More police officers die by suicide than are killed while patrolling beats or trying to apprehend suspects or in car accidents on the way to crime scenes. The suicide risk for police, experts say, exceeds that of the population as a whole. But the problem doesn’t get the focus that is needed.
A 2019 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank, contrasted the response to deaths of police officers while officially on duty with the response to their deaths by suicide. Line-of-duty deaths are thoroughly investigated to understand every detail of what happened; fallen officers are laid to rest with honors, and their survivors can receive emotional support and financial assistance from local, state and federal programs. When an officer dies by suicide, there is investigation into the manner and cause of death, but few departments perform a deeper analysis of what may have led to the death. Departments struggle with what to say and often choose to say nothing. Family members don’t always receive organized support and generally don’t get financial benefits associated with line-of-duty deaths.
“So much of this is still a stigma,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, and so not enough information is collected. Some families might not want attention called to the manner of death, he said. But with no central repository for collecting and analyzing the information, questions go unanswered. What is the relationship between the stresses of police work and suicide? Is there a contagion effect?
The deaths of D.C. police officers Jeffrey Smith, Gunther Hashida and Kyle DeFreytag — along with that of Capitol Police officer Howard Liebengood, who died by suicide days after he assisted with riot control at the Capitol attack — raise the question of what role the events of Jan. 6 may have played. In her petition to the Police and Firefighters’ Retirement and Relief Board asking that her husband’s death be designated as in the line of duty, Officer Smith’s widow makes a compelling case that if not for the events of that day, her husband would still be alive.
To help prevent future such tragedies, collecting information on police suicide and studying it with care should be a national priority.