Opinion | Our police deserve better mental health care

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Opinion | Our police deserve better mental health care

At least 165 officers died from suicide in 2018, marking the third straight year that police suicides outnumbered line-of-duty deaths.

At least 165 officers died from suicide in 2018, marking the third straight year that police suicides outnumbered line-of-duty deaths.

TPN File Photo

At least 165 officers died from suicide in 2018, marking the third straight year that police suicides outnumbered line-of-duty deaths.

TPN File Photo

TPN File Photo

At least 165 officers died from suicide in 2018, marking the third straight year that police suicides outnumbered line-of-duty deaths.

By Jeremy Wang, Assistant Opinions Editor

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Police in America faced a deadly year in 2018 with 144 line of duty deaths from gunfire, car crashes and more. Though these violent deaths highlight the dangerous nature of police work, far less attention is paid to police suicides, which are just as deadly.

At least 165 officers took their own lives in 2018, marking the third straight year that police suicides outnumbered line of duty deaths. Despite progress in Pittsburgh to address mental health among officers, officials disagree on how far the City has come and still struggle to get the resources they need to do more. Pittsburgh must do more to support its officers’ mental fitness and preparing them to manage emotional trauma, not simply supporting them if and when it does happen.

What are the challenges?

While there were 165 known police suicides in 2018, it’s unclear how many went unreported. The federal government does not track police suicides — the best estimates are collected by groups like Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit supporting officers suffering from emotional injuries, that utilize reports by individual law enforcement agencies and surviving family members.

“We know there are other tragic deaths by suicide that we don’t know about,” Steven Hough, co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., said to HuffPost. “So as bad a number as we have this year, we’re saddened by the fact that we know in reality the number is higher.”

What’s known is that emotional trauma and thoughts of suicide are common among police officers. A 2018 survey of thousands of officers found nearly 1 in 5 have had thoughts of suicide and 3 in 5 are haunted by recurring or unwanted memories of critical incidents.

Though Pittsburgh hasn’t seen a recent police suicide, Detective Patricia Poloka, the employee wellness and resource coordinator for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, points to a major incident in 2009 that triggered a greater awareness for officers’ mental health.

A shoot-out erupted in the Stanton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh on April 4, 2009, when a gunman ambushed and killed three Pittsburgh police officers while wounding two more. The incident was one of the deadliest attacks on law enforcement in America since 9/11.

According to Poloka, the incident rejuvenated interest in then-limited but underused resources for officers to cope with emotional trauma.

“[The resources] were always there but got forgotten,” Poloka said. “After 4-4-09, they’re being used more.”

But historic divisions between line officers and their superiors and a fear of professional repercussions have discouraged officers from talking about mental health.

“We separate supervisors from line officers because the line officers often don’t trust the supervisors,” Poloka said. “If they [want to] say something … because they’re stressing about it, they might not say it because they could possibly get in trouble [for it]”.

Barriers that discourage officers from managing their mental health aren’t unique to Pittsburgh. To Jeffrey McGill, vice president and co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P., this is a problem seen across the country and it starts on day one.

“Officers are trained from the first day of the Academy to mask emotions and push through trauma because we cannot have an officer fail to perform in the field under pressure,” McGill wrote in an email. “But this same training allows them to cover many issues they may be having.”

What is Pittsburgh doing about it?

Up until recently, Pittsburgh police officers involved in critical incidents could expect few institutional measures to address trauma while undergoing a cold and robotic process of submitting incident-related paperwork.

“There were incidents where an officer had to shoot somebody and then they’re sitting down in the lobby by themselves for two hours waiting to give their statement,” Poloka said. “Like ‘oh my gosh, this guy was just in a major incident; why are they sitting by themselves?’”

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police took steps three years ago to end the lack of institutional support and established the Pittsburgh Members Assistance Program, a group of trained officers for peer support, debriefings and defusings. Today, PMAP officers are a required part of the process officers undergo after facing critical incidents.

“They’re written into the policy now, they’re one of the boxes that have to get checked off,” Poloka said.

In addition to PMAP, the Bureau maintains a chaplain corp and family auxiliaries where police family members support officers in a community that intimately understands the challenges police face on a regular basis.

Chris Togneri, the public information officer for the Public Safety Department, hopes the new measures coupled with encouragement by command staff can push officers to use the resources provided by the City and do away with stigma surrounding mental health care.

“If an officer experiences something that prevents them from doing their work, then they’re going to get the help that they need,” Togneri said. “In terms of it being acceptable to go talk to a counselor to seek any sorts of help, we’ve moved past that at this point.”

Despite Togneri’s optimism, Detective Poloka isn’t so sure.

“It’s all confidential so there’s just no way to say how many people are using the resources,” Poloka said. “Whether everybody uses them, I mean, I’m not sure if you know but police kill themselves at a rate double what they deal with out on the street, so we’re our own worst enemy.”

It’s unclear whether messages from supervisors are making it past divisions between officers and supervisors, and disagreement lingers on exactly how far Pittsburgh has come in removing barriers to mental health care. Though uncertainty remains, Poloka emphasizes the Bureau has taken important steps to support officers.

“I think we have a long way to go but it’s definitely way better in the last 10 years than it’s ever been,” Poloka said.

What needs to be done?

Despite the progress made, preventative resources are sorely lacking and Pittsburgh needs to do more for its officers by creating an environment that promotes mental fitness before officers are forced to confront acute emotional trauma.

Physical and emotional health of officers ought to begin with small but important preventative steps and research suggests healthy dietary habits are linked to improved mental health. Poloka hopes to make healthy drinks and snacks accessible through vending machines in each patrol zone. Another priority has been maintaining gym equipment.

“Organizations sometimes donate equipment and that’s great but then there’s no maintenance and then it just ends up rusted and nobody uses it,” Poloka said.

Sleep deprivation also erodes mental health, and officers who work long shifts and juggle family obligations are struggling to get sleep. The problem only worsens among younger officers who are frequently mandated to cover short-staffed shifts.

“Younger officers get forced on overtime — they might have worked the p.m. shift, got forced on to overtime and then have court in the morning,” Poloka said. “And now that we don’t have residency, they might be driving a fair distance like 20 miles to get home.”

Poloka hopes a quiet room in the courthouse where officers can catch up on sleep while waiting for cases can help alleviate sleep deprivation. But just because these are the wishes of the employee wellness and resource coordinator doesn’t mean they actually materialize for Pittsburgh police officers.

“So healthy snacks and drinks in the patrol zones, good places to work out within the patrol zones and quiet areas in the courthouses if I had an unlimited budget — which I don’t have, I don’t have any budget,” Poloka said. “It’d be nice to have one, though.”

Jeremy primarily writes on law enforcement issues and violent crime (and tacos) for The Pitt News. Write to Jeremy at JIW115@pitt.edu.

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