The Justice Department has started a National Suicide Awareness for Law Enforcement Officers Program (SAFLEO) that helps police departments with training and technical assistance, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Katharine Sullivan told an International Association of Chiefs of Police(IACP) meeting on Friday.
Sullivan said DOJ and the IACP developed an issue brief on preventing officer suicide that was made available for the first time at last week’s symposium in Miami.
The number of police officer suicides is hard to pin down, Sullivan said, calling the 228 reported last year by the organization Blue H.E.L.P. “almost certainly an undercount.”
“It’s enough to know for the moment that they greatly surpass line-of-duty deaths and they have gone up each of the last four years,” Sullivan said, saying police suicides are “a disturbing trend that demands immediate corrective action.”
“These are very challenging times for law enforcement,” Sullivan told the police group, saying, “The drugs you seize are more lethal, the guns more powerful, the gangs more bent on violence. Online exploitation and other forms of cybercrime are becoming more sophisticated and more vile.
“International criminal organizations and human trafficking operations are working relentlessly to establish a foothold in your communities. And social problems like mental illness and homelessness are now being dropped at the precinct door.”
While all of this is happening, “police are literally under attack,” Sullivan said. “In addition to the tens of thousands of physical assaults you endure every year, you suffer verbal attacks that are no less harmful to morale. This leaves officers feeling under-valued and under-appreciated – something I find completely heartbreaking and totally unacceptable.”
The number of sworn officers per capita around the U.S. has fallen. Many departments are struggling to recruit and retain personnel, and fewer people are applying for law enforcement jobs, she said.
The issues surrounding officer wellness will get their own chapter in a report due this year from a presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, on which Sullivan is serving as vice chair.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of the Crime Report.