Fireboats shot glorious arcs of water as the remains of Officer George Gonzalez were driven across the Potomac River on Friday, on the way to the funeral home where the Pentagon police officer’s body would be prepared for burial.
“Awful,” one officer said to another after the motorcade passed. Then they flipped the kickstands back up on their bikes and returned to patrolling Capitol Hill.
Gonzalez, 37, was at work outside the Pentagon last Tuesday when a man from Georgia got off a bus and, unprovoked, stabbed him, then took the officer’s weapon and shot him and himself. Both of them died.
This horrible event, however, isn’t typical of the way police officers usually die.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and Museum’s 2021 midyear report, 28 officers have been killed by gunfire so far this year — most of them while making an arrest. An additional 38 were killed in traffic accidents. Eighteen were killed in other ways, such as drowning while trying to save someone, or being beaten by prisoners. Covid-19 took 71 officers.
So far this year, 89 law enforcement officers in the United States have died by suicide, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that keeps these statistics.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in D.C. does not include these officers. Most police departments don’t consider them line-of-duty deaths.
“It is the mission of Blue H.E.L.P. to reduce mental health stigma through education, advocate for benefits for those suffering from post-traumatic stress, acknowledge the service and sacrifice of law enforcement officers we lost to suicide, assist officers in their search for healing, and to bring awareness to suicide and mental health issues,” Blue H.E.L.P.’s mission statement says.
If you go on the group’s website, the blog is full of devastating posts by widows who said their partners didn’t get the help they needed when they were struggling — and the families were largely abandoned after the suicides.
“I want to tell you how a noticeable amount of his colleagues skipped over and glared at me as I stood by my late husband’s casket,” wrote a woman who identified herself as “Badge #1831’s widow.”
“I want to tell you that since the night he died, not a single officer has come over on their own to check on me,” she wrote.
It’s not easy to track years of trauma and incidents and stress and what may have triggered these suicides, but the numbers show that the rate — except for a noticeable spike in 2019, when 238 officers killed themselves — is fairly constant over the years.
That year — 2019 — was when the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit organization specializing in research and policy on policing issues, issued a sweeping report on the disturbing trend, noting that there is no central repository for these statistics.
When an officer is killed feloniously, there is a “playbook” of investigations, of honors, of support for the family, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the forum.
“Agency leaders and officers struggle to address the suicide inside their organizations and often do not know what to say publicly — if they choose to say anything at all,” Wexler said.
There is no body of research or playbook for officer suicide.
Here in D.C., the official response has been flailing after the suicides of Capitol Police officer Howard Liebengood and D.C. police officers Jeffrey Smith, Gunther Hashida and Kyle deFreytag — who were all at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
There were no citywide motorcades or processions for those fallen officers, the departments weren’t forthcoming with statements, and the families are fighting to have the deaths acknowledged as being in the line of duty.
That day — and the national reaction to it — was a toxic concentration of the most fraught aspects of their profession. Police were under attack, understaffed, assaulted by people carrying police-support flags and abandoned by some of the Republican members of Congress they protected that day.
It was horrific.
And this is the part of policing that America is not paying attention to. It’s a dangerous profession, but it’s also a toxic profession.
And the numbers show that mucking around in society’s underbelly, working daily around tragedies they are powerless to change, the conflicted fraternity that upholds honor but punishes honesty, a nation that is slowly getting tired of giving an entire profession the benefit of the doubt — all of it is wearing on them.
The D.C. officers who took their own lives were more than police officers. One loved “Downton Abbey,” another had three kids, one had a black-and-brown dog with white toes, and one was known for his proficiency in every kind of international cuisine D.C. had to offer. They found ways to cope with the pressures of the job.
But Jan. 6 may have broken them.
“We never could have imagined that we would lose Howie so early in our lives,” wrote Serena Liebengood, wife of one of the officers who killed himself after Jan. 6, in a letter to Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.).
He worked four straight days, running on very little sleep, she recalled.
“On the evening of the 9th,” she wrote, “he took his life at our home.”
This is the part where some folks will say that this is what we get from the “defund the police” movement, which is believed to be about diminishing police departments.
But “defund the police” doesn’t mean “don’t support the police.” Instead, it means “reimagine the police” — for everyone’s sake.
Instead of more military-grade assault vehicles, hire more social workers to assist officers on mental illness calls.
Instead of buying bayonets (seriously, at least one department did this), support a comprehensive mental health program for officers.
Instead of making officers the ones who deal with homeless populations, put more money toward affordable housing and programs to eliminate the tent cities sprouting on their beats.
That’s how you ease the burden on officers and on the community.
That’s how you show that blue lives matter.
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