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May 30, 2022

Public safety officer deaths by suicide, PTSD could soon be considered line-of-duty injuries

Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ashley Murray

WASHINGTON — Just over two weeks ago, Pittsburgh police responded when a 6-year-old accidentally shot himself in the head in the city’s Hazelwood neighborhood. Officers arrived at the home on Johnson Avenue and rendered aid, giving the small child CPR until he could be taken to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in critical condition.

The next morning, a member of the police department’s peer support team reached out to the officers, and the team’s founder and lead, Sgt. Carla Kearns, got in touch with the company behind a smartphone app that local first responders can use as a mental health resource. They quickly added a module on dealing with the crisis of child injury and death, Sgt. Kearns said, and the team reported an uptick in app usage.

The repeated exposure public safety officers face when responding to any number of situations -— opioid overdoses, fatal traffic accidents, mass shootings, and psychiatric distress and domestic violence calls — or other job duties, for example serving warrants to potentially dangerous or armed suspects, contributes to elevated rates of occupational mental health issues.

This includes what psychologists are defining as a “crisis” level of suicides in the profession.

“It’s the cumulative effects,” Sgt. Kearns said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be like the Squirrel Hill [synagogue mass shooting].” 

“As an example, something that I was involved in recently, we had a domestic [incident]; the female was attacked by the spouse, then we go into the house, and it was just deplorable conditions,” Sgt. Kearns added. “You go to change a baby’s diaper, and I can’t even find a diaper. … It’s those things that build over time.”

Families of the first responders who suffer so acutely from job-related trauma that it leads to disability or death by suicide are generally left without benefits — an issue that Congress is now working to address in a bill that passed the House last week and received unanimous support from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The Public Safety Officer Support Act would categorize suicide as a result of job-related trauma as a line-of-duty death, something that is already the case for service members under the Department of Defense. 

Lawmakers highlight that in 2017, the Department of Justice approved 481 claims under the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program, yet no assistance was granted for any of the more than 240 public safety officers who died by suicide that year.

The bill, if enacted, would also extend benefits to public safety officers who are permanently disabled after experiencing a traumatic event on the job. For example, a suicide attempt that leaves an officer disabled could be considered a line-of-duty injury.

“Our nation’s police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians serve on the front lines every day, protecting our families and communities. Too often, they experience trauma in the line of duty, leaving them with severe physical and mental injuries,” U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Greene, one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, said in a statement.

The proposal, introduced by Mr. Reschenthaler and Rep. David Trone, D-Maryland, eventually garnered bipartisan support from 30 Democrats and 17 Republicans who signed onto the bill and passed the House by a vote of 402-17.

The American Psychological Association, which assisted on the bill and is one of nine mental health organizations to endorse it, cites concerning rates of suicides and post-traumatic stress disorder among public safety professionals.

Law enforcement officers are 54% more likely to die by suicide compared to the general population, according to a 2021 study published by the journal Policing. Authors cite available data from 2017 to 2019 that shows deaths among law enforcement officers were more likely to be from suicide than from accidents or felonious acts.

Notably, in the days and months following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, multiple responding officers died by suicide.

Complete data is likely unknown. The organization Blue H.E.L.P. began collecting statistics from families on a voluntary basis in 2016 for certain categories of law enforcement. In 2019, they began to include suicide deaths among firefighters, emergency medical personnel and 911 operators.

Starting this year under the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act of 2020, the FBI will begin tracking attempted suicide or deaths, but only as public safety officials across the U.S. voluntarily submit the data. The first report is expected in mid-2022.

While rates of PTSD are also difficult to capture, a DOJ article published in 2018 about cognitive impairment and PTSD estimated that 15% of officers in the U.S. experience symptoms. Findings in the House bill say public safety officers are up to 25.6 times more likely to develop PTSD than the general population.

“Everything from acute stress, post traumatic stress disorder, injury, the cumulative stress that occurs, the critical incident stress, the emotional attachment — all of that can manifest into depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, family problems, personal problems, health problems. And ultimately, that is not just on the law enforcement officer. Ultimately, that affects society and our community as a whole. It’s a public safety issue,” said Jean Kanokogi, a federal agent and volunteer director of mental health and peer support services for the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which supported the legislation.

Pittsburgh’s Sgt. Kearns is familiar with the emotional stress that can follow a traumatic work experience.

As an officer detailed to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, she was on an early-morning assignment in November 2008 to serve an arrest warrant in a drug investigation when the suspect’s wife opened fire, hitting 33-year-old Pittsburgh-based Special Agent Sam Hicks.

Sgt. Kearns, previously a medic, pulled him out of the house, removed his vest to locate the wound and began giving him CPR, but he died almost immediately, she recalls.

“When you’re doing CPR on someone you worked with, had done surveillance with, who you know very well, that affects your life moving forward,” she said.

In shock and not able to sleep after Hicks’ death, Sgt. Kearns said she leaned on family members afterward, including her husband, who is also a police officer. In 2014, she started the peer support program for her Pittsburgh officers.

“We really need to help our officers work through something as significant as that, but also just in general, on the daily things that go unnoticed, that no one really thinks about. It’s important to put all of these incidents into perspective and learn from them [and] restore balance,” she said.

For first responders who, for any number of reasons, did not or weren’t able to receive help and were injured or died by suicide, “it’s time to take off the stigma,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said at Thursday’s committee meeting. 

Mr. Durbin and others on both sides of the aisle said they looked into the “valid question” raised by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who said he was concerned that a “payout” could incentivize suicide. Katherine McGuire, the American Psychological Association’s chief advocacy officer, said the organization spoke to lawmakers about that concern and noted that “there is no evidence there to suggest that.”

The Senate has not yet scheduled a vote on the bill.

Pittsburgh Public Safety was not able to provide mental health statistics.

The condition of the 6-year-old boy injured in Hazelwood is unknown, according to police.