DOJ COPS Report On Law Enforcement Deaths By Suicide Highlights Challenges Faced

April 7, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

There were more law enforcement officers who died from suicide than those that died in the line of duty in 2017, 2018 and 2019. There were 168 such deaths in 2017, followed by 172 in 2018, and 228 in 2019 according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit.

The last three years have seen an increase in reported cases of death by suicide in the law enforcement profession, said Blue H.E.L.P., which is dedicated to acknowledging “the service and sacrifice of law enforcement officers we lost to suicide.” This year, too, kicked off with a tragic reminder of just how vulnerable our law enforcement professionals can be, with the deaths by suicide of Capitol Police Officers Howard Liebengood, and Jeffrey Smith in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

As part of the fiscal year (FY) 2020 appropriations process, the Senate report on the appropriations bill expressed that the Congress is “disturbed by increased reports of suicide by current and former law enforcement officers.” And on the Congress’s request, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) completed a report on the increase in death by suicide of current and former law enforcement officers.

The COPS was created with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to assist law enforcement agencies in enhancing public safety through the implementation of community policing strategies.

Congress passed the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act in June 2020, which was a major start to recognizing the magnitude of the problem. And it is a problem. Two studies using the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) looked at deaths by occupational groups in 2015 and 2016 and found that the rates are higher than many other occupational groups for both male and female officers.

The COPS Report also mentioned that the National Consortium on Preventing Law Enforcement Suicide, created in 2018 with funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, “identified a number of knowledge gaps that persist even as greater attention is given to the problem of law enforcement suicide. These gaps include a lack of assessments on the quality of care provided by in-house behavioral health professionals, the role of resilience training in reducing suicide risk, and the role of families as both risk and protective factors.” One major factor in getting help, for law enforcement professionals, is the stigma associated with mental health and wellness.

The report was made public on April 6, and provides a review of peer responder programs, and makes recommendations for establishing evidence-based behavioral health and suicide prevention efforts for both law enforcement and other first responders.

“Officers are the most important resource agencies have, and every effort should be made to protect this investment made in our nation’s safety and security. Healthy officers are necessary to healthy communities. We must do what we can to prevent those thoughts of suicide from becoming actions,” the report says.

Many commentators within law enforcement think even these numbers undercount the true extent of the problem, the report says, adding that the increases Blue H.E.L.P. is reporting may actually be a function of improving awareness of that organization and “the need not to hide these tragic deaths.”

Since 1999, half of all states have seen 30% increases in suicide rates, and all but six had significant increases, the report says. While an increase in officer deaths could be a part of this general societal trend, there are other factors that need to be considered. Those factors include high exposure to stress and trauma, a plethora of other conditions for which officers seem to be at high risk (including post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, and addiction), and officer access to firearms: All of which suggests that one cannot assume that occupational factors do not matter.

“In the 2010s, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2018, more than 48,000 Americans died by suicide, half of those using a firearm. Although some segments of the population have higher rates of suicide than others, no part of our society is immune,” the report said.

Add to this access to firearms and one study that said “suicidal ideation is more prevalent among law enforcement officers than the general population,” and it becomes clear why this report was needed.

“One of the top priorities of the Department of Justice and the COPS Office is the health and wellness of the nation’s law enforcement officers, who put both their physical and mental health on the line every day to keep our communities safe,” said Robert Chapman, Acting Director of the COPS Office. “The Department has committed numerous resources to this effort and will continue to do so.”

Police officers die by their own hands at rates greater than people in other occupations, according to a report compiled by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2019, after at least nine New York City police officers died by suicide that year. That report said officer suicides outpace deaths of law enforcement members killed in shootings and vehicular crashes.

The white paper study, the Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health and Suicide of First Responders, examines a number of factors contributing to mental health issues among first responders and what leads to their elevated rate of suicide. One study included in the white paper found that on average, police officers witness 188 ‘critical incidents’ during their careers. This exposure to trauma can lead to several forms of mental illness.

For example, PTSD and depression rates among firefighters and police officers have been found to be as much as 5 times higher than the rates within the civilian population, which causes these first responders to commit suicide at a considerably higher rate (firefighters: 18/100,000; police officers: 17/100,000; general population 13/100,000). Even when suicide does not occur, untreated mental illness can lead to poor physical health and impaired decision-making.

After a review of current resources and research, the COPS report states that all evidence “constantly circles back to the importance of peer support and behavioral health partnerships.” In addition, the report finds that “Training is also critically important to supporting officer mental health and suicide prevention. Colleagues, supervisors, and managers are all important players in suicide prevention efforts, as they are the ones who may see the signs that an individual is struggling.”

The report stresses that departments that have been successful in lowering suicide rates were typically ones that focused on education and training of individuals in the area, as well as creating support networks such as peer-to-peer programs.

The report also warned that there was still an issue that needed addressing, the fact that the culture within law enforcement meant that a majority of individuals still feared the stigma or consequences when it came to asking for help with mental health challenges.

Peer-led prevention programs, strengthening laws so that officers seeking help are protected, and improving confidentiality within agencies were some of the steps the report recommended in order to strengthening the resources currently in place to deal with these issues.

The report warned that much more needed to be done. “Unfortunately, there is limited analysis on the efficacy of mental health and wellness programs in a police department, resulting in the lack of a clear and concise pathway to preventing officer suicides that result from daily stressors and untreated trauma,” the report said, while laying out the difficulties that existed.