BILLINGS — Billings police officers and other area first responders have been learning new techniques this week for managing on-the-job stress to combat rising suicides in law enforcement.
Suicide has become the number one cause of death of law enforcement officers nationwide in the last four years.
Suicide rates are three times higher than the number of officers killed in the line of duty, said Jesse Holton, an instructor for law enforcement mental health.
Members of the first responder community — along with their spouses — nestled in Thursday for the first day of wellness training at the Billings police barn put on by the T-6 Advanced Training and Career Development Group.
It’s a nonprofit that helps first responders navigate job and life stressors. Brian Regan is one of the T-6 cofounders and retired from law enforcement in Florida after a 15-year career.
“You can only keep it quiet for so long and eventually the bit will burst,” said Regan.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on first responders, and those with T-6 say in turn those stressors have led to alarming rates of domestic violence, suicide, and divorce. It's something that’s hit the Billings Police Department in an all too familiar way.
“We've done other training throughout the state of Montana, and at one of our last big training, we did a police union. There were several people from Billings who brought up that they had just had an officer commit suicide,” said Regan. “And that this was great training for them.”
As an officer on patrol, Jeff Stovall is taking the training very seriously. He wants to set a good example for those entering this profession and even confessed that it’s the kind of training he wishes was available to him when he was just beginning.
“Montana is always up in the top three states for suicides,” said Stovall. “And then you look at officer suicides you know, there are hundreds every year that we're dealing with, and just to be able to start to put more of an awareness on that.”
Billings and its crime rate take a toll on officers and a recent study done by the FBI says the rate of violent crime in Billings is 65% higher than the national average.
“So just learning how to cope and deal with those on a day-to-day basis is, you know, is part of what we're what we're doing here,” Stovall said.
“We as police officers in our heart of hearts want to fix and help things so a lot of times, we're trying to do that to ourselves,” he continued. “We're trying to help and fix ourselves. And we don't know all the tools to do that.”
The rate of suicides in law enforcement is also now being tracked by the federal government. In 2020, Congress passed a new law directing the FBI to create a national law enforcement suicide database.
The passing of the law came at a pinnacle time when all eyes were focused on law enforcement. A survey of nearly 200 departments by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit think tank, shows a startling 45% increase in the retirement rate and a nearly 20% increase in resignations in 2020-21 compared to the previous year.
“The retention rates for law enforcement are crazy. It's a stressful job enough and then you have to deal with the scrutiny of the social communities,” said Regan.
Stovall says he’s thankful for this kind of training and as a department, Billings is trying to be progressive and proactive about the mental health of its officers.
“We have several different hats we have to wear. We must be a parent with some people. We must be a counselor, a mental health counselor,” he said. “It’s an explosion not just with law enforcement around the country. It's a hot topic everywhere.”
The program is being offered to first responders and their spouses free of charge through a Gianforte Family Foundation grant.