Suicides among law enforcement officers, which soared last year, have slowed markedly in the first months of 2020 as the deadly coronavirus pandemic has put increasing demands on officers to enforce local shutdown orders and placed them at risk of contracting the virus, according to data gathered by a police advocacy group..
Officer suicides are down nearly 30% so far this year, compared to the same period in 2019 – a drop from 89 deaths to 63, according to Blue H.E.L.P., which relies on data submissions from family members, law enforcement agencies and online searches.
While the group is at a loss for a definitive explanation for the sudden, but welcome, lull, analysts suggest that the increased need for public services during the health emergency, and a corresponding wave of goodwill for those who provide it, may be helping to sustain the most vulnerable.
"We don't know why the numbers are going the way they are going," said Karen Solomon, president and co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P. "It could be that people are not reporting like they normally would because of the virus. Or it could be that the pandemic has created a sense of purpose and need for helpers that can make a difference."
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Before COVID-19, law enforcement and health officials had been sounding the alarm about the suicide threat stalking the ranks of police departments across the country.
The New York Police Department, faced with a spate of deaths last year, declared a “mental health crisis.” The Chicago Police Department grappled with rising numbers of its own.
In February, Attorney General William Barr, in a speech to the nation’s largest association of police chiefs, referred to “staggering statistics” gathered by Blue H.E.L.P., which reported 228 suicides in 2019, a 44% increase from the year before.
The data, which the group acknowledges is likely incomplete, also highlighted a stunning lack of research on why law enforcement officers take their own lives. Though many institutions track police officer deaths in the line of duty – from fatal shootings to heart attacks – there has been no national repository for tracking and analyzing officer suicides.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund for years has tracked deaths in the line of duty. The group does not recognize suicides as line-of-duty deaths, but analysts have attributed job stress and exposure to trauma as contributing to officers' mental decline.
An urgent need for tracking
A provision in the government's spending bill in December directed the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics to start tracking officer suicides. A status report, which was due to be delivered to Congress in March, has been delayed.
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Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said the increasing pressures faced by police during the pandemic make such a tracking system an even more urgent priority for the federal government.
"Law enforcement officers are now not only exposed to the tremendous stress and trauma that comes with protecting our communities, but also the added anxieties brought by COVID-19," Shaheen said.
"The coronavirus pandemic has only increased stress and uncertainty for law enforcement officers who have experienced additional calls for assistance, significant on-the-job risk of exposure to the virus and potential job loss as states and municipalities face revenue shortfalls."
John Violanti, a University of Buffalo professor of epidemiology and environmental health, supports the creation of national repository having reported that the risk of suicide among law enforcement officers is 54% greater than other American workers. The finding was based on an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data ending in 2014.
While he does not regard Blue H.E.L.P.'s data as a scientific representation of the problem, he said the group's most recent findings – while surprising – could be attributed to the recent outpouring of public support for nurses, doctors firefighters and police who are required to work through the pandemic.
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"Police and all first responders are now looked on as heroes," Violanti said. "But at some point that is going to go away."
And when that goodwill begins to fade, Violanti, a former New York state trooper, and Solomon said there is concern that the suicide numbers may spike again.
"We're putting officers in a very bad place, in increasing positions of strain," Violanti said, adding that local shutdown orders have required police to make arrests at churches, backyard parties and other unlikely places for violations of such things as mass-gathering prohibitions.
"It's a lot to ask of police; I think (the numbers) are going to go up," he said.
'So much trauma'
Molly High is more than familiar with the pain endured by officers and their families before and after such losses.
High has little doubt that her husband's exposure to the most disturbing side of policing had something to do with his suicide in January.
During more than two decades in law enforcement in Idaho and Washington state, Phillip High, 53, investigated arson, reconstructed deadly vehicle collisions and once was swept up in a shootout.
"There was so much trauma," Molly High said.
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In retrospect, High said her husband's private nature masked mounting distress that she now thinks may have taken hold four years ago. "I just thought he was stressed; I didn't recognize it at first," she said.
Set to retire Feb. 29, Phillip High was working on another master's degree to prepare for a second career in counseling first responders. But last year, he seemed to fall into a steep spiral, increasingly isolating himself at work and at home.
After work, his wife said, he would retreat to his study to watch television. He was often sick to his stomach. He couldn't eat; he couldn't sleep. There were times when he couldn't find the words to express his distress.
"He totally shut down," she said.
In early January, the couple found help in Salt Lake City, where Phillip High spent four days being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. He returned home encouraged that the treatment was helpful, but he quickly sank into depression as his wife looked for long-term care.
Two days after returning from Utah, Phillip High killed himself.
This month, Molly High had planned to travel to Washington, D.C., in commemoration of National Police Week, a tradition that had deep meaning for the couple and their ties to law enforcement. The coronavirus emergency changed all that, but the message she had planned to share there with spouses and family members of police officers who have taken their own lives remains just as relevant.
"We're trying to bring awareness to this issue," she said. "The job did kill these men, but nobody wants to acknowledge that."
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.
Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.