Defunding police, vilifying them 'at every turn' contributing to officer suicides, experts say

'The suicides and the current climate go hand in hand,' a retired Chicago detective told Fox News Digital

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Suicides in the law enforcement community have continued to be problematic for police departments across the country in recent years, including more than a dozen Chicago police officers since 2018, and two retired police officers told Fox News Digital that the defund the police movement, staffing shortages, and media demonization are now a contributing factor. 

A Chicago police officer was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Saturday, marking the third time in the month of July that a Chicago police officer has committed suicide. 

Retired Chicago Police Department Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy told Fox News Digital that police in Chicago are understaffed and under supported by leadership, which has led to plummeting morale and skyrocketing anxiety.

"The suicides and the current climate go hand in hand," Roy said, explaining that police officers are no longer viewed like they were in Norman Rockwell’s iconic 1958 "The Runaway," the painting of a young boy and a police officer that has become synonymous with the "protect and serve" aspect of law enforcement. 

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Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx speaks at a news conference in Chicago on Feb. 22, 2019.

Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx speaks at a news conference in Chicago on Feb. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

"We’ve gone from that vision to the police being vilified at every turn," Roy said. "Officers are the subject of vilification, disrespect, false claims, and they’re not being supported by the government agencies that employ them."

The police staffing situation in Chicago is dire, Roy said, and the hostile climate has resulted in a mass exodus of police officers, including 2,600 who have retired over the last four calendar years. 

"What’s really telling is that during the same time period, 632 officers have resigned," Roy said. "That means they’ve left the Chicago Police Department before they’re eligible for a pension. The vast majority of them are being employed by other police agencies and they are leaving the Chicago Police Department in droves."

The mass retirements and resignations, which the city has not replaced as part of a plan Roy calls a "stealth defunding," has created a nightmare scenario for officers patrolling the streets.

"They're canceling days off and putting people on 12-hour shifts to make up for this personnel shortfall," Roy said. "You have people that are working through horror stories like 18 straight days without a day off. You can’t function that way."

Alexa James, the chief executive of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, told WMAQ-TV this week that officers are "overworked" and that cops have complained to her that they "feel like a number" when they have their days off canceled to combat staffing shortages.

"I think what’s happening is inhumane," she said. "And I’m certainly not linking [regular day off] cancellations to increase of suicide, but we do know that this is the pattern."

The issue of police suicides has been a cause for concern all across the nation over the past few years and Blue Help, a nonprofit organization that tracks police officer suicides, has documented 73 law enforcement suicides through mid-July. Last year, 136 members of law enforcement committed suicide.

The number of police suicides in 2021 was down from 2020 and 2019, according to Blue Help, but a recent USA Today study pointed out first responder suicides are often undercounted due to stigma and shame.

"First responders were out there on the front line (during the pandemic), doing their jobs," Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation that conducted the study, said in an interview. "And historically, the stress of being in these jobs and what they experience has led to a higher rate of suicide…but suicide is not really talked about."

USA Today reported that a key factor in first responder suicides is that not enough has been done to promote programs to help with counseling, which is often crucial considering that many first responders fear their job will be in jeopardy if they reveal their mental health struggles to their superiors.

"The programs and policies targeted to address these issues remain insufficient," USA Today reported while also concluding that first responders are more likely to die from suicide than they are in the line of duty.  

The study's co-author, Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, also explained that first responders have a harder time than others leaving their work at home at the end of the day.

"These characteristics and traits of the role don't go away when they take off the uniform," Bar Nissim said. "Being heroic, being brave, identifying mental health as a sign of weakness, it's something that stays with them even as they take off the uniforms."

Chicago, like Los Angeles and New York City, has adopted policies that reduce or eliminate cash bail for violent criminals, resulting in those suspects being released back onto the streets shortly after arrest. Roy told Fox News Digital that bail reform laws also damage police officer morale as offenders cycle in and out of jail after re-offending.

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"It’s very demoralizing," Roy said, recalling a situation where a gang member opened fire on another gang member in a public place and was given a signature bond by the office of State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. Roy said Foxx's office told him that a felon in possession of a firearm is classified as a "victimless property crime," the same as if someone committed insurance fraud. 

