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Trump Wants To Protect Police, But The Government Is Missing A Big Problem: Suicides

When President Trump signed his Blue Lives Matter executive order a little more than a year ago, he asked the Justice Department to explore harsher penalties for those who commit acts of violence against the police. “It’s a shame what’s been happening to our great, truly great law enforcement officers,” Trump said at the time. “That’s going to stop as of today.”

But some of the harm that’s coming to police is at their own hands. Advocates for police believe that suicides in the field are much more common than line-of-duty deaths. But “believe” is the operative word there — nobody’s keeping a firm record of how many happen. Police advocates say that’s impairing our ability to keep police officers safe.

Leaders of law enforcement organizations agree that if blue lives matter, so do police suicides. “There aren’t hard and fast stats, but we believe there’s at least one suicide every day in law enforcement,” said Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, an organization of law enforcement officers with more than 330,000 members.

Third-party groups that collect statistics on police suicides don’t have numbers that are quite as extreme, but they do estimate that more than a hundred officers a year die by suicide. The Badge of Life and Blue H.E.L.P., nonprofits that advocate for programs and education that address police trauma and stress, reported 140 and 154 police suicides, respectively, in 2017.

However, the data collection from The Badge of Life and Blue H.E.L.P. is incomplete. The Badge of Life started working on studies of police suicide in 2008 by conducting web-based searches of news reports across the U.S. over the course of the year. In 2017, the organization identified 102 police suicides, but the group tacked on an additional 38 police suicides for “hidden figures” that the data may be missing. The latter number is largely an estimate. In reports on its methods, the organization notes that it bumps its tally up by 20 percent to account for researcher errors and 17 percent for deaths that could have been misclassified as an accident or undetermined.1

Meanwhile, Blue H.E.L.P. started collecting information on officer suicides in 2016 through an online submission form where families or co-workers could report a death. Founder Karen Solomon told me that she and four other people have access to the forms and verify each submission through news reports or by calling the deceased individuals’ departments. Solomon said the organization only includes incidents it can verify.

Still, even the minimum number of police suicides verified by the nonprofits exceeds the number of line-of-duty deaths tallied by the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Program. LEOKA reported 46 law enforcement officers feloniously killed and 47 accidental deaths in 2017. As a point of comparison, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, a nonprofit group dedicated to honoring fallen officers that also reports statistics on officer deaths, reported 129 officer line-of-duty fatalities in 2017.2

Many police advocates say the government should be tracking officer suicides. “We’ve asked the government over and over and over to collect this data, and there’s never been any interest,” said Ron Clark, chairman of The Badge of Life and a retired sergeant from the Connecticut State Police. “If you don’t know the problem, you can’t really start to talk about a solution.”

Police organizations agree with Clark. The Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Trump during his campaign, believes that the federal government should get more involved in studying police suicide. And it thinks it knows how the Trump administration can start. In January, Trump signed the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act of 2017, which directs the Justice Department to “report on Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs mental health practices and services that could be adopted by law enforcement agencies” and take other steps to improve mental health resources for law enforcement. Canterbury said his group wants the federal government to take a step further by studying and collecting information on police suicides as part of its research efforts. When we asked the Department of Justice if the administration is thinking about doing this, it did not make anyone available for comment.

“We’re trying to bring awareness,” Canterbury said. “The law enforcement act is our first attempt at getting a study done by the federal government on PTSD in law enforcement, which would include police suicides.”

John Violanti, a researcher at the University of Buffalo who has studied police suicide for decades and helped The Badge of Life, says the FBI should collect information on suicides in law enforcement agencies the same way it collects data on line-of-duty deaths. “What we need is a surveillance like that,” Violanti said. “Then we’d have a basis for an analysis.”

But the government’s data collection isn’t perfect, either. The FBI’s LEOKA program relies partially on voluntary reports from law enforcement agencies on felonious and accidental deaths of officers. Governmental efforts using the same method to track suicides would also produce an incomplete set of data. And those efforts would face additional hurdles — suicides are often misclassified as having an undetermined cause of death, and policing has an existing stigma surrounding suicide, making data collection more difficult.

Clark said the stigma often keeps police departments quiet about an incident. Additionally, reports on the culture of policing note that officers are hesitant to seek counseling about trauma or stress because they fear losing their jobs, which exacerbates the problem.

“It’s kind of one of those dirty little secret things that nobody wanted to talk about for the entirety of my career,” said Richard Myers, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization of police chiefs and sheriffs who work in the largest cities of the U.S. and Canada.

Leaders of police groups I spoke with noted that change may be coming. They’ve noticed a shift in the culture within some law enforcement agencies and a recent push to consider officer mental wellness and physical safety as equally important. “It’s really not a new topic,” Myers said. “But we’re talking about it more. What’s new is the willingness of leadership and hopefully line level officers to talk more freely about this and help identify officers who are struggling.”

CORRECTION (April 16, 2018, 11:10 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misspelled Karen Solomon’s name.

Footnotes

  1. University of Buffalo researcher John Violanti, who has assisted The Badge of Life with its work, noted that the 17 percent comes from his past research investigating undetermined deaths of police officers.

  2. Agencies submit information on deaths to the organization.

Kathryn Casteel writes about economics and policy issues for FiveThirtyEight.

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