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Blue lives matter: death by suicide the quiet epidemic

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Fireboats shot glorious arcs of water as the remains of Officer George Gonzalez were driven across the Potomac River last Friday, on the way to the funeral home where the Pentagon police officer’s body would be prepared for burial.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before joining the Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts

Bike cops, patrol cops and captains stood at attention along Pennsylvania Avenue and saluted.

"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 the 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 were killed by gunfire so far this year — most of them while making an arrest. Another 38 were killed in traffic accidents. Eighteen were killed in other ways, like drowning while trying to save someone, or being beaten by prisoners. Covid-19 took 71 officers.

Police officers on Capitol Hill salute as the body of Pentagon officer George Gonzalez is escorted to a funeral home on August 6 (Photograph by Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

So far this year, 89 law enforcement officers in the United States have died by suicide, according to Blue Help, a non-profit that keeps these statistics.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in DC does not include these officers. Most police departments do not consider them line-of-duty deaths.

"It is the mission of Blue Help 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 Help’s mission statement says.

If you go on its website, the blog is full of devastating posts by widows who said their partners did not 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 is not easy to track years of trauma and incidents and stress and what may have triggered these suicides, but the numbers show 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 non-profit organisation specialising in research and policy on policing issues, issued a sweeping report on the disturbing trend, noting there is no central repository for these statistics.

When an officer is killed feloniously, there is a “playbook” of investigations, of honours, of support for the family, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the forum.

"Agency leaders and officers struggle to address the suicide inside their organisations and often do not know what to say publicly — if they choose to say anything at all," Wexler said.

There is no body or research or playbook for officer suicide.

Here in DC, the official response has been flailing after the suicides of Capitol Police officer Howard Liebengood and DC police officers Jeffrey Smith, Gunther Hashida and Kyle deFreytag — who were all at the Capitol on January 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 is a dangerous profession, but it 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 honour 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 DC officers who took their own lives were more than police officers. One loved Downton Abbey, another had three children, one had a black-and-brown dog with white toes, and one was known for his proficiency in every kind of international cuisine that DC had to offer. They found ways to cope with the pressures of the job.

But January 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 January 6, in a letter to Jennifer Wexton, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Virginia.

He worked four more days after that day, 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” does not 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 programme for officers.

Instead of making officers the ones who deal with homeless populations, put more money towards affordable housing and programmes to eliminate the tent cities sprouting on their beats.

That is how you ease the burden on officers and on the community.

That is how you show that blue lives matter.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before joining the Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts

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Published August 11, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated August 10, 2021 at 8:01 pm)

Blue lives matter: death by suicide the quiet epidemic

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