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Peer Support Crucial During Unsettled Times

September 1, 2020
Tony Montoya - SFPOA President

In the past month, SFPD lost two members to suicide. It was heartbreaking and devastating to their family, friends and fellow officers. I wish I could say that police officer suicide was a rare fluke in our profession, but it’s not. September is National Suicide Prevention Month and it’s important we talk about the realities of officer-related suicides.

In 2019, the non-profit Blue H.E.L.P tracked 228 police officer suicides in the United States, a significant increase over 2018’s figure of 169. While some of the increase is believed to be due to data tracking, the number of officers who take their own lives is a serious crisis in our profession. Tragically, suicide claims the life of more police officers than all other line-of-duty deaths combined. In 2019, there were 132 line-of-duty deaths.

The reality is police officers do a job that exposes them to repeated trauma over and over again throughout the course of their career. To that point, the veteran officers, with 20-25 years on the job accounted for more deaths at 59, than any other demographic segment. Whether it be a homicide scene, encountering the ghoulish actions of child rapists or seeing the aftermath of grizzly traffic accidents, our duty demands that we set our natural emotional responses aside and objectively assess the situation, assist the victims, and investigate the incidents.

We’re trained to stop threats, to intervene to save lives and to comfort victims and witnesses. For decades, however, we have not trained officers on how to help and heal themselves and each other. As a result, officers spend years dealing with their trauma in ineffective ways that lead to ruined careers, ruined marriages and ultimately suicide.

Added to the systemic lack of recognition of job-related trauma is the stigma officers feared in admitting they needed help. To do so meant you were weak. To do so meant you could not handle your job. Asking for help could lead to you losing your assignment or job, essentially your livelihood.

Thankfully, more police union leaders, rank-and-file officers and police chiefs around the country are working to tear down those stigmas and build up capacity to assist officers in coping with their trauma. This is the case in the SFPD.

SFPD’s Peer Support Program is a formalized program that connects officers in need of emotional support with other officers in the Department. It’s a confidential, effective tool as it connects an officer who is facing challenging personal issues with an officer who knows the job, knows the stresses and knows how to chart a path to more stable ground. As a member of the Peer Support Program, I can personally attest to its efficacy and encourage officers to take advantage of this resource.

In order to earn the trust of police officers in the system, it’s important for us to see our leaders making the mental wellbeing of officers a top priority. They must be visible on the issue and they should be joining rank-and-file police unions in advocating for state and federal funding and helpful legislation related to First Responder PTSD issues. I am sincerely hopeful that Chief Scott is vocal and outspoken about his support for eliminating the systemic stigma of suicide. He should be creating opportunities for department members to process, grieve and heal when one of our own takes their life. We are a family and we should support one another like one.

It’s important for officers to remember that even though our critics work to dehumanize us every day in any manner they can cling to, it’s humanity that drove you to choose this career. It’s your humanity that gives you the dedication and compassion to do one of the toughest jobs in the world every day. Embrace that humanity by seeking out help — whether it be another officer or more formal assistance. You are not alone in your pain and struggle. We have been there too. For more information on SFPD’s Peer Support Program go to sfpd.bsu@sfgov.org.

Stay well and be safe.