By Barb McQuade
Last week, the wife of a police officer who was on duty during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol filed a lawsuit against two men for his wrongful death. His cause of death? Suicide.
Officer Jeffrey Smith was one of four officers who took their own lives after surviving the attack on the Capitol. Officer Smith shot himself nine days after the siege, and one day after he had been ordered back to work after receiving treatment for injuries he suffered in the riot. According to the lawsuit, Officer Smith was struck in the head with a metal bar and knocked to the ground by the defendants. The claim alleges that a traumatic brain injury caused Officer Smith to commit suicide.
Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the four officer suicides following the January 6 attack represent an alarming trend that extends beyond the attempted insurrection at the Capitol. According to a report by a consortium including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, hundreds of police officers in the United States take their own lives each year. In fact, more officers die from suicide each year than are killed in the line of duty.
Police officers work in a high-stress environment. They respond to the scenes of fatal car accidents and grisly murders, and are sometimes the targets of verbal abuse and physical threats. According to the IACP report, chronic stress takes its toll on an officer’s ability to cope. Without adequate attention to mental wellness, officers can experience post-traumatic stress disorder or emotional withdrawal. As a result, some officers turn to substance abuse or even self-harm.
Harold Love, a retired Michigan State Police captain, now provides counseling services to police departments. He believes that the stigma of mental illness makes it a taboo topic for too many police departments. He has seen officers exposed to trauma try to bury their feelings instead of coping with them and working to heal.
Love believes that unaddressed mental health issues contribute to officer violence against civilians. While officers are screened for mental, emotional and psychological health at hiring, if they experience trauma on the job that goes unaddressed, their fight or flight responses become easily triggered, sending them into a panic. “Sometimes your body tells you to protect yourself from a danger that doesn’t really exist.” He said that this phenomenon could cause an officer to genuinely fear for their life and use fatal force even when facing a subject who turns out to be non-threatening.
As we think about how to reimagine public safety to reduce the number of unarmed civilians killed by police officers, we need to consider the role of officer wellness. Love recommends that when officers experience trauma, they participate in what is known as a “critical incident stress debriefing.” In the debriefing, a mental health professional talks with all of the officers involved in a traumatic incident, helping them to process the event and normalize their fears and reactions. Officers are then offered individual follow-up counseling. Because the officers are required to participate in the debriefing, mental health providers can overcome the stoic police culture that sometimes stands in the way of attending to mental health.
In addition to providing support after a traumatic incident, the IACP report recommends that police departments also offer mental health services on a routine basis. These services should include mental wellness training, annual mental wellness checks, peer support and chaplaincy programs. Mental health should be introduced at the start of a police officer’s career, and training should be provided on an ongoing basis. Training topics should include skills for coping with negative situations, resilience, stress reduction and suicide prevention. Police departments should also consider the importance of effective communication about mental wellness to overcome stigma and promote a culture of resilience, hope and recovery.
It may be that nothing could have prepared the officers for the violent mob they faced on January 6, but we owe it to them to help them to cope with the lingering effects. And we owe it to all of the civilians who will encounter these officers in the years to come.