Happy New Year. It's been a couple of days since the festivities and the fireworks, and just about everybody is settling back into their regular routines following the winter break.
Earlier this week we posted two news items that were literally an example of good news / bad news.
The former is word that the number of law enforcement professionals nationwide who died in the line of duty in 2019 fell to 128—an 18% decrease in comparison to the previous year—according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
The latter is word that 228 American police officers were reported to have died by suicide in 2019—a massive increase in comparison with the previous year—according to Blue H.E.L.P., an organization that tracks police officer suicides while simultaneously seeking to prevent such tragedies from occurring.
Here are some thoughts for 2020 to continue that positive trend and reverse the negative one.
Getting Below 100
As I mentioned in last week's column, there are some pretty simple ways in which law enforcement officers can reduce line-of-duty deaths, as well as deaths by suicide. First and foremost, agencies must continue to embrace the five tenets of the Below 100 program. They are:
- Wear your seatbelt
- Wear your vest (both armor and reflective)
- Watch your speed
- Remember WIN—"What's Important Now?"
- Remember that complacency kills
These are some pretty simple concepts, but as my good friend and one of the founders of Below 100 Brian Willis says, there's a big difference between "simple" and "easy." Simple is the lack of complexity. Easy is the lack of effort required. Getting to Below 100 will take a considerable amount of effort.
The good news is that the Below 100 program continues to grow.
The Executive Director of Below 100—Roy Bethge—happens to be a personal friend of mine, so I reached out to him to see how the program has been received in recent years, as well as what's coming down the pike in 2020.
"Below 100 continues to be well received and our feedback is very positive," Bethge said. "As in the past, much of the feedback is about the raw emotion that comes out with the stories we share and how we, as individual law enforcement professionals, have a lot of control over our decision making process when it comes to officer safety."
Bethge said that in 2020 the organization is launching a new initiative called "Below 100 – Stories of Courage" in which they will provide short video clips of powerful new stories that agencies can use for roll call training or as reminders about officer safety.
"In addition to launching 'Below 100 — Stories of Courage' by mid-year, we're working on some changes and updates to the curriculum," Bethge said. "Our web and social media presence will be increasing and our partnerships with IADLEST, NHTSA and the COPS Office have never been better. Lots of great things coming in the future."
Bethge concluded, "I can hardly travel to any agency where someone hasn’t heard about Below 100 or been to a training class. But we’ve got lots more work to do and as an organization we’re committed to doing whatever we have to so we can get Below 100 and less."
Smashing the Stigma
It's important to note that although there appears to be an increase in police officer deaths by suicide, the numbers reported to to Blue H.E.L.P. this year do not necessarily indicate an increase in suicides. They do, however, indicate an increase in reporting to Blue H.E.L.P.
This is good because the more the law enforcement community actively engages with Blue H.E.L.P., the more likely they will be to continue the dialog about police officer mental health internally, as well as provide resources for officers in need of mental and emotional help as they continue in their careers.
As it happens, Karen Solomon, president and co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., also is a personal friend of mine, so I reached out to her to address the numbers in context, as well as ways in which law enforcement can reduce police officer suicide in 2020.
"While it's disheartening to see these numbers rise, we can't be sure that suicides are on the rise or if they are being reported more accurately," Solomon said. "We've been lucky to have the support of the families and departments, they've been in contact almost immediately after a suicide for support and to let us know about their loved ones."
Solomon added, "We're looking forward to reducing these numbers in 2020, offering more support to the families and continuing to raise awareness. Blue H.E.L.P. is devoted to this cause and we are grateful for the outpouring of support, domestically and internationally, we have received."
Moving into the year 2020, Blue H.E.L.P. plans to prioritize sharing information about the ways in which officers and organizations are working to prevent police officer suicide. The organization is actively seeking out success stories of officers who sought out and received help to resolve their crisis as well as agencies that have worked to remove the stigma of getting that help.
As agencies implement new programs that help officers deal with mental and emotional trauma in a positive way, the organization plans to seek to tell those stories so that other departments can create support programs of their own.
Further, as 2020 unfolds, the organization will continue to improve the availability of mental health resources for officers across the country and to normalize the treatment of post-traumatic stress symptoms.
It's interesting that both organizations are actively looking for people to interview for success stories as they move into 2020 and beyond.
While both Blue H.E.L.P. and Below 100 can be perceived as being the bearers of bad news, the reality is that both are focused on life—and the preservation of life—for law enforcement.
Further, both organizations emphasize that reducing duty deaths and police officer suicide requires an enormous courage and a radical change in police culture.
Getting police to truly embrace the five tenets of Below 100 and to completely change the way in which police officer suicide is discussed will take enormous effort by countless people. If we continue to teach the five tenets of the Below 100 program we might actually get that number down—understanding that it will never be zero—to something less heinous than recent years.
If law enforcement can change the "tough guy" culture and create an environment where it's "okay to not be okay" and get mental health treatment without stigma or negative ramifications, we might reduce those numbers as well.
The year 2019 will not be missed. While duty deaths were down, the number of reported police officer deaths by suicide was way up.
So, we brush off the stench and the stains from that final year of the last decade, and look ahead to what's next.
Happy New Year, my friends. Stay safe out there.