NEW YORK — This week, there was an extraordinary gathering in an auditorium on the ground floor of the New York Police Department headquarters in Lower Manhattan. In that one room sat more than 300 police chiefs and other law enforcement officials from across the country and as far away as Australia and Northern Ireland.
They were there to discuss a leading cop killer: suicide. For eight hours, they took a raw and honest look at both the forces that drive officers to this most desperate of acts, and the dilemmas they face in dealing with it.
“We do so much for everybody else. Very rarely do we talk about ourselves,” NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said. “Nobody wants to take a step forward. Nobody wants to be branded, and we have to get past that.”
Suicide is a long-standing problem in police work, claiming more first responders each year than the number who die in the line of duty. University at Buffalo epidemiology professor John Violanti, a former New York state trooper who has studied the problem for decades, says the latest numbers collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate the risk of suicide for police officers could be 54 percent higher than it is for the population at large.
But he acknowledged that the data is incomplete, with no uniform standard for reporting, which is part of the challenge in grappling with the problem.
What individual departments do know is what is happening right in front of them. Chicago, for instance, used to see one or two police suicides annually, First Deputy Superintendent Anthony Riccio says. In the second half of last year, there were six, and already in 2019, there have been three. Riccio choked up as he told of a female officer who showed up for roll call, then went out to her patrol car to take her life.
North Miami just experienced its first officer suicide in three decades. An aberration, perhaps. But its police chief, Lawrence Juriga, came to hear the experience of other law enforcement leaders because he knows that there can be a “contagion” effect, where one incident inspires others.
The stresses and psychological conditions that make officers susceptible to suicidal impulses are not something easily dealt with in a profession where the ethic has always been, as Riccio put it, to “suck it up and get back out there.”
In most cases in which officers decide to end their own lives, a number of factors are believed to have contributed, building up over time: trauma, depression, financial difficulties, problems at home, irregular hours, substance abuse.
Those are present in many jobs. What law enforcement has that most occupations do not, however, is easy access to firearms — in other words, a ready means of acting on suicidal impulses.
The symposium was led by Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. Among the hardest questions he put to the gathering: What to do about the guns?
There is no simple answer, in part because, for cops, taking a firearm away is traditionally a disciplinary measure.
Only in the past few weeks has Chicago put into place a policy whereby officers who surrender their guns for mental-health reasons are reassigned to desk duty and allowed to retain their pay and benefits. But Los Angeles Police Department psychologist Denise Jablonski-Kaye argued that such a move should be done only in extreme circumstances, because the stigma it carries discourages other officers from coming forward.
Charles Ramsey, a former police chief of both the District of Columbia and Philadelphia, raised another conundrum: “How do you classify a suicide internally? Line of duty? What about the funeral?” While it is important to recognize suicide as an occupational hazard, he worried that burying a suicide victim with full police honors runs the risk of romanticizing the act that killed him.
After a detective killed himself in the parking lot of Fairfax County, Virginia’s McLean District Station, the police department put together a video featuring first responders who had also considered it and surviving family members of those who had been lost. When it was shown during roll call, “we had officers that broke down in tears. We had officers that had to leave,” Jaysyn Carson, Fairfax’s incident support services director, said.
But Fairfax Police Chief Edwin Roessler realized that he would have to do more than that, something that took courage. He began sharing with his officers his own struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s OK to not be OK. I, the chief, seek help. I see a doctor once or twice a month to keep myself well,” he told me.
Police suicide is not a new problem, but talking about it so openly is. As the NYPD’s O’Neill said: “There’s already enough tragedy in what we do.” Bringing it out of the shadows is an important first step, long overdue, and one that could help save the lives of those in whom we trust our own.