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The Human Toll of Trauma for Law Enforcement Officers

What happens to those whose job requires them to see us at our worst?

Key points

  • When it comes to supporting communities of color and those in law enforcement roles, there is strong pressure to “choose a side.”
  • The psychological trauma faced by both communities deserves recognition.
  • The human toll of law enforcement is an untold story: More officers die by suicide each year than are killed in the line of duty,.
  • Nationwide, the risk of suicide among police officers is 54 percent greater than among American workers in general.

As we head into Mental Health Awareness Month, consider this cruel irony: Our first responders are uniquely strong, brave, and emotionally flexible. They are called to support us on the worst days of our lives. They see and hear things that are burned into their memories forever. They see the worst in humanity, and then they go home and do their best to be a loving partner, parent, and friend.

On the other hand, they are uniquely vulnerable.

For example, nationwide, the risk of suicide among police officers is 54 percent greater than among American workers in general.[1]

Much of what they do—the things they see and the personal risks they take—happens outside of our collective awareness.

Here are some statistics to consider. In a sample of more than 700 police officers from three major police departments, on both the east and west coasts...

About a quarter...

  • Have seen a fellow officer being killed or injured in the line of duty (23 percent)

About a third...

  • Have been exposed to a badly beaten child (35.9 percent)
  • Have personally been seriously injured, intentionally (23 percent)

Around 40 percent...

  • Have been exposed to a sexually assaulted child (40.6 percent)
  • Have personally been shot at (38.1 percent)
  • Have been trapped in a life-threatening situation (39.4 percent)
  • Have had to make a death notification (42.1 percent)

Over half…

  • Have been threatened with a gun (50.8 percent)
  • Have been threatened with a knife or other weapon (55.2 percent)

Nearly all…

  • Have seen someone dying (87.2 percent)[1]

The resulting trauma deserves to be recognized and addressed.

In partnership with decorated police Sergeant Michael Sugrue, I have been able to chronicle and interpret a side of law enforcement that we often miss, the human struggles of those who protect us. In Relentless Courage: Winning the Battle Against Frontline Trauma, we bring this work forward—within a society that is so greatly divided, it feels important to address the division directly. When it comes to supporting communities of color and those who serve in law enforcement roles, there is incredible pressure to “choose a side.” But in telling the story, as a trauma psychologist, I cannot, and will not, choose a side. I care deeply about both communities.

Racism is one of society’s oldest evils. It is a form of societal cancer. The trauma sustained by those in communities of color is pervasive. We are all responsible for identifying racism and addressing it. Racist behavior may be invisible to those of us who are not targeted because of our race. To be targeted in this way is to live under a constant sense of threat. And there are communities where the trust between civilians and police officers is broken.

As a trauma psychologist, my purpose is to shine light on the pain that causes deaths of despair, and other heart-breaking outcomes. All human pain needs a voice.

    Michael Sugrue, a retired police sergeant, bares his soul to share the pain that many first responders hold, based on the things we ask them to do for us. He gives voice to not just the trauma but the sense of abandonment and betrayal he felt in the aftermath of trauma.

    While Michael’s traumas are not unique, his vulnerability is rare. The goal is to shine a light on the untold story of first responder trauma, to reveal new insights about how we all heal from trauma, and to ultimately help bridge the divide that now exists between those in law enforcement and civilians.



    [1] Sourced 12/8/21 from:

    [2] Weiss, D. S., Brunet, A., Best, S. R., Metzler, T. J., Liberman, A., Pole, N., Fagan, J. A., & Marmar, C. R. (2010). Frequency and severity approaches to indexing exposure to trauma: the Critical Incident History Questionnaire for police officers. Journal of traumatic stress, 23(6), 734–743.

    [3] Sourced 12/8/21 at:……