Bipartisan legislation introduced in the House of Representatives last week aims to put the brakes on the recent trend of suicides at U.S. Customs and Border Protection by bringing together agents, families, and leaders inside and outside the agency to craft suicide prevention recommendations that would be weighed by the Department of Homeland Security and Congress.
The Taking Action to Prevent Suicide Act (TAPS Act) was introduced the week after Reps. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) held a Capitol Hill press conference in remembrance of 14 CBP agents who have taken their lives this year.
“As a lifelong resident of the border, I know firsthand the value of Border Patrol agents and their important role in keeping border communities safe. They are our neighbors, our friends, and our family,” Cuellar said. “Fourteen Border Patrol agents committed suicide this year. That is more than any other year since 2007, when CBP first started tracking suicides.”
“These 14 CBP agents who have taken their own life are not numbers on a paper. These are real people impacted. Their families have been turned upside down,” Gonzales said. “In Washington there’s a lot of division, but there’s also things that should unite us.”
CBP reported 11 suicides last year and eight suicides in 2020. Just from Nov. 6 to Nov. 20 of this year, three Border Patrol agents took their own lives.
Gonzales said that legislation previously crafted for the Defense Department to address suicide rates of service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired the TAPS Act task force creation.
CBP currently communicates suicide prevention to its workforce as part of the agency’s health and wellness resources, has expanded the number of on-site clinicians and is bringing on board more than a dozen operational psychologists, and offers multiple avenues for an employee who is contemplating suicide to seek support. The Peer Support Program and the Chaplaincy Program are available for confidential counseling addressing a range of challenges faced by CBP employees and their families. The Veteran Support Program — nearly a third of CBP’s workforce is composed of veterans — offers support through a network of field coordinators and helps guide them to applicable VA benefits. The Employee Assistance Program offers counseling and support through online chat, text, or phone.
Under the TAPS Act, a task force to address the CBP suicide rate would be established and all members appointed with 180 days of the bill’s passage. Members would include “at least one CBP agent,” the CBP deputy commissioner, the Border Patrol chief, the executive assistant commissioner of Air and Marine Operations, the executive assistant commissioner of the Office of Field Operations, at least one member of the National Border Patrol Council, at least one member from the National Treasury Employees Union (which, within DHS, represents CBP and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers), and the assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse at the Department of Health and Human Services.
The legislation also requires that the panel include members with experience in national suicide prevention policy, CBP personnel policy, research in the field of suicide prevention, and clinical care in mental health. The task force would be rounded out by at least one family member each from the Border Patrol and Customs areas of the agency “who has experience working with families of CBP personnel.”
“To the greatest extent practicable, the Commissioner of CBP and the Secretary of HHS shall make every effort to ensure there is an equal representation of Federal and non-Federal members of the task force,” the bill adds. The co-chairs would be one person from CBP and one person from outside the agency.
The task force would have a year to draft a report to the CBP commissioner with recommendations that are expected to include legislative or administrative actions on “a comprehensive policy designed to prevent suicide by CBP personnel.” Members “shall take into consideration completed and ongoing efforts by CBP to improve the efficacy of suicide prevention programs,” the legislation notes.
The report recommendations would have to include “methods to identify trends and common causal factors in suicides by CBP personnel, methods to establish or update suicide education and prevention programs conducted by CBP based on identified trends and causal factors, an assessment of current suicide education and prevention programs of CBP, an assessment of current mental health education programs and services available to CBP personnel and the significance of any stigma with respect to such programs and services, [and] an assessment of suicide incidence by CBP personnel.”
The report would also cover “the appropriate type and method of investigation to determine the causes and factors surrounding each suicide by CBP personnel, the qualifications of individuals appointed to conduct an investigation[s] of suicides by CBP personnel, the information required by an investigation to determine the causes and factors regarding suicides by CBP personnel, the appropriate reporting requirements after the conclusions of investigations conducted on suicides by CBP personnel, the appropriate official or executive agent within the Department of Homeland Security to receive and analyze reports on investigations of suicides by CBP personnel, the appropriate use of the information gathered during investigations of suicides by CBP personnel, [and] methods for protecting confidentiality of information contained in reports of investigations of suicides by CBP personnel.”
The report would be forwarded by DHS to the House and Senate homeland security committees within 90 days of task force submission to CBP. Within 180 days of receiving the report, the secretary of Homeland Security would be required to come up with a plan based on the task force recommendations and submit that to Congress; thereafter, the task force would be disbanded.
The TAPS Act appropriates $10 million for the task force’s work.
Original co-sponsors of the Gonzales-Cuellar bipartisan bill are Reps. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), Jared Golden (D-Maine), Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Mayra Flores (R-Texas).
The bill is also endorsed by the National Border Patrol Council, which said in a statement: “The ongoing border crisis has highlighted the increased challenges CBP employees face every single day. Although the workforce has been dealing with suicides for many years, DHS has only recently tried to get a handle on it, and there is much to learn. We are happy to support this legislation in the hopes that we can encourage more employees to come forward for help.”