Four police officers on duty during the Capitol insurrection has committed suicide. This crushing reality, coupled with the recruiting and retention crisis in American law enforcement, warrants urgent action to promote officer wellness, reports The Hill.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
To read more CLICK HERE