It is dangerous being a police officer, and in more ways than one. This is a fact that France is painfully waking up to at the moment, with the country facing a very disconcerting rise in police suicides. 64 French gendarmes have taken their own lives so far in 2019. What’s particularly alarming about this figure is that it surpasses the number of officers who have died in the line of duty.
Not only that, but the current suicide rate among the gendarmerie is 36% higher than that of the general population. Denis Jacob, the head of the Alternative Police CFDT union, predicts that this difference is likely to become more pronounced in the coming months: “given the situation today, 2019 could be the worst [for officer suicides] in the last 30 years.”
The picture is looking bleak for France, yet French authorities are at a loss to explain exactly why stress levels are mounting among police. A parliamentary inquiry published in July highlighted a range of reasons, ranging from outdated resources to the precipitous rise of unpaid overtime. Still, it didn’t pinpoint anything especially conclusive or penetrating, with report author and En Marche parliamentarian, Jean-Michel Fauvergue, writing: “Many of the women and men serving in the police or gendarmerie work in deplorable conditions, stemming notably from the dilapidation of police buildings.”
Aside from focusing on poor equipment, poor lodgings, poor working hours, poor pay, poor support, and all the other mundane yet insidious reasons why police officers become stressed, French authorities should also look to situations in other countries. Because rising levels of police stress and suicide aren’t restricted only to France.
In the United States, police deaths by suicide have outnumbered deaths in the line of duty for three consecutive years, with the toll for 2018 being 167. In the United Kingdom, the number of police officers taking sick days off work as a result of stress and anxiety has doubled in five years, while 21 officers died by suicide in England and Wales in 2017 (the latest year for which there’s data).
And it’s not just the UK or the US: Russia, Canada, and India are all confronting their own issues of rising or already high police suicides. Once again, the same factors of overwork, under-support and trauma are at play in these cases, but in attempting to understand the marked rise happening in nations such as France, it’s worth pointing to one other significant factor.
This is the vital yet neglected issue of legitimacy and public perception. In France, the police have long been the subject of derision or outright hostility, and things have only been exacerbated since the beginning of Yellow Vest protests last November. In April, such protestors reportedly urged officers to commit suicide during heated confrontations, and while it’s unlikely that most Gilet Jaunes take their rhetoric this far when dealing with the police, this episode is indicative of how the public perception of French authorities has soured significantly in recent months.
Because of the brutal tactics and “excessive force” that French police have sometimes used in dealing with the Yellow Vest protests, they have increasingly come to be viewed as tools of the political and economic system protesters are railing against. In contrast to the 2015 Paris terror attacks (which briefly strengthened the view of police as ‘heroes’), they are being perceived as villains, which, in conjunction with the multitude of stresses already attached to policing, has made some police officers feel dangerously undervalued and overwhelmed.
The role of public legitimacy becomes more evident when examples outside of France are also examined. In the UK, a parliamentary report found that public trust in the police has been “severely dented” in recent years as a result of cuts to forces, while in the US there have been significant issues with trust in police in recent years, especially with levels of trust among young people, African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities. In America’s case, public confidence in police sank to a record-equalling low of 52% in June 2015, against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and the police shootings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, New York City, and North Charleston.
That trust dropped at this time is significant, and given that such questions of legitimacy haven’t really been resolved (the latest Gallup poll still puts trust at only 57%), it’s perhaps not surprising that suicide rates were higher than on-call deaths in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Of course, being a police officer is already stressful enough as it is, but when a palpable sense of public distrust or animosity is added to the mix, it can increase the burdens that policemen and women have to carry.
That’s why, aside from simply improving working conditions, increasing budgets and offering more personal support, any nation with a police suicide problem should take a long hard look at itself, and ask why the public bears so much ill will towards the force tasked with defending it and its social order. It just may be that this order needs fundamental overhaul, and that rather than getting the police to put down society’s discontents, society should be changed instead.