Wisconsin to address law-enforcement suicide

Twice as many police have taken their own lives as have been killed in the line of duty

Police scene crime tape set on long exposure moving down with zoom lens
Mark Strozier (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The following story is about suicide. For free, confidential help and support, call 800-273-8255 or text HOPELINE to 741741.

So far this year, 163 law enforcement officers have taken their own lives nationwide, and those are just the deaths reported as suicides.

Those numbers, put out by Blue H.E.L.P., an organization that tracks officer suicides while simultaneously seeking to prevent such tragedies, were highlighted by Attorney General Josh Kaul on Monday to mark the last day of Suicide Prevention Month.

“Law enforcement officers encounter difficult — and sometimes tragic — circumstances,” said Kaul. “We must continue working to de-stigmatize mental health issues and to increase the availability of peer support and other programs that promote officer wellness.”

Headshot of Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul
Attorney General Josh Kaul (photo by Susan Ruggles CC BY 2.0)

In 2018, there were at least 167 officer suicides in the U.S., and for the third straight year more officers died by suicide than the total number of line-of-duty deaths resulting from 15 other causes. These causes include felonious assault, patrol vehicle accidents, heart attack and duty-related illness, according to Blue H.E.L.P., an organization that tracks officer suicides while simultaneously seeking to prevent such tragedies. (Their statistics are strictly law enforcement and retired law enforcement, not other first responders.)

Blue H.E.L.P. (Honor, Educate, Lead, Prevent) cofounder Jeffrey McGill began tracking these statistics in Jan. 2016. Of the 578 law enforcement known suicides during that period through June 2019, he said nine were from Wisconsin. 

Looking at all 578 suicides, 92% were male. “Most officers shot themselves, many with their service weapons,” according to Blue H.E.L.P. The group also works to support officers who are struggling and families in the aftermath of a suicide.

The Speaker’s Task Force on Suicide Prevention, chaired by Rep. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) and vice-chair Rep. Steve Doyle (D-La Crosse), put forward its recommendations last week. The group, meeting from April to September 2019, dedicated one of its public hearings to the topic of suicide specifically by veterans, law enforcement and other first responders.

“The testimony from law enforcement officers was really persuasive,” Doyle said. “Their job is to be the stoic person when they encounter emotional situations like a suicide or a homicide.”  

At that meeting Dana Vike, a supervisor from the Department of Justice (DOJ)  Division of Law Enforcement Services, gave a presentation. She commented on a list of risk factors for suicide cited by the National Alliance on Mental Illness that include: gender, age, history of trauma, prolonged stress, access to firearms, a recent tragedy or loss, chronic medical illness, agitation and sleep deprivation. She says that all of these are also relevant for first responders. 

“They are exposed to trauma in their daily work from accidents to dealing with domestic violence calls and a lot of adversity,” Vike told the Examiner. “There is not only a lot of trauma but also stress from the shift work too.”

Police car driving down a well lit street at night
(By William Sun CC via Pexels)

Vike said the task force members “seemed really receptive” and she offered them two specific actions the legislature could take to address first-responder suicides. She has a meeting with task force chair Ballweg this week to discuss them further. 

The first action is to create a dedicated position for a person who would be a resource for law enforcement all across the state, not only on suicide prevention, but also to coordinate mental health and wellness programs for first responders (including EMTs and firefighters as well). She estimates the position and programs/outreach would cost $180,000 to $200,000. 

The second change Vike suggests is to legislate privacy protections for officers who seek support through peer programs. “Currently if you are talking to a peer and say you are depressed or suicidal, that information is not protected as it would be if you were speaking with clergy or a therapist or spouse,” she noted. “That makes law enforcement officers, who may be leery to talk anyway, even less likely to seek peer help.”

Doyle added that he will continue to push not only for confidentiality for peer-to-peer interactions, but to increase funding to pay for  crisis hotline numbers dedicated to first responders as well as other key groups the task force identified as needing specific outreach for suicide prevention: veterans, farmers and students.

The Department of Justice has already made changes that don’t require legislative action, including: 

  • Wellness training for new chiefs, sheriffs and jail administrators as part of their orientation.
  • Wellness training at  leadership seminars and conferences put on by DOJ. 
  • Increasing peer support training, including at a new three-day regional peer support training event held last June in La Crosse.
  • Adding training on wellness and suicide prevention in 2016 for academy students using the Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) program to identify signs of someone in crisis and how to help.
  • And in April 2019, DJO funded a QPR train-the-trainer course.

 “The numbers show twice as many police officers have taken their lives as [have been killed] in the line of duty,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum told ABC News, “which makes this the number one issue for police departments around the country.”

 

 

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