By Suzanne Lindgren
Few would argue with the notion that law enforcement is dangerous work. In recent years, however, a disturbing trend has surfaced. Despite the dangers of the field, officers have become more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
A study of data from 2017 by the Ruderman Foundation found 129 police officers had died in the line of duty. At least 140 died by suicide.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office is taking steps to address this trend, reported Sheriff Brent Waak, starting with increased support for county deputies.
“You see a lot of death and destruction in law enforcement,” Waak said. “We’re on edge all day and when we get home we can zone out. It can create all sorts of problems if it’s not handled correctly. We know when our guys go to fatal crashes and things like that it can take a toll over time.
“We’ve always had a concern about wellness. We’ve suffered losses in this community. Officers have taken their lives and it’s heartbreaking. This is finally starting to be recognized.”
The county does have supports in place already, including access to counselors and a chaplain. However, Waak reported, some officers hesitate to take advantage of such help.
“Cops are resistant to things like counseling,” he said, noting the need for a multi-faceted approach to officer support. “The chaplain at the department is a leaning post, and all those conversations are confidential.”
The department also has a peer support program in the works.
“A deputy came forward saying they’d like to start a program here,” Waak said. “We’re working on getting the deputy trained in that area. That is something cops are more likely to use.”
The county-level efforts add to officer wellness initiatives at the state level. The Wisconsin Department of Justice has ramped up efforts in recent years, as highlighted last fall by then-Attorney-General Brad Schimel.
“The deadly truth is: a police officer is far more likely to die of suicide than homicide,” Schimel said in a video released last September. “At DOJ, we realize this troubling reality, which is why we are supporting Wisconsin’s law enforcement through a strong commitment to officer wellness – both in body and mind.”
During Schimel’s tenure, the DOJ implemented several systems to support officers’ physical and mental wellness, including increased training in suicide prevention, stress management and wellness strategies, and additional physical fitness training.
Wisconsin has been a national leader in addressing officer wellness. In May 2017 the state’s DOJ was a top finalist in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance’s’ National Officer Safety and Wellness Awards. Additionally, other states have requested the agency’s officer wellness curriculum to use as a model in creating their own programs.
“The state’s wellness initiative brings dialog and training to the issue,” said Waak. “In order to help others you should make sure you have your system running at full capacity. Emergency services can be a stressful profession. In a year’s time, the tragedies you see in a county can add up. It’s good that we’re getting past the stigma and looking at addressing it. It’s a positive step forward.”