I want to stay with the theme I’ve talked about so far this month, which is suicide prevention. Yesterday I talked about the racial issues in suicide prevention, including the racial inequality from police when responding to persons of color. Yet in the story of suicide, police are sometimes the antagonists and sometimes the victims.
In 2019, 228 police officers died by suicide. This was a record number, up from 2018 when 172 died by suicide. In fact, more officers died by suicide than died in the line of duty. Indeed, the profession of policing has one of the highest risks of suicide. Some of the factors that feed these numbers are the stress of a job that exposes you to the worst of humanity, the complicated relationship society has with police during this era of racial reckoning, and the stress of being in a dangerous job.
These are facts. They aren’t meant to tug on the strings of the reader’s sympathy. Nor is it an excuse for inexcusable acts of police violence, such as what we saw with George Floyd. Instead, I hope that this helps reveal some of the deeper complexities of police psychology. Some of the same stresses that lead some officers to die by suicide may lead others to become aggressive in their jobs and may exacerbate underlying racial views.
I firmly believe that police serve a crucial role in our society and am thankful for the good officers who help keep their communities safe. I am also deeply disturbed when a police officer abuses the badge, committing crimes that stain the whole profession. I am saddened by the lives lost unnecessarily. All of these things can be true.
And all of these things, for me, reinforce the need for a great deal of reform in the police departments of America. We need reform so we can save lives, not only the lives of those in communities being policed, by also the lives of the police themselves.
Police certainly are not a single entity with a single mentality. The crimes of one officer may stain the public’s perception of the profession, but they do not indict all officers. The laws these officers enforce may also have racist intents, but law enforcement officers are just that. They enforce the laws, they don’t write them, and the sins of our lawmakers should not become the sins of the officers necessarily. How the officers choose to manage their enforcement of these laws are, of course, clearly a big factor when it comes to discussing racial inequity in the laws themselves.
Yet by the same token, how we choose to react to these laws and to the role of law enforcement in general is a necessary part of the conversation. And we are certainly seeing that happen right now in a very noticeable way.
So what comes next? Because that is the most important question for all of these discussions.
Are the protests and riots right now just a release of understandable rage, or do that actually have a direction? Just as police are not a singular entity, neither are protesters, and what comes next will have a different answer depending on who you ask. Some say defund the police, some say reform the police, and others don’t know what to say.
What comes next for the officers who are out there right now and at danger for dying by suicide, just as 228 of their colleagues did last year?
Training and mental health outreach, as I mentioned before, this must be a part of the conversation and a part of the solution. Similarly, hearing one another and understanding one another must be a part of the solution. Right now I fear the protesters are just screaming into the void and police are literally and figuratively armoring themselves against the anger and against the protests. Neither side are hearing or understanding one another.
I am saddened by the lives that have been lost at the hands of police brutality and I am equally saddened by the police lives lost to suicide, because both are preventable. But first we must be willing to have these hard conversations.