Preventing Officer Suicides

The SAFLEO program is helping train law enforcement agencies to deal with officer suicides when they occur, and to find ways to prevent them before they happen.

By Paul Peluso for Officer.com

As the number of officer suicides increases with each passing year, law enforcement leaders are searching for way to stop their brothers and sisters in blue from taking their own lives. In 2019, there were 228 recorded officer suicides, while there were 139 line of duty deaths.

The SAFLEO (Suicide Awareness for Law Enforcement Officers) program, which is supported by a grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), aims to provide training, technical assistance and resources to law enforcement agencies, staff and families to raise awareness, erase the stigma and reduce and prevent officer suicides. The program includes a suite of in-person and online training and technical assistance that is provided at no cost.

During a recent discussion hosted by the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum and moderated by Program Manager Nick Breul, a retired Washington, D.C. Metropolitan police officer, BJA Acting Director Kristen Mahoney and Brandon Post, a Senior Research Associate with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research who served with the Provo Police Department in Utah for 20 years before his retirement in January, both spoke about the importance of training in suicide prevention and the steps law enforcement agencies can take to prevent officer suicides.

A Stressful Time for LE

Breul opened the discussion by putting the current situation officers find themselves in into perspective. “This is a very timely program given everything that’s happening in law enforcement with the civil unrest, with COVID, with the continual stream of negative imagery and scrutiny that law enforcement is coming under right now,” he says. “So, it’s an incredibly stressful time for law enforcement and unfortunately, sometimes that stress leads to officers taking their own lives; which is what this program is designed to educate, create awareness and hopefully help prevent.”

The BJA created the SAFLEO program with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research and its partners, the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum, the American Association of Suicidology and the Major City Chiefs Association. They’ve brought together training, assistance and other resources into one place.

“SAFLEO came into being because we recognize that our nation’s officers have a high degree of exposure to stress and trauma and unfortunately, because of this, officers seem to have a higher prevalence of suicidal ideation,” says Mahoney. “The SAFLEO program’s purpose is to stop that trend and provide meaningful support and resources to our law enforcement officers. We have found that a drastic change needs to happen in how we address officer wellness and suicide.”

Have a plan in place

Losing an officer to suicide can be a devastating event for the department, individual officers—especially those who are close to the officer who is deceased—operations staff and the officer’s family. Post says that losing an officer to suicide is not something agencies typically prepare for. “We recognize that this is a very dangerous profession and that we can lose an officer in the line of duty, and we have policies and procedures in place in case that terrible event ever occurs,” he says. “However, not nearly as many of us have a policy or procedure in place in case we lose an officer to suicide, which is unfortunate because statistically speaking, we are more likely to lose an officer to suicide than we are to lose one to a line of duty death. It’s important to be prepared for this possibility because dealing with the tragic loss of an officer, that’s incredibly difficult, and making necessary decisions in the immediate aftermath of a suicide can be overwhelming.”

Following an officer suicide, there are difficult questions that need to be answered. Are death notifications different for suicides? How does the leader of the agency address the media? Will funeral protocols be different? How is the department going to care for the deceased officer’s family? Should there be a departmental debrief? Post says that one of the most important questions an agency needs to ask after a suicide occurs is: Is there a potential danger of contagion where other officers may die by suicide?

It can be easier to make these critical decisions when not dealing with the emotional storm associated with a suicide and having a protocol in place to respond to law enforcement suicides that can assist in minimizing the added pain toward loved ones, colleagues and the department, Post noted. That goes along the SAFLEO program, which just recently published a postvention suicide guide to help departments prepare for this tragedy, should it ever occur.

“We lose more officers to suicide than assaults and traffic accidents combined every year,” he says. “That fact alone should mandate a call to action on the part of our profession to provide meaningful support and resources.”

Erasing the stigma

Post recently participated in a web event that included a clinical psychologist who has dealt with thousands of officers over the course of his career. He said one commonality he sees is that officers are more worried about people finding out they ask for help than they are about getting well. The same event featured an officer who had been involved in a critical event in which she found herself on the ground fighting with a man twice her size who pulled out a gun. She stayed in the fight and survived but was shot in the face.

“In the aftermath, where she’s healing from some pretty significant physical, emotional and mental injuries, she realizes that she’s struggling with suicidal ideation. The statement she made was that reaching out and asking for help and admitting that she was suicidal—that was more frightening than the critical incident itself,” he says. “We have a definite stigma in this profession against reaching out and asking for help and taking care of ourselves. We’ve got some real work to do to change this because in this profession we are constantly exposed to things that are outside the bounds of normal human experience and it is normal human behavior to be bothered by some of the things we see and experience each day.”

In 2019, the New York City Police Department and the Police Executive Research Forum hosted a meeting on officer suicides. Afterward, PERF released a report entitled ‘An Occupational Risk: What Every Police Agency Should Do to Prevent Suicide Amongst Its Officers’ and they recommended that law enforcement leaders make employees’ mental health care a priority and provide robust officer wellness programming.

Mahoney says that it was the first time she heard so many people come together and talk about officer suicides openly and honestly. “Like that day at the NYPD, we need to constantly have open dialogue and create and encourage a culture within law enforcement where talking about wellness and asking for help is OK, and that’s what we’re doing through SAFLEO.”

Learn more about the SAFELEO program at https://www.valorforblue.org/SAFLEO

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