in which everyone can create their own reality and a single truth is unascertainable, cannot be reconciled with the mission that ideally motivates every officer when they wake up in the morning.

ADVERTISEMENT

Put in more concrete terms, we count on police officers to respond to our most extreme and perilous emergencies, to show up at any hour when we dial 911. That’s their job, but as the suicides that followed the Capitol insurrection make vividly clear, the nature of their work can take a heavy toll.

The crisis in officer wellness requires an urgent response that leverages both empathy and evidence on what works. We must answer the call, just as those officers did on Jan. 6 — and do every other day.

Marc Levin, Esq. is Chief Policy Counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice. Follow him on Twittter at @marcalevin