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MEMO: As Law Enforcement Suicides Rise, DOJ Now Required to Collect and Report National Data As a Result of Shaheen Provision Signed Into Law

A record number of U.S. law enforcement officers died by suicide last year, according to Blue H.E.L.P. a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that works to reduce mental health stigmas for police. Blue H.E.L.P. reported that 228 current or former officers died by suicide in 2019 – more than all other line-of-duty deaths combined, and a dramatic increase over the number of deaths by suicide reported in 2018. 

As USA Today reports, this data is compiled using public reports of suicide deaths among current and retired officers to arrive at the statistic, meaning the actual total number of suicides is likely higher than is publicly known. As the lead Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that funds the Department of Justice (DOJ), Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) included language in the government funding bill that became law in December that requires DOJ to collect national data on law enforcement suicides so that the law enforcement community, policymakers and the public can better understand the scope of this issue and trends surrounding these tragic deaths. She also secured funds to improve mental health services for state and local law enforcement agencies, including resources to reduce stigmas around officers seeking mental health treatment and programs to assist officers in handling repeated exposure to stress and trauma while on the job. Shaheen’s measure is the result of conversations with law enforcement officers in New Hampshire, who regularly come face-to-face with the tragic consequences of the substance misuse epidemic and other traumatic emergency response situations. 

The full text of the language Senator Shaheen worked to include in the report accompanying the government funding bill follows: 

Data on Police Suicide.—The Committee understands that there is currently no national data concerning suicides of law enforcement officers. To truly understand the scope of this issue and determine rates of death or other trends, BJS is directed to maintain a data set and report on police suicides for Federal, State, and local law enforcement. A status report to the Committee on accomplishing this data collection is requested within 90 days of enactment of this act. 

Review of Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Programs.— The Committee recognizes the psychological and emotional impacts law enforcement face in responding to stressful and traumatic situations and is disturbed by increased reports of suicides by current and former law enforcement officers. The Committee directs the Department to provide a report within 90 days of enactment of this act assessing the availability of existing mental health resources for law enforcement agencies and should also include recommendations for increased access to, and utilization of, mental health counseling and programs focused on law enforcement suicide prevention efforts. 

This report shall also review the efficiency and effectiveness of peer responder programs for sworn and non-sworn law enforcement employees, including ‘‘train the trainer’’ models designed to support employees in the wake of a personal or professional crisis. This report should provide a review of the effectiveness of partnerships between peer responder programs and mental health service providers who specialize in clinical psychology services and behavioral sciences. The report should include any additional programs or resources needed to assist the Department in its efforts to aid State and local law enforcement agencies in developing and implementing law enforcement suicide prevention programs. 

Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Grants.—The Committee strongly supports efforts to protect the mental health and well-being of law enforcement officers. Unfortunately the stress of officers’ work and stigma associated with seeking assistance for emotional and mental health issues has led to an increase in suicides for officers across the country. To address this concern, no less than $3,000,000 of the funding provided for the Law Enforcement Mental Health and Wellness Act (Public Law 115–113) shall be distributed as a competitive grant program for State and local law enforcement agencies to provide better training on officer emotional and mental health, implement suicide prevention programming, and help officers seek assistance in receiving support services. 

Police officers in communities across the United States take tremendous risks to keep our communities safe. It is clear from this reporting that Congress needs to build on Senator Shaheen’s measures to both understand this crisis and support law enforcement officers to get the help they need.