A police officer monitors the scene after a shooting in Chicago, March 14, 2021.

A police officer monitors the scene after a shooting in Chicago, March 14, 2021. (Kamil Krzacznski/AFP via Getty Images)

"That’s insanity," Roy exclaimed. "You respond to a call quickly, you do the right things and put your life on the line to apprehend somebody who’s shooting and they walk out of court the next morning with no bond, just free to do whatever they want. It just takes the heart right out of you."

Dennis Farris, president of the Austin Police Retired Officer's Association, told Fox News Digital that he has seen first-hand how police defunding, poor city leadership, and a severe staffing shortage have negatively affected the mental health of officers.

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Police morale in Austin is as bad as it has ever been, Farris said, and staffing shortages related to the city council’s move in August 2020 to slash the police budget by $150 million has caused major problems.

"The city is not as safe as it should be and we don’t have bodies in position, which has a downhill effect," Farris, a 25-year veteran of the Austin Police Department, told Fox News Digital. "City leadership I don’t think understands that when your cops don’t feel like they’re being supported by their city leaders, there’s no morale."

Like Roy, Farris said he has also heard stories from officers about stressful working conditions as a result of staffing shortages, including a recent situation where an "entire evening shift" in the downtown area "didn’t have any officers to go out on the street."

Demonstrators face members of the Austin Police Department as they gather in the downtown area on June 4, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd.

Demonstrators face members of the Austin Police Department as they gather in the downtown area on June 4, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Austin experienced a record 89 homicides in 2021 and police were so short-staffed – about 300 officers short due to budget cuts – that they were forced to stop responding to non-emergency calls and even had to resort to telling some residents to collect evidence from a crime scene on their own. 

In Chicago, violent crime has been on the rise as well. Last year was the deadliest in a quarter century and the city was hit by 300 more shootings than in 2020 and 1,415 more shootings than 2019.

Farris also told Fox News Digital that Austin police officers are resigning and retiring at an alarming rate and he is seeing officers experience "burnout" after only a few years on the job. They quit the force and relocate to smaller cities where they feel more support from elected officials, he said.

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Both Roy and Farris agreed that the media’s criticism of all police officers and support of the movement to defund police departments was a major factor in the low morale that officers across the country are experiencing.

"There’s a fear among police officers that if they do the right thing, politics or other considerations, racial considerations might come into play and they might end up getting jammed, fired, criminally charged for doing the right thing," Roy said. 

Farris pointed to statements made by former President Obama condemning Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and promoting the false narrative of "hands up don’t shoot" in 2014, as well as President Biden accusing Border Patrol agents of using "whips" against illegal immigrants as examples of law enforcement being unfairly demonized.

"When people come out and say the officers are wrong before the facts even come out it has an effect," Farris said. "Officers are like, ‘Why would I want to do this job?’ In Austin it’s really bad, they [officers] worry every day when they get in the car to start the car, ‘Is today the day something is going to happen and I’m going to get indicted for it?’ That’s how they feel."

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Earlier this year, progressive Austin District Attorney Jose Garza indicted 19 police officers for their actions in quelling a riot stemming from a Black Lives Matter protest. Over a dozen officers were injured by protesters who were throwing bottles, rocks, jars of paint, and frozen water bottles. Several protesters were also injured by beanbag rounds the officers used, per department policy at the time, to restore order. The officers involved have claimed that the beanbag rounds they were issued were defective causing injuries among the protesters but were following protocol. 

"All of this contributed to the mental health of the officers," Farris said. "When they work their butts off to help keep the community safe, and their leaders, for lack of a better word, f--- them every time they turn around, it has a detrimental effect."

Protesters pass through downtown Bloomington, Indiana, during a "Defend the Police" event.

Protesters pass through downtown Bloomington, Indiana, during a "Defend the Police" event. (Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Farris said that low morale is contributing to officers "getting hooked on prescription drugs and alcohol" as part of a "vicious cycle" that is exacerbated by the post-traumatic stress disorder that develops when officers see "unconscionable" violence every day while they patrol the streets.

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"We have some people who just don’t know any other way to deal with it but take their own lives," Farris said. "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

Fox News Digital contacted the offices of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx for comment on the rise in suicides and did not immediately receive a response.