August 16, 2022

Rising violence, mental health addressed in police safety Senate hearing

“The suspect ambushed us when the next door was opened. He was waiting for us with a shotgun. He fired two shots, striking and killing Sergeant Jim Smith,” Zach Andersen recounted in front of the federal judiciary committee at a hearing Tuesday. “The suspect began making threats to kill us all. ‘Come in and start shooting,’ and ‘I’ll kill you like I killed your buddy.’”

Andersen serves as a public safety officer in Cedar Falls. The incident he spoke of occurred April 9, 2021, in Grundy County where he was previously employed as a sheriff’s deputy.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley called for the hearing on attacks on the police as a result of their rise in the recent years. The hearing coincides with a bill in the Senate - the Public Safety Officer Support Act, as well as Grassley’s proposed bill - Improving Law Enforcement Officer Safety and Wellness Through Data Act.

The first bill calls to amend the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to authorize public safety officer death benefits to officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or acute stress disorder, and for other purposes.

Grassley’s legislature would require the Attorney General to develop reports relating to violent attacks against law enforcement officers, and for other purposes.

“Attacks on police officers are rising across the country,” Grassley said in a statement. “We see news stories on a regular basis about ambush attacks and murders of law enforcement in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Even my home state of Iowa has not escaped this violence.”

Rising Violence

In the testimony provided by Dr. Tre Pennie, president of the National Fallen Officer Foundation, he cited statistics provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). “2021 marked the highest number of law enforcement officers murdered in more than two decades,” he said. “As chants to ‘defund the police’ got louder, more police officers died and their families were left to pick up the pieces.”

In 2021, there were 86 premeditated, ambush-style attacks on police. There have been 35 thus far in 2022.

“Nationwide, 73 officers were intentionally killed last year, the highest number since the 9/11 attacks,” Grassley said. “That’s a 59% increase from the previous year; 133 officers were shot in ambush style attacks, an increase of 123% over the previous year.”

Law enforcement officers from around the nation testified at the hearing. Sheriff Michael Bouchard of Oakland County, Michigan spoke on his experience. “In my county alone, we had a total of 32 deputies assaulted in the line of duty in 2021,” he said. “We also had 216 incidents of resisting arrest. The results of these assaults for my deputies are not tiny bumps and bruises. They are broken bones, significant human bites and more.”

Bouchard has served in the profession since the mid-1970s and said the difference in interactions with the public today is alarming. “While the overwhelming majority of our daily contacts with the community are positive, the number of assaults on officers is up significantly.”

Defund the Police

Black Lives Matter and calls to defund the police reached an apex in 2020 following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

“The riots were uncontrollable, police agencies didn’t have the resources or manpower to deal with mobs, nor did they know who was friend of foe,” Pennie testified. “The ‘defund the police’ message became the rallying cry for activists and radical groups across the country in protest of the George Floyd murder.”

Kathy Smith, the wife of the late Sergeant Smith, sent a letter to be read at the hearing. She wrote that during the riots, “My husband stood with his tactical team protecting the state capital in Iowa and had frozen water bottles and rocks thrown at them. Protesters spit and insulted them for hours at a time.”

Under public pressure, mayors and city councils responded to the cries to defund the police. In 2020 budget votes, advocacy groups won over $840 million in direct cuts from U.S. police departments, according to an analysis by Interrupting Criminalization.

“The lack of support for police led to many police officers resigning, retiring and even withdrawing from police academies,” Pennie said. “As violent crime spiked in inner-city communities, police agencies struggled to maintain their ranks. It created stress on the police officers and strained the agencies’ ability to efficiently perform.”

Officer Retention

“I did question if I wanted to continue in this field as a direct result of this incident,” Andersen said of Smith’s murder. “Is it worth the risk?”

A Police Executive Reform Forum (PERF) survey showed officer retirements spiked in 2020 - 30% higher than the previous year. Resignations increased by 40.4% from 2020 to 2021. In conjunction with an increase in officers leaving the profession, there were nearly 5,000 less officers sworn-in in 2022 versus 2020.

“Due to the high attrition rate, police officers were required to work extra shifts to compensate for the lack of manpower,” Pennie said.

“How can we ask them to protect us if we don’t protect them?”

—  Sen. Chuck Grassley

Grassley spoke about a roundtable he held with Iowa law enforcement a couple months ago. “One theme I heard constantly is officer recruitment and retention,” he said. “There aren’t enough police officers to go around. There are not enough young people joining the profession.”

In Kathy Smith’s letter, she spoke of how even her husband was discouraged during the 2020 riots. “Jim started expressing to us how disheartened he was,” she wrote. “He loved his job, and it was hard to witness the backlash from those who did not share his appreciation - especially when it came from those he was trying to protect. This disrespect takes a toll on all officer’s joy, but nevertheless they bravely put on their uniforms each day and defend their communities.”

Grassley said he has addressed the Improving Law Enforcement Safety and Wellness Through Data Act to address the growing crisis. “The question that comes up is how we can ask young people to join a profession if we do not take care of them. How can we ask them to protect us if we don’t protect them?”

Trauma Resources

Andersen spoke to the committee about what he needed from the ambush in Grundy Center. “We need to prioritize resources for officers; people to talk to, time off, debriefings, trainings,” he said. “Not all officers will seek the help they need so there needs to be steps in place so officers don’t fall through the cracks and not get help.”

During his testimony, Bouchard shared a story from last November where four students were murdered and seven others were injured in a shooting at Oxford High School. “In the days following the shooting, I flew in experts from across the country for a critical incident stress debrief for all personnel who responded to the incident to help them cope with the tremendous amount of trauma,” he said. “I watch my deputies go into the debrief and saw the hollowed-out look on their faces. They were drained.”

Just a few days after the debrief, an active shooter call came over the radio. Bouchard responded, as did many of his deputies that had been at the school shooting just days before. “There they were,” he said. “Rushing into yet another potentially life-threatening situation to do the job their community expects of them.” They cleared the building, treated the wounded and learned the shooter had fled.

“They need effective and specialized treatment,” Bouchard testified. “What I have found since the Oxford tragedy is that mental health treatment that officers might seek requires a personal co-pay that becomes a financial impediment they cannot overcome. We must support law enforcement personnel with the resources, training and mental health services that allow them to recover from trauma and get them back out on the job to protect their communities.”

In the Public Safety Officer Support Act, Congress found this work not only puts public safety officers at risk for experiencing harm, serious injury and cumulative and acute trauma, but also paces them at up to 25.6% higher risk for PTSD when compared to individuals without such experiences.

They also found that a lack of necessary resources and support leaves them at higher risk for long-term mental health consequences. “Public safety officers who have died or are disabled as a result of suicide or post-traumatic stress disorder do not qualify for the Public Safety Officers’ Benefit Program despite the fact that public safety officers are more likely to die by suicide than from any other line-of-duty cause of death.”

Suicides by law enforcement officers were nearly double the felonious killings of officers in 2021.

“Sergeant Smith made the ultimate sacrifice,” Andersen said. “I ask you today to lead like Jim would - by defending us, protecting us, caring for us and validating the work we do. As law enforcement officers, we talk about holding the line - the thin blue line. Serving and protecting those in need. We need our families, our friends, our communities and our nation’s leaders to have our back as we fight to hold that line. Because without that support, the line cannot be held.”

Cheyenne Roche

CHEYENNE ROCHE

Originally from Wisconsin, Cheyenne has a journalism and political science degree from UW-Eau Claire and a passion for reading and learning. She lives in Creston with her husband and their two little dogs.