America’s law enforcement officers were suffering a suicide epidemic before anti-police and racial justice protests engulfed the country. Now police advocates worry it will get worse.
Last year, a record 228 current or former police officers died by suicide, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that tracks police suicides. That total is higher than all other line-of-duty deaths last year, the organization said.
The number of suicides slowed somewhat in the first half of 2020 with only 70 deaths, down from 89 during the same period in 2019, though mental health experts caution that those numbers are vastly underreported because of the stigma associated with suicide.
That was before police officers across the country came under siege because of the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
Psychologists and police officers say the torrent of criticism is more traumatic than the life-and-death situations officers face on the job. They expect the number of police suicides to start climbing again.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I think the number of police suicides will start to creep back up,” said Sherri Martin, a former police officer and national director of the Fraternal Order of Police’s national officer wellness committee.
“Long term, the number of anti-police sentiments could take more of a toll than a singular incident you can compartmentalize,” she said. “This is a widespread big wave of things coming at officers at once rather than a small whitecap.”
Rioters have hurled bricks and screamed obscenities at officers and burned down a Minneapolis police station during the wave of protests. Residents of one Seattle neighborhood have set up a six-block no-police zone. Activists and politicians have called to defund the police. Congress is hurriedly drafting legislation to combat what is described as racism and brutality in policing.
President Trump plans to sign an executive order on policing to address the nationwide uproar. It is expected to tread lightly on police powers, with measures such as creating a national database to track officers with repeat misconduct charges.
“The overall goal is we want law and order, and we want it done fairly, justly, we want it done safely,” the president said Monday. “But we want law and order. It’s about law and order. But it’s about justice also, and it’s about safety.”
Still, the overriding tone on the streets of U.S. cities and on Capitol Hill has been punitive toward police.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said police clashes with protesters and “overly aggressive tactics have only articulated further the need for bold and wide-reaching reform of police practices.”
“Being killed by police is now the sixth leading cause of death for young black men in America,” he said.
It is expected to take time before the toll on police officers can be fully calculated.
Depression usually strikes within 12 to 18 months of a traumatic incident, said Thomas Coghlan, a retired NYPD police detective who served for 21 years on the force before becoming a clinical psychologist specializing in first responders.
Police officers did not experience post-traumatic stress disorder in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but they did about a year later, he said.
This time, it could be worse for officers as the anti-police animosity takes its toll. Ms. Martin said.
During the two weeks following Mr. Floyd’s death, 749 officers nationwide were injured while responding to protests and disturbances, according to Justice Department statistics. That figure includes the roughly 150 officers hurt during the protests in the District of Columbia, where 22 officers suffered concussions and other head injuries requiring hospitalization.
“Katrina and 9/11 were not direct attacks on law enforcement,” she said. “The riots and anti-police sentiment is different, but it is going to have the same effect. I’ve never seen [the animosity] at a level like this. It is not only the intensity of the sentiment but that it is so widespread.”
As the defund-the-police movement gains momentum, mayors of several large cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have moved to slash their department’s budget. Analysts expect the cuts to put mental health services within those police departments on the chopping block.
“The defunding is not going to be operational defunding,” Mr. Coghlan said. “It is going to hit social and mental health services. It is the exact opposite of what needs to be done.”
One of the first signs of potential suicide is burnout, Mr. Coghlan said. That burnout, he added, is materializing with police officers resigning en masse from departments across the country:
⦁ At least seven police officers have resigned from the Minneapolis police force since Floyd’s death.
⦁ In Buffalo, 57 officers resigned from the department’s emergency response team after the suspension of two officers who are seen on video pushing a 75-year-old protester.
⦁ Ten members of the police department’s SWAT team in Hallandale Beach, Florida, resigned. They said they were “minimally equipped” and abandoned by city commissioners.
“When you start seeing the most experienced officers handing in their papers, it says to the less-senior rank and file that the job is really dead,” Mr. Coghlan said. “There is a sense that if you go out and do your job by the book and legally you are still going to be vilified by the department, vilified by the media and vilified by the public, so officers are wondering why they would stick around and do this.”
To fight police suicide, Mr. Trump last year signed into law a bipartisan bill that restored grant funding for law enforcement mental health services and expanded officer access to those programs.
In January, Attorney General William Barr formed a commission to confront the burdens carried by law enforcement officers, including decreased morale and suicide.
While announcing the commission, Mr. Barr suggested mental health issues experienced by officers result from increasing public contempt for police.
“There has been, especially of late, a disturbing pattern of cynicism and disrespect shown towards law enforcement,” he said at the time. “All Americans should agree that nobody wins when trust breaks down between police and the community they serve. We need to address the divide.”
Analysts say the government needs to do a better job tracking officer suicides to get a better handle on the size of the problem. A provision in the government’s spending bill last year directed the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics to track officer suicides. A status report was due to Congress in March but has been delayed for unknown reasons.
Mr. Coghlan called for partnership among law enforcement, government officials and the media to address the uptick in anti-police rhetoric.
“The animosity has become so rampant and so acceptable,” he said. “We are seeing unprovoked attacks on officers. I think we need a partnership to engage in a partnership. We need to tone down the violence, aggression and anger towards police.”