August 7, 2021

What can we do to prevent police officer suicides?


Dear PERF member,

It hits every police chief or sheriff like a gut punch – the news that an officer in their department died by suicide.

And the soul-searching begins. What was going on with the officer? Did anyone have any idea this might happen? Were there warning signs that were missed? Could the death have been prevented?

This past Monday, we learned that two more officers who responded to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol had taken their lives, increasing the total to four lives lost by suicide following that one event.

Gunther Hashida, an 18-year veteran of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, was found dead at his home on July 29, and Officer Kyle DeFreytag, who had 5 years with the MPD, was found dead on July 10. A few days after the insurrection, on January 9, U.S. Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood had died by suicide, and a short time later, MPD Officer Jeffrey Smith, a 12-year veteran patrolman, took his life.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of these officers. I hope the families can take comfort in remembering their loved ones for the contributions and sacrifices they made to protect our country.

And so once again, the question surfaced -- why do these suicides keep happening? Sadly, in 2021 the reality is that we still don’t know enough about why police officers take their lives.

We know that the stresses of policing are unlike any other profession, but we don’t have enough research on the specific causative factors. It is time for a national commitment to investing in research in which police departments across the country can contribute their own data and experiences to one central repository.

One promising approach: Psychological autopsies

PERF held a major conference on police suicide in 2019, and many of these issues were raised. One of the most promising new ideas was that if more police departments conducted what is called a “psychological autopsy” following a suicide, we could answer more questions.

Experts from agencies that conduct psychological autopsies explained how they work, including Dr. Jeff Thompson from the NYPD. Jeff is a real expert on this. In addition to being an NYPD detective, he’s certified as a psychological autopsy investigator by the American Association of Suicidology.

Jeff told us that a psychological autopsy is much like detective work, where you talk to family members and friends of the decedent, and ask about any warning signs they had noticed, the officer’s personality and ability to handle stress, any alcohol or drug use, the officer’s personal relationships, recent changes in the officer’s habits or routines, etc. A psychological autopsy isn’t just a checklist of questions; it’s an investigation.

Of course, there is a sensitivity to asking family members these questions at this moment of despair. But often they understand when you tell them it’s not about blaming anybody; it’s about identifying the risk factors in order to prevent future suicides. And the details about an individual officer’s life can be kept private, even as data is collected, department by department and nationally, about warning signs and contributing factors to suicide.

Sometimes, Jeff said, family members and friends will tell you a suicide was unexpected and shocking, but if you interview enough people, you find out about some risk factors or warning signs that were present.

Other times, it’s immediately clear that the person was in a world of hurt for a long time, “but there was an impulsivity that led them to suicide on that one day,” Jeff said. “It can help prevent suicides if you try to find out what happened on that one day.”

Another good idea: Mental health checks for all officers, every year

A major problem is that there’s a stigma about seeking mental health care, especially in policing. But experts like Dr. John Mann of Columbia University Medical Center told us that suicide is strongly linked to a diagnosis of depression, and depression is a treatable illness. “Police officers will respond to treatment for depression like everyone else does,” Dr. Mann said.

So how do you overcome the stigma and work to identify officers who may be depressed or suicidal? Simple -- by requiring all officers to meet with a mental health professional on a regular basis, such as once a year.

Chuck Ramsey, former Police Commissioner in Philadelphia, told us, “That’s how you get rid of the stigma. If everybody has to go through it on a regular basis, it takes away the stigma.”

In fact, Commissioner Ramsey said that everyone, including police chiefs, should have a yearly checkup. “I’m here to tell you it’s an enormous amount of stress when you’re at the top of the organization, too,” he said.

Provide a wide range of programs to help struggling officers

Police agencies have several different types of psychological support programs, including Employee Assistance Programs, Peer Support Units, and Critical Incident Stress Management groups. The programs differ from agency to agency, but chiefs and sheriffs should become familiar with each type of program in their agency, and make sure there are plenty of options for officers who need help.

Some officers are willing to talk to psychologists, while others are more comfortable with peer counselors. In the Los Angeles Police Department, psychologists are actually assigned to specific field units, doing ride-alongs and meeting with officers. This develops trust, so when officers need help, they know a psychologist they can turn to.

A lot of tough calls to make

Police officer suicides are one of the most difficult issues for chiefs to handle, because sometimes it’s hard to know whether an action will help or hurt a situation. One of the toughest issues is whether to remove an officer’s gun if you are concerned about their risk for suicide.

First, you have to realize that 90% of suicides attempted with a gun end in death, compared to only 10% of suicides attempted by all other means combined. So it’s not true that if you take an officer’s gun, they’ll just take their life with sleeping pills or other means.

However, carrying a firearm is usually a necessary part of an officer’s job. Whether or not to take an officer’s gun is one of the hardest decisions that police chiefs can make. This decision should be made with a team of professionals who can assess the risk. On one hand, taking the gun from an officer may be necessary to prevent an immediate risk, but in other cases it might increase the stress on a troubled officer.

When a suicide happens, chiefs have another tough call to make, about how much information, if any, to provide within the department and to the public. It’s difficult to bring attention to such an important and sensitive issue if you can’t even discuss it openly. But often when there is a suicide, the officer’s family prefers to grieve in private.

Finally, there seems to be growing sentiment that suicides should be considered a “line-of-duty” death, in order to recognize the fact that policing is an extremely stressful job and that officers who die by suicide deserve empathy for the struggles they endured and credit for the contributions they made. I think this is a question that will receive increasing attention, and it should be openly discussed within the profession.

As we think of the incredibly sad news this week of two more officers dying after protecting our Capitol on January 6, I encourage you to take a look at our report, An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do To Prevent Suicide Among Its Officers. It’s a good, detailed report, and it may give you some fresh ideas about strategies you can undertake.

And, of course, if you know of anyone who needs help with suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available at 800-273-8255. There’s also the Crisis Text Line. Police personnel can text “Blue” to 741741 and receive confidential support from personnel specifically trained in policing matters.