Answering the “Big Question”

Just how many law enforcement suicides are there each year?  That’s the “big question,” and the answer is that no one knows for sure.  There are a number of organizations that have been trying to track the numbers of both active and retired officers for some time.  I have no intention of saying anything disparaging here, but let me name of few of the organizations that I’m talking about (and you will have heard of most of these):

  • Blue H.E.L.P.
  • Badge of Life
  • The Ruderman Family Foundation
  • The National Law Enforcement Suicide Mortality Database

The one thing that these organizations have in common is that they have basically nothing in common.  They don’t have the same number of suicides that have been tracked, they don’t have the same method of validating the information they receive, some are adamant that law enforcement suicides should always be treated as a line of duty death while others do not support that idea, and so on. 

            So, the answer to the question as to how many law enforcement suicides are there every year is that we don’t have an accurate number, and in my mind, there is little hope that we will ever have an accurate number.  But I’ll have more to say about that as the article continues.

            Meanwhile, there is information available that I believe still helps us understand the severity of the problem of suicide in law enforcement.  We did a survey through Humanizing the Badge asking police officers about the topic of suicide, and here is what we found from the 3,892 responses we received:

  • 41% said they would consider suicide as an option if they were to find themselves in one or more of the following circumstances:
  • Loss of a spouse, life partner, or child as a result of death
  • Loss of a spouse, life partner, or child as a result of divorce or separation
  • Recent diagnosis of a major/terminal illness
  • Feeling responsible for the death of a coworker
  • Killing someone accidentally or out of anger
  • Feeling isolated or alone
  • Being accused of sexual misconduct
  • Fear of losing their job due to being convicted of a crime or facing incarceration
  • Fear of losing their job due to receiving a mental health diagnosis
  • 43% said they had personally known another officer or former officer who had died by suicide
  • 78% said they were personally aware of another department or agency that had lost an officer or former officer to suicide

Other numbers that we know, for example, is that back around 2015-2016 when the suicide rate in the general population was around 12 per 100,000 the Department of Justice released the results of a study that showed the suicide rate in law enforcement to be about 18 per 100,000 and another study in 2017 showing that the rate of suicide in Chicago PD was about 60% greater than the average of law enforcement agencies across the country for a rate of about 29 per 100,000.  The number of suicides in NYPD in 2019 translates to a rate for them of about 30 per 100,000.

Is there any doubt that suicide in law enforcement is a problem?  Of course not.  Even if we don’t know the exact numbers from across the country, the numbers that we do know are (or should be) enough to cause us to want to take action and to do better.

Now, here’s the thing that had given me hope that we might actually have accurate numbers to report one day: The Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act.  This Act passed on June 16, 2020, and here are the basic things you need to know about it:

  • It requires the Attorney General, through the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to establish the Law Enforcement Officers Suicide Data Collection Program within one year of the passage of the Act
  • It requires the Attorney General, through the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to deliver a report to Congress detailing the information that is collected through that data collection program beginning two years after the passage of the Act.
  • The only problem is that, while the Act requires the program to be established, the Act also says that this is a program “. . . under which law enforcement agencies may submit to the Director information on suicides and attempted suicides within such law enforcement agencies . . .”

The FBI has a similar data collection program for collecting data on the number of officers each year who are assaulted, injured, and killed in the line of duty.  There are almost 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, and yet fewer than 10,000 of them reported information to that data collection program last year.  Hence, I no longer have hope that we will ever have accurate numbers of the law enforcement suicides of both active and retired personnel that take place each year, simply because if agencies aren’t absolutely required to report the information, there is probably only around a 50% chance that they will.

Still, people feel like they have to be able to report a number.  During his training programs, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dave Grossman says that it is his belief that between 200 and 450 active police officers die by suicide each year.  That’s quite a wide range of numbers, and he may very well be right, but that’s like going to the gun range to qualify and only having to hit the proverbial “broad side of a barn” in order to pass!  The only thing I’m fairly comfortable saying when it comes to the numbers is that, in my opinion, we lose more officers to suicide each year than the number of officers who are feloniously killed in the line of duty.

This is Part 1 of a series of articles on Confronting the Issue of Suicide and we encourage you to visit again for more installments in this series. Meanwhile, if you are struggling with the stresses of the job or of life in general and are looking for some resources for help, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to help. If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor 24/7/365 – always free, always confidential.

Published by Chaplain David Edwards

David is a police chaplain, author, and educator, and is affectionately known as "Pa" to his grandkids. David is board certified in crisis response and pastoral counseling, and is an approved instructor for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation and member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association.

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