The Kansas City Police Department detective who took his own life in February was the fourth member of our department to do so in as many years. His suicide was the first we discussed publicly because we decided as a department that it was time that we face this issue head on.
We must stop treating police suicides like isolated incidents. More officers died by suicide in 2018 than in the line of duty. The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression for police and firefighters is five times higher than the general population, according to research from the Ruderman Family Foundation. Yet only 10% of police departments have a suicide prevention program, according to the law enforcement website
I’d like to think we are a little ahead of the game at KCPD. We have our Employee Wellness Unit and are working toward implementing a peer support program. But more is needed.
We need a dedicated mental health professional on staff. We need a psychiatrist who understands what first responders face, has expertise in treating them and can devote all of his or her professional time to the mental health care of the members of our department. We work with medical doctors when our officers are physically hurt in the line of duty and arrange for their treatment. Treatment for mental illnesses related to officers’ duties deserves just as much priority. Police cannot properly provide for the safety of our city if they are injured — physically or mentally.
We do not have a place for a psychiatrist in our budget, unfortunately. That is why I was excited to see a bill sponsored by Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley: the Supporting and Treating Officers in Crisis Act of 2019. This legislation would grant up to $7 million for state and local law enforcement agencies to offer counseling to law enforcement officers and their families, among other things. Other permitted uses for the funds would include evidence-based suicide-prevention programs, specialized training for mental health and suicide prevention, and related support services.
Many major city police departments have psychiatrists on staff. The Los Angeles Police Department has 17 of them, for example. While our department is not nearly as large, we are the largest law enforcement agency in Missouri, serving the state’s most populous city. Our officers face the unique stresses of policing an urban environment. These range from an increased risk of being confronted by an armed suspect to a high exposure to secondary trauma, commonly defined as the stress derived from helping others who are suffering or who have been traumatized.
There are KCPD detectives who investigate child pornography on a daily basis. Others listen to children who recount experiences of horrific abuse. Patrol officers and accident investigators come upon grisly crash scenes. They must see the bodies of toddlers who were shot and killed playing with a firearm. They see devastated families regularly. They frequently encounter people who want to hurt or kill them.
Then these officers go home to their own spouses and children and try to act like none of that affected them. It’s a heavy burden, and it’s one we hope to ease with the help of a department psychiatrist.
The Supporting and Treating Officers in Crisis Act would provide the mechanism to make that happen. This is National Police Week, a time when the nation reflects upon the deadly sacrifices some officers have made while honoring the service of all law enforcement. We love hearing people say “thank you for your service,” but urging lawmakers to support this legislation would put those words into action.
Rick Smith is Kansas City Chief of Police.