Most Americans know we are protected by the best-trained, most highly motivated, equipped and effective law enforcement in the world. Without the selfless service of American law enforcement officers, deterrence would not exist, crime would run the table – and our lives. What most Americans do not realize – is that our safety comes at a terrible cost to these men and women.
Last week, two decorated law enforcement officers in New York committed suicide. Last year, the number of law enforcement officers who died by suicide outnumbered those killed in the line of duty – for a third straight year.
As Americans, we are an empathetic people, more generous of spirit, time and money than any nation on the face of the earth. In part, that explains why we are quick to offer mental health and recovery services, through the Veterans Administration, to military veterans and retirees.
Historically, we came to the truth slowly. Only in 1980, 35 years after WWII, 27 years after Korea, five years after Vietnam ended, 20 years after it began, was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) recognized as a real disorder, with symptoms that could be reliably diagnosed.
Only then did we start treating, and not without delays, stigma, false starts, failed treatment regimes, and – strangely – less empathy than we accorded physical injuries, ailments and disabilities, from broken bones and missing limbs to bullet wounds and shrapnel scars.
Even today, a soldier who emerges from the battlefield having seen, suffered and endured unthinkable trauma, from watching friends killed to enemy engagements leaving close-up memories that cannot be redone, retracted or expunged, shell shock to unmeasurable nerve damage, gets no purple heart. For that, you need a physical wound. But there are other wounds.
And here is a revelation, just a few days after we celebrated the 75th anniversary of D-Day: American law enforcement officers, facing spikes in drug-abuse, drug deaths and drug-related violence, highway accidents that kill 90 people a day, mass shootings, child abuse, domestic abuse, highway rage, and strains of modern policing, face a kind of extended combat – over the course of high-operational-tempo professional lives.
Legally, they are not combat veterans – but they are combat veterans. And this is where the truth needs to be told, and more attention paid – to the service being rendered.
Law enforcement today is at the very heart of our public safety, the security of our day-to-day lives, in time of hurricane-force drug trafficking, societal division, technology challenges, and criminal crosscurrents. We need these selfless warriors more than we have ever needed them, and yet we take them for granted – and the stresses they confront.
So, let’s get back to those stresses. As one report recently recorded, “at least 159 officers took their own lives in 2018 — the same number of suicide fatalities it tracked in 2017 and 19 more than in 2016,” while 145 officers died in the line of duty. Both numbers are horrific, and both reinforce the stress under which law enforcement operates.
So, what can be done? Several things, right now – by the rest of us. We can start by acknowledging the selfless service law enforcement officers give us daily, so often unacknowledged, asking only cooperation.
We can push for more benefits to assist this critical clutch of American patriots – a true band of brothers and sisters, who get up each day, put on a gun, vest and badge to protect us. They put themselves ahead of us daily, we need to put them first.
Benefits should include more relief and treatment for PTSD, with other stress-related provisions, including more time off, attention to mental health, family pressures, and assuring proper medical care and compensation. Data beyond PTSD suggest stress plays big. Many officers die within half a dozen years of retirement, most have a life expectancy a dozen years below the rest of us.
The reason – which we often associate with military combat – is not hard to find. Studies show “approximately 80 percent” of officers have seen “dead bodies and severely assaulted victims in the past year,” including victims of homicide, shootings, abused children, and “serious traffic accidents.”
Law enforcement officers – even in retirement – are stung by memories hard to shake. This relates to both severity and frequency. For example, male officers “reported seeing severely assaulted victims on average 14 times in the past year,” while “female officers reported 10 times.” More than three-quarters reported a traumatic event in the past month. All this builds up and is hard to shed.
The bottom line is we need to be more grateful, less judgmental and more conscious of the humanity around us – and courage summoned by law enforcement officers, male and female, old and young, urban and rural – every day.
Without them, we are nothing, as they make rule of law, public health and public safety real. With them, we are proud Americans – and we should be at the ready for them. As a matter of who they are, they respond without question, endure events that leave a toll, preserve our peace by risking theirs, see what we dare not imagine, and often suffer in silence.
We are right to honor our military veterans – especially at times like D-Day – but it is worth remembering that there are other warriors in our midst, no less valuable, who rise and risk to protect and preserve us every single day. They too are human, accumulate inconceivable stress, and manage to exercise judgement, poise and peace meeting death, crime and crisis.
The real tragedy is not that life brings sadness; it always has. Nor even that some bear more grief than others, as this too has long been true. But that we should somehow forget, overlook or take for granted the enormous gift, sense of duty, honor and loyalty which – every day – walks among us in the form of well-trained law enforcement officers.
We Americans are generous of heart. When one reads of another law enforcement suicide – two last week in New York – it burdens the heart. We can and should do more. This begins with acknowledging what they go through for us, and how much goes unsaid.
We owe these Americans a debt we cannot repay, and it is time to say – thank you. Then, more: We must step up with benefits to help them cope with costs of what they bear – for a lifetime – for us